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What's in a name? It's just a word, right? A rose would still be a rose...

My last post asserted there is no magic word, and I received comments with excellent points to ponder. So, I decided to think further about the power of words.

Each word we use or write is imbued with meaning. There's power in that. Not magic per se, but power.

No word, in my opinion, has half as much power as your name. In fact, what to call people, when to use which name, and so forth is one of the bigger debates I've ever seen.

Should children call you, "Miss Missy?" Or just "Missy?" Or "Mrs./Ms./Miss Missus?"

What if you strongly prefer children to simply call you Missy, but your friend prefers that her children call you Miss Missy, and that your children call her Miss Othermissy? Or what if you prefer Mrs. Missus but your friend prefers the more casual Missy and introduces you that way?

Whose preference takes precedence?

What is your preference, and why? Is it personal, or cultural?

I was raised to call adults, primarily, sir or ma'am, no matter their relation to me. If I needed to use a name, it was often Mrs. Missus or Mr. Mister, with some exceptions for close family friends who varied from Miss Missy to Missy.

How that "okay to be familiar" situation was determined was beyond me, literally and figuratively. Additionally, sometimes my parents would introduce me to Mrs. Missus, who then quickly said, "Oh you can call me Missy!" Which simply flummoxed both me and my parents. Oh what to do, what to do! Follow general complicated manner guidelines or the person's preference?!?

As a child, it was bewilderingly baffling.

I didn't want to mess up and have an adult mad at me. Not to mention---as a young rebel---simply because "ma'am" and "sir" were demanded I opposed using them, on principle, you know. I understood it was a part of a code that demanded I give adults---even those who I felt sure weren't worthy---respect, although they didn't have to give it to me. And I objected.

(Little aside: I've never asked my own children to use Ma'am or Sir, a fact that I am sure makes my father weep into his old military hankie.)

But, I didn't feel so cheeky as to circumvent the expectation by using the first name, and generally, outside of Ma'am or Sir I wasn't really sure which form of address to use, so I decided the safest route was to not use a name at all. Which got tricky at times. And even more confusing.

That's why New England made sense to me, finally, instead of the perplexing Southern name rituals that would boggle even the Japanese.

In Massachusetts, it seemed more straightforward. Initially, the children I knew were either relatives (called me “Julie”) or school-aged (called me "Mrs. Pippert" by their parents' instruction). When I had my own little one, we typically called each other by first names. And outside friends and family, it was either formal, or silent.

But I'm back in the South, now. We don't live free or die, here. We live by codicils of behavior and codes of manners.

Therefore, most people almost always automatically add "Miss" or "Mr." in front of first names if their children may use an adult's first name. There might be conscientious objectors, but they remain silent and suffer through the title in front of their names. I imagine they are like river rocks, worn smooth from years of the great powerful river Southern Custom running over them.

From different people, I've alternately heard pro and con arguments about how children ought to address adults. Adding the "Miss" and "Mr.," say some, is a necessary form of respect, while others say it is a silly affectation. In general, most people seem to have an opinion about how they want to be addressed, and sometimes an even stronger opinion about how their children need to address other adults.

In all honesty, it doesn't much matter to me. If a friend has a preference--and now that I parent I will often ask about preference---I'm good with that. I'm the person behind the name, and the name is just one way to get my attention. You, and your children, are my friends...I just want you to call me.

That said, there are other arenas.

I know! Other arenas! Outside the mommyworld!

There's the work arena. In the workplace, I've always simply used first names. I think this is fairly SOP in American business, even with someone you just met.

There's the public arena. And here it gets dicier. And here I have an opinion, a strong one.

Mr. Bank Teller, I've never met you, we aren't buds. I'm either, "Thank you," with no name, or "Thank you, Ms./Mrs. Pippert."

I don't understand this new trend at my bank of having the bank tellers use my first name in conversation at least three times, as if we were Best Friends Forever. We aren't. You still haven't paid me that $50 promo bonus you promised me back in July, and you force me to contact you, irritated, because you continue to mistakenly charge me a $12 monthly service fee, which we've had to go 'round the mulberry bush about five times now in the last five months.

You? You have no right to my first name, which is suddenly, in this situation, a very personal thing.

I think it's because I want to erect a wall or distance and formality. I want them to respect me. And give me my money.

Then there's the checker who assumes a false familiarity, getting to know me by peering at my credit card, and chirping, "Julie, is that credit or debit?" That's Ms. Pippert or ma'am to you.

Which brings us to ma'am. It doesn't bother me when someone calls me that. It really doesn't. I don't understand how it makes someone feel old, but I accept that it does. I try to steer clear of it myself but I'm okay with it when whippersnappers who don't know my name use it.

It's funny; as I was thinking about this while running errands, on the radio an NPR broadcaster had an interview with General Eikenberry about the war in Iraq.

She continually addressed him as General or General Eikenberry if she used his name at all, which typically she didn't.

He called her Michelle, and by my quick and unofficial ticking, typically at least two times in her response to her. It sounded very forced, and awkward. No, I think I mean it sounded deliberate, which for some reason struck me as negative.

I've heard that using a name in conversation is a technique to set up positions in the conversation, and to capture attention. It seems like there is one other element, but I can't recall and Google fails me. I've taken speech classes, and they talked about when and how to powerfully use first names.

It struck me strongly in that conversation that his ongoing and frequent use of her first name really set them up as disparate in position and authority. He was a powerful, high authority person, who automatically, no question, immediately rated a title in address. It gave him a superior position, which he reinforced by using her first name, frequently.

I don't know that the gender part was a card in play for me so much as the children-to-adult address card was in play.

If you glance back up to when I discussed how children address adults, you'll see that in my experience, they typically add a title. Friends call me Miss Julie, and my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Julie (although more distant relatives call me Julie).

When I considered this against the NPR interview, I thought titles in front of names, even in personal situations, do establish a hierarchy...and it all depends upon whether you agree there is or ought to be a hierarchy, whether it is naturally in place because all things aren't equal, or whether it is a gold-plated artificial pecking order that doesn't reflect true respect.

So what do you think? What's in a name? How should people address one another? What about that hierarchy? And would you give me one of those killing looks or eye rolls if I called you ma'am or sir?

By Julie Pippert

© 2006. All images and text exclusive property of Julie Pippert. Not to be used or reproduced. R.E.S.P.E.C.T that. Please. If you want to use something, write me.

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karuemme said…
Julie, I'm finally posting my first comment, although I've been following your blogs for months...this one sparked an interest. My mom wishes to be addressed Mrs. Snyder & constantly refers to her husband as Mr. Snyder, even by my husband. At first, I found it funny, but now I think it's some kind of arrogance? I tried calling my in-laws by Mr.& Mrs. and it seemed to formal for me, but Mom/Dad didn't fit either, so we settled on the first names, which feels right, only after 9 year of marriage. My family is from the North and we always refered to family members outside the immediate and extended family as Mr/Mrs. Now, I infer young children to call me "Ms Kelly" as I just wasn't ready to "grow-up", plus my new last name is so difficult to spell or pronounce for that matter! I'm more open to it now that we're well into our 30's and have 3 kids! Your last 2 posts were very thought-provoking to say the least!
Julie Pippert said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Pippert said…
Hey Kelly! Thanks for hanging out here (or should I say hanging in LOL)! I didn't know and now I do and I'm glad! And thanks for commenting.

I think that's a good thing to consider, the point you made about "not ready to grow up." You're right...I'm thinking about this from the 35-and-up age group. I'm trying to consider how my 25 year old self would have written this. I don't know. Hmmmm.
Kate said…
I can still remember when Mrs. M., the mother of two of my best friends for years, asked me to call her "Judy" instead. Ack! I was 17, and had had 12 years of calling her "Mrs. M." Oh, it was so difficult!

I still remember the first time some kids called me "ma'am".

I have the dotter call adults "Miss" or "Mr." first name. I do think children addressing adults requires a certain formality and a certain amount of imputed respect sheerly in virtue of their longer years on earth and thus more experience in the world. Also, that's how she's supposed to address the teachers at her preschool...;-)

I figure soon enough she'll learn that some adults don't merit the respect. But until she learns how to discern this, better to err on the respectful side (which I apply to my own life, as well!).
Mad said…
I'm pretty laid-back with how people choose to address me unless they are telemarketers or anyone else I don't feel as earned the right to address me in the first place.

There are a lot of regional quirks where I live and one of them is that sales clerks etc have a habit of calling customers "dear" and "hon." When I lived in other parts of the country this would have horrified me. Out here it just feels right.
Run ANC said…
I'm a "first name" kind of girl, all the way. But then, I don't have teenagers running around my house (yet) and I may feel differently then, who knows! I HATE it when someone sounds like they are forcing themselves to use your first name a certain number of times. I've had that happen in a headhunter interview and it made me extremely uncomfortable.

I call people ma'am on the phone when I'm trying to be polite, but really want to be rude. It drives most women nuts here. I'm evil. I know. ;-) I should not be working in the service industry.
Anonymous said…
Nothing turns me off quicker than a salesperson calling me by my first name as if we are best friends. I usually tell them they just lost any possibility of making a sale.

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