Hello William

About once a week I’ll answer the phone and an unfamiliar voice will say, “Hello William.  My name is blah blah blah…”

Even more than being cold-called like that, it annoys me that a total stranger would presume to call me by my first name.  Why?  It’s part of my upbringing that I’ve  never outgrown.

I grew up in a world where people were addressed as Mr., Mrs. or Miss unless they were children or unless you had been given specific permission to call them by their first name (which was very unusual).   And unless we were speaking to a child our yeses and nos were always followed by a sir or a ma’am.

My first law job was during the summer of my first year of law school with a Wall Street firm’s Palm Beach office.  On my first day of work I was introduced to my secretary.  She was probably 60 years old.  I was 23.  I’ve forgotten her last name, but let’s assume it as Smith.  After being introduced I said something like “Nice to meet you Mrs. Smith.”  She responded with a laugh that her name was Joan.  I couldn’t imagine calling a woman who I didn’t know and who was nearly 40 years my senior by her first name.  I remember stuttering out something about preferring to call her by her last name and her being offended by that.  It was big-time culture shock.

It made my skin crawl to do it, but I made it through that summer by honoring her request, but feeling rude the whole time. I generally avoided using her name whenever possible.  It was weird.

When I started practicing a couple of years later in Tampa, I followed the convention I’d been taught.  I called all opposing counsel Mr. Whoever (there were very few female lawyers in those days).  Not once do I recall an opposing attorney call me anything other than Bill.   They just assumed that it was OK to do so, while never once giving me permission to use their first names.  After a few months of this I was fed up with feeling like I was a child to them, so I just adopted the practice of calling opposing counsel by their first names, even if I didn’t know them and even if they were much older than me.  It felt really weird and wrong to me for a long time, but eventually I go used to it.  Eventually it was entirely natural.

Using “sir” and “ma’am” was a much more difficult practice to break.  It was just automatic to me and everyone from a shoeshine attendant to a senior judge got that from me.  It struck many people as odd and I recall once being asked if I was in the military.  That’s how rare it had become to give someone what I regarded as such basic courtesy.

Even now when a child’s parent introduces me to their kid as “Bill” or when a child responds to a question with “Yeah,” “What?” or “Huh?” it bothers me.  Not because I am somehow deserving of “respect,” but because what we called “good manners” were so ingrained in me as a child that it just feels wrong when those inviolable rules are broken.

Cherie grew up in Los Angeles,where it was normal for kids to call adults by their first names, where strangers could address another person by their first name without giving offense and where no one used “sir” and “ma’am” unless they were in the military.  She could never understand why breaches of our southern code of manners bothered me so much.

While I suppose the loss of unnecessary formality isn’t a bad thing, I do wonder if a world in which complete strangers making unsolicited cold calls can address their victims by their first name hasn’t gone too far.

Feeling nostalgic this morning too.