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.

12 comments on “Hello William

  1. Love this post.

    I grew up in Chicago, and was also taught to use a salutation when addressing teachers and adults. Even with family members, we referred to my mom’s brother as “Uncle Bob,” not just “Bob.”

    My kids started school in Brooklyn, where those formalities have long since been forgotten. The teachers, other parents, everyone is on a familiar, first-name basis. This didn’t trouble me because, over the years, I had become used to this more casual manner and didn’t find it surprising.

    When we moved to a small town in upstate New York two years ago, we learned that the new school and community is still entrenched in the “old ways.” The teachers and other adults are Mr. and Mrs. (or Ms. or Miss), as are the parents, unless they request otherwise. I even find that some teachers and parents will even refer to me as Mrs. Shea from time to time.

    I must admit, I really like it.

    There is something inherently respectful about using the salutation. It establishes a more appropriate relationship–one that is not on the same level. Children are not on the same level as their friend’s parents or their teachers and it is a simple way to accentuate that difference.

    I’ve encouraged my daughters’ good friends to call me Laura, but I’ve quickly become fond of the more formal address with those kids I don’t really know.

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful post!


    • Bill says:

      When I was a boy I was taught that showing respect to other people was a sign of having been raised properly. We were told that if we were disrespectful it would reflect on our parents. Of course it wasn’t hard to follow the conventions because everybody did. As others have pointed out, very small children were sometimes allowed (even encouraged) to refer to adults as “Mr. Firstname” or “Mrs. Firstname”. But beyond that a child calling an adult by first name was essentially unimaginable.

      But that argument didn’t work in our house when we were raising our own kids, because Cherie didn’t grow up with those rules and she could say (correctly so) that it was definitely not a poor reflection on her or her parents. The fact was that it was perfectly well-mannered and respectful to address adults that way in her culture.

      Interestingly, our son adopted my way and our daughter adopted Cherie’s. I now know plenty of wonderfully respectful and well-mannered children, being raised by great parents, who call adults by their first name and never use “sir” or “ma’am.” It’s just a cultural norm and in my opinion one isn’t necessarily better than the other. But, as is obvious, I do have a bias and preference. It’s just so deeply ingrained. I even say please and thank you to Siri (but we’ve been on a first name basis from the beginning). 🙂


  2. Bill, I’ve run into that situation as well. It was a way of showing respect to those that were older especially from children to adults. All my neighbors are called Mr./Ms. (first name) from my kids and grandson. It gives the younger adults the use of their first name as requested but still there’s a hint of knowing their place in the pecking order so to speak. I truly believe that the old traditional ways were better at building the respect that kids needed for their elders. In my humble opinion it all started when parents started being the best friends of their kids instead of being the parent. I can’t change the trend so I some how have to blend the old with the new. But of course I’m just so last century.

    Have a great respectful day.


    • Bill says:

      I hear you Dave. Another thing that contributed is that as society we somehow got the notion that being called Mr. or Mrs. meant being old and we (as a culture) wanted nothing to do with that. I think that was a major problem for my first secretary. She did not see my preference for referring to her by her last name as respectful so much as some kind of indication that she was “old.” I can recall being asked several times something like, “Why are you calling me that. I’m not old.”

      Interestingly, in my law school classes our professors always referred to us as “Mr.” or “Ms.” Never by first name.

      But obviously that way of speaking is rapidly dying out.


  3. shoreacres says:

    In your last post on words, I mentioned picking up phrases and a bit of an accent over my forty years in Texas. I’ve picked up some habits, too, especially during my years in rural Texas. “Ma’am” and “Sir” were so much a way of life I’ll still use them. When I fellow holds the door for me at the post office, I naturally say, “Thank you, sir.” When someone says, “Howdy, ma’am,” I’m not at all offended.

    When I first begin a relationship with a new customer, I always call them Mr., Mrs., or Miss, until we’ve established a relationship and beginning calling one another by first names.

    Another custom I really like is the addition of Mr. or Miss (or “Mis'”) to first names. It allows for some familiarity, but still is polite. Even my best friend and I occasionally will call one another “Miss Linda” or “Miss Carolyn”. It’s both a joke and a loving acknowledgement of a southern culture we intend to hang onto. When I lived in South Texas, teenagers and children would call me Miss Linda. On the other hand, I’d call the old folks or business associates Miss Emma or Mr. Jim. It’s a lovely custom.


    • Bill says:

      Yes you’re right. That is a nice way to handle it (as Dave and others have said.)

      I suppose the pendulum is just swinging toward familiarity now. My mother told me that her grandmother never called her grandfather by his first name. Even after they were married (and for the rest of his life) she always called him Mr. White.

      Here people would often get an “Uncle” or “Aunt” before their first name, and that was OK. I had a great-aunt that was known to nearly everybody as “Aunt Jane,” whether they were kin to her or not.


  4. Bob Braxton says:

    how I was taught also, Saxapahaw, NC – too far: yes sir (and yes ma’am)


  5. Tina Schell says:

    LOL BILL 🙂 I was raised in the north and to this day have a hard time with figuring out what children should call adults. “aunt” xx sometimes works, Mrs xxx seems a bit formal for children of good friends but first names are a definite no no. It’s a quandry. As for the cold callers, I just cut them off mid-sentence with a no-thank-you and I’m on my merry way!


    • Bill says:

      Once when my daughter was in college (in northern Virginia) I met her then boyfriend. He asked me what he should call me. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t imagine that he’d want to call me Bill and I didn’t seem right to tell him that he had to call me Mister (which is what should have happened until I specifically gave him permission to call me something else). I just dodged the question.

      Within 20 minutes of posting this, honest to goodness, I got an email that began: “Dear William.”


  6. msb says:

    Standards once abandoned are never retrieved.


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