First Name Basis

“Call me Joan,” she said.

It was the summer of 1983, the summer after my first year of law school. I had a job with the Palm Beach office of a prestigious Wall Street law firm, and it was my first day on the job. I’d just been introduced the woman who would be my secretary that summer. After I said, “Pleased to meet you Mrs. Smith,” (or words to that effect—after all these years I’ve forgotten her last name) she quickly responded that I should call her Joan.

I wonder if anyone reading this can appreciate how startling and disconcerting that moment was for me. I was 22 years old and had never once in my entire life called a person who was my elder by their first name. Joan was at least 60 years old, and a stranger to boot. In the rural Southern culture in which I was raised and taught my manners, to address her by her first name would have been unthinkable, just as it would have been unthinkable to for her to insist that she be addressed that way.

Confused, I awkwardly asked if she wouldn’t mind if I called her Mrs. Smith instead. Of course that offended her. I understand that reaction now, but I didn’t then. As would happen to me repeatedly until the manners I had been taught were wrung out of me, I found that the forms of address that were considered proper, courteous and normal in the culture that raised me, were offensive in the world I had entered. Sir, ma’am, Mister, Miss and Mrs. were evidently no longer terms of respect, but rather accusations. “I’m not that old,” was her response.

It was a struggle, but I eventually overcame it. Every time I called her Joan that summer, all the fibers of my being told me I was being incredibly rude. It’s hard to even describe how weird it felt.

Presuming to be on a first name basis with people 40 years older and no kin to me was just one of many cultural transformations I would have to make, having been a barefoot redneck country boy just a few years earlier. Some of the things that I had been taught separated those who were raised right from those who were not, had to be cast aside in the strange new world I was entering.

I made $300 a week that summer, more money by far than I’d ever earned in my life. But I was broke. I was too embarrassed to tell them that I couldn’t afford the apartment in West Palm Beach that they’d secured for me. I was paying rent on both it and my apartment in Charlottesville (which required a 12 month lease), as well as making payments on the suit I had to borrow the money to buy in order to have something to wear for job interviews. I lived on hamburger helper and never turned on the AC in the apartment. Every morning I stuffed paper towels between my undershirt and my skin to soak up my sweat from my drive into work, because my brown 1982 Ford Maverick had no air conditioning. I parked next to a V-12 Aston Martin driven by one of the associates in the firm, whose monogramed shirt sleeves included “duP.” I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The next summer I worked in Tampa and found its blue-collar roots much more comfortable. In Palm Beach there really were women who stepped out of the back of Rolls Royce limos, wearing high heels and sunglasses, with a tiny toy poodle on a leash. We had clients who were grandchildren of robber barons and who didn’t have enough sense to write a check. They came to get their monthly payments from spendthrift trusts, hardly different from a person waiting in a welfare line. I remember one man, waiting for his check, telling me that he was flying out that night to go have dinner with Linda Evans. He had no job of course. He told me that he raced speed boats. I thought about that while sweating in my apartment, reading a book from the public library and wondering if I had enough money to keep me fed that month. If I had stayed in that town I probably would’ve become a communist.

But even after I graduated and accepted a position with a firm in Tampa I remained stubborn about my manners. For a while I continued to address every new acquaintance as Mr. or Ms. so-and-so. I decided that I would at least wait for permission to address them by their first name (again, as I was taught). But I soon had to give up even that. All too often I found myself consistently addressing opposing counsel as Mister, while being called Bill in return. I finally grew tired of that and just went with the cultural flow. It seemed to me that by sticking to my custom, I was being put at some sort of disadvantage.

I realize of course that customs and social norms regarding the use of first names vary by region, and our way wasn’t the only “right way.” My wife grew up in southern California where it was perfectly acceptable to address people by the first name without their permission and without having any intimacy with them. She is no less polite or well-mannered than me. She just has a different background. There’s nothing wrong or ill-mannered about using familiar forms of address in most parts of the country, or even here for that matter. It just wasn’t permissible here when I was growing up.

The “first name is preferable” crowd has carried the day. Nowadays even when I get robo-calls or junk emails they almost always begin with “Hello William” rather than “Hello Mr. Guerrant.” I appreciate that at least. It enables me to quickly identify those that should be deleted without reading.

But it warms my old-fashioned heart when I meet someone around here and they address me as “Mr. Guerrant.” These days most parents introduce me to their children as “Bill.” But I get a particular pang of nostalgia when a child calls me “Mr. Guerrant.” That still happens. When it does, the people who do it usually aren’t college educated or affluent. It makes me smile, because I know that means they’re members of my tribe.