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.

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31 comments on “First Name Basis

  1. I’m with you, Bill. Calling certain people by their first name would be impossible, and if insisted on I would feel like an imposter … who is this person being so impertinent? The times they are a changing … and I’m not sure I like it.

    I enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks for a little personal history. That was fun.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Teresa. I’m glad to see that some folks get it. I can’t even find the right words to adequately describe how weird and wrong it felt for me as I went through the process of unlearning my manners.

      Like

  2. The things we wish we were taught in college…
    So much pointless stuff, so little pragmatic stuff.

    Understanding regional and class customs is important and also completely unintuitive.

    I have a story from the opposite direction. In some parts of the country (including yours, I would guess) it is routine for a father-in-law to call his son-in-law “son”. However, where I grew up, it was derogatory. The closest analogy I can think of is calling someone of a lower class “boy” with a sneering voice. You simply didn’t do it unless you were calling the person out on something. Whether I should have gotten over it or not I don’t know but the fact is that it made me uncomfortable enough that I said something to him. Point made, he acquiesced, and we moved on.

    Knowledge on these subjects is hard to find.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      You’re right. I find some things like both hard to bear and equally hard to mention. My experience with Joan certainly wasn’t the last time someone interpreted my attempt at conforming to the manners I’d grew up with, as insulting. It was hard for me to get used to children addressing adults with such familiarity (and never using the sirs and ma’ams that were obligatory for us), for example. But I knew their parents would find it offensive (and would probably consider me pretentious) if I asked for a more respectful manner of address, so I just learned to live with it. Learning to conform the customs of a new place is one thing. Having to conform to a change in your own community is another. Honorifics may well be obsolete someday. If so I suppose we’ll manage fine without them, but if I’m still around when that happens I’ll miss them.

      Like

  3. I can relate. Coming to Canada and the US from Jamaica, my experience was much the same: calling a stranger by her/his first name, especially an elder/senior co-worker felt very awkward. But equally awkward was the time when a new supervisor introduced himself as “Mr. Jones”. As if pointing out to me that his first name was “Mr.”

    Like

  4. Dearest Bill,
    So very true and I grew up exactly like you were raised and deep inside my heart, I always will remain like that.
    My boss whom I worked for during a period of 14 years, I always addressed as Mr. Vedder and frankly I never even knew his first name! His books were published under P.J.C. Vedder… so you only could guess. BUT I married this guy and during the period that we became intimate, the most awkward thing was for me to switch from calling him Mr. Vedder, to just Pieter.
    Here in the South you hear more often than not Mr. and Mrs. and Sir or Ma’am an it always makes me smile.
    One thing I really have a big problem with is that when children call their parents by their first name instead of saying Mom or Dad… And addressing aunts and uncles by their first name. For the remainder of my life I will never ever get used to that!
    Sending you hugs,
    Mariette

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I doubt I’ll ever get used to it either, but it is just how things are now. Even though it will sound very rude and disrespectful to people like us, if that’s just the normal way of speaking then I suppose it really isn’t.

      Your story makes me smile. My great-grandmother always called her husband (my great-grandfather) “Mr. White.” As in your case that’s the name she knew him by before she married him and she never called him by first name even after they were married (at least not in public). That’s too much formality I think. 🙂

      Like

  5. Joanna says:

    I smiled. It wasn’t so ingrained in me but I grew up with calling older people Mr. or Mrs. but that did change quite rapidly in my teens I guess. What bugs me is people calling me Jo without my permission – I know I am down as Jo on Facebook but there is a long winded reason for that. I now introduce myself as Joanna because Jo makes no sense here in Latvia but people understand the name Joanna (or Your-anna as it is pronounced here). If I call myself Jo they have difficulty putting my name into context as endings change and all female names end in a or e, male names end in s. In America and the UK people often change it to Jo.

    I also work for an online educational organisation and I tutor Sociology and my two students are from Uganda and Sri Lanka and they have a hard time calling me Jo, so I often get Mrs. Jo or something like that. 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      When we introduce different languages into the equation it can get even more complicated can’t it?

      I used to do a lot of work in Brazil. There the customary title for a woman was “Donna.” I knew a very dignified woman there whose name was Rosaria, but she went by “Ro.” So she was called “Donna Ro.” But Brazilians from Rio de Janeiro pronounce their “r’s” as “h’s.” So, for example, when they say “Rio” they pronounce it “He-o.” And thus, when they addressed this woman (who, by the way, I called “Mrs. ___”), they said “Donna Ho.” I smiled on the inside every time I heard that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joanna says:

        It can indeed. I’ve been to Brasil a few times but don’t remember being called Donna, but then I was teaching at a prophectic school and so was referred to as a missionary I think. Can’t remember but do remember I had to have a title 😀

        Like

  6. Susan says:

    I grew up calling everyone Mr or Mrs., but that said, I would NEVER want to be called Mrs.
    I’m Sue, plain and simple. That part of mannerisms, I don’t miss.
    But there ARE niceties and manners that I DO miss. I curse the first woman that ever considered a door being held open for her as an insult. Now, even businessmen let the door slam after they walk in in front of me. All I can think is HOW RUDE.

    Have a pleasant day! (see?–that’s nice!)
    : )

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I can only recall once when a woman snapped at me for presuming to hold the door for her. That too was a very weird and disconcerting experience. I’m not giving up on that one, however culture may change. Likewise walking on the outside of the sidewalk. There have been times when I’ve had to pretend to tie my shoe or something, just so I could get the right side of the sidewalk without being so obvious about it.

      I was stunned to discover that such simple courtesies, nonnegotiable where I grew up, were unknown elsewhere. I remember a wife of a colleague once commenting that she appreciated the fact that I held the door for her, and that her husband had never once done that. Some of those kinds of things may have made me look like a rube to my more sophisticated friends, but if so, so be it. 🙂

      Like

  7. Tribal members can also be identified immediately when their children have been taught to stick out their hands for a handshake, often saying “Good to meet you sir/ma’m.” It’s an artifact of long-gone times that still thrills me…

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Oh yeah, me too. 🙂

      As children we never said just “yes” or “no” to an adult. It was always “yes sir”, “no ma’am” etc. Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast in which the podcaster was interviewing his 11-year old son. Every time the boy responded to a question with “Yep” or “Uh-huh” it felt like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I could plainly tell, by the way, that the child was well-mannered and respectful. He’d just never been taught to use “sir” when talking to his father.

      Cherie didn’t do that in her California childhood either. I tried hard to teach my way of manners to our kids. For some reason they took with my son, but not my daughter. Both are well-mannered, by my son’s manners are Virginian and my daughter’s manners are Californian.

      Likewise “please” and “thank you.” Not optional in my culture, but seemingly rare or non-existent in other parts of the country. I even say please and thank you to Siri. 🙂

      By the way, I have my copy of Tending now. You are certainly a gifted word-artist and I love how genuine your poems are. I thought of your poem on the subject as I was picking blackberries yesterday. Only a person who has picked a lot of wild blackberries could create a poem like that. I intend to write more about your book later. 🙂

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  8. WhirldWorks says:

    I appreciate this post for sure! I grew up calling everyone older than me Mr. or Mrs. follwed by their last name. Many years later when I had a family of my own and began taking children to school and church, the adults were being referred to as Miss Becky or Mr. Todd…what! No. It took me years to succumb to the societal pressure and humbly accept the practice, but a Mr. or Mrs. should be followed by a last name, not the first.

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    • Bill says:

      I think so too, but I’ve learned that many people prefer Mr. or Mrs. first name. I suppose it is a compromise. My secretary of many years (who is also a good friend) has two very polite and well-mannered children. When her son started talking she introduced me to him as “Mr. Bill.” I had never heard of that before (and of course it made me think of the SNL skit) and I decidedly did not like it. But it must have been the custom where she came from, so I just went along with. I got used to it eventually, even though it never felt quite right to me and even though I never felt those kids were being disrespectful (quite the contrary). But it’s a perfect example of good manners in one culture seeming weird and inappropriate in another.

      Like

  9. avwalters says:

    Mr. Guerrant, We’re about the same age and grew up in similar cultures, regarding how one addressed elders. From very small town roots I went to law school in California. I learned the intricacies of names, mostly by stumbling over them. Here, our experiences diverge. You see, older male colleagues expected to be called “Mr.”–except with male law clerks and associates. Younger male colleagues were generally comfortable with first names. Female law clerks and associates were regularly addressed by their first names (as were the young men), except with us, the familiarity was not reciprocal. It became even more complicated after I graduated, because I married, and kept my own surname. That meant that technically, the proper title was Ms. For some reason, everyone had issues with that. So I was Alta, or Ms. Walters–which always elicited some comment. Don’t even get me started about who was expected to make coffee.

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    • Bill says:

      When I started practicing in 1985 there were very few women lawyers in town, and they were almost all young. So that wasn’t really an issue. But it did irritate me that some of the older male attorneys still required their secretaries to address them as “Mr.”, even though they called the secretaries by their first names. That didn’t sit right with me.

      There was a national firm in those days that required that attorneys and secretaries all be addressed by their last names. They said their policy contributed to an atmosphere of professionalism. I remember being in conversations where that policy was being attacked or ridiculed. The fact that the policy seemed to me a good one, I kept to myself.

      By the way, I’m generally on board with the first-name way of today. Nowadays I just assume that any time I meet someone, we’re going to address each other by first names. That isn’t always true around here but I have a pretty good sense of when the person still follows the old ways.

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      • avwalters says:

        I, too, am a first name basis person. But my social radar blips whenever there is inequality in the mix–doubly so if the inequality is institutional (employment, or other affiliation.) My rule of thumb is to ask–“What would you like me to call you?” And then to abide by the answer. I started practice in 1982–and have gender-and-class issue stories that would curl your ears. I hope it’s better out there now, but it would take some convincing.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. allisonmohr says:

    In rural Alabama, an elderly woman was to be addressed as Miss FirstName. Some women in my family didn’t think they were old enough for that honorific. It was difficult for me to know what to call anyone. I generally stuck with M’am and Sir, it was just safer.

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    • Bill says:

      That wasn’t generally done here, but my aunt says that when she moved to eastern NC she discovered that was the practice there and she really liked it because it reminded her of the southern novels she read growing up. There were issues of class and status that complicated things a bit too. Good riddance to those.

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  11. Interesting, Bill. I went the other way, never meaning to be disrespectful. I am just much more comfortable being Curt than Mr. Mekemson. Curtis is formal for me. 🙂 –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      My sense is that the customs on the west coast were much more informal than ours here. Cherie grew up in Los Angeles and using first names was the norm.

      Having gotten to know so many people from different parts of the country and world I’ve come to realize that we were wrong in our belief that southerners were well-mannered and others were not. The truth, it seems to me, is that our customs were just different, not better or worse.

      Like

      • My son-in-law was raised in the south, Bill. And he has a politeness about him that really shows, Bill. His children reflect that as well. I confess it is nice to hear kids say please and thank you, and be reminded if they don’t. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  12. valbjerke says:

    I’m fine with ‘Val’ – beats the heck out of listening to people struggle through my last name ‘Bjerke’ and having to correct them on the pronunciation. Equally a pain to point out that ‘no, my last name is not the same as my husbands’. Then there’s having to spell it out for people filling out forms “Vallorie – with two ll’s and an o” …. 😄

    Like

    • Bill says:

      My secretary (who is also a good friend) is named Val, short for Valarie. She prefers Val to having to correct the spelling from Valerie too. 🙂

      A last name that people have difficulty spelling and pronouncing? I can relate to that too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, it’s not just a southern culture thing although it’s more prominent there. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest with the same cultural manners as you. When I tried to pass that on to my kids the adults they addressed were indeed offended and felt like it was a accusation of being old. I solved the issue with teaching my kids to use the Mr. Miss, or Mrs. before the first name. That way the first name could be used and the respect was still there. To this day the kids in my neighborhood call me Mr. Dave. I never required it but because of my kids addressing their parents that way it just became a thing in the neighborhood.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that the missing cultural terms of respect is a good thing. It almost seems that the lack of respect has gone too far in the opposite way. But then I’m from a really old generation when many things were different.

    Have a great day Mr. Bill.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Using Mr./Miss/Mrs. with a first name seems to be fairly common. It’s a good compromise I suppose.

      I reckon we’re entitled to feel a little nostalgia for the old ways.

      Have a great day Mr. NebraskaDave. 🙂

      Like

      • shoreacres says:

        There’s another, similar compromise that’s common — in Texas, at least. “Pastor Bill” or “Pastor Linda” often is heard, spoken both by children and adults. Like Dave, I grew up in a world where “please,” “thank you,” and other signs of respect were common. As children, we never, ever would have called an adult by a first name — let alone our parents!

        “Yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” were less common. I still remember what a shock it was to move to Texas, where I began being called “ma’am.” Here’s how my tutorial in that went: Me: “You don’t have to call me ‘ma’am.’ I’m not that old.” Him: “it’s a sign of respect. Womenfolk deserve to be respected. You’ll get used to it.” And I did: enough so that I picked up the ma’am – sir habit.

        Liked by 1 person

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