The growing habit in business circles of addressing everyone,
including customers, by their first names is a habit that has been driving my
wife to distraction for years, and now it’s starting to irritate me.
“Is that John?” said an anonymous voice on the
telephone this morning. “That depends on
who’s calling,” I replied. I thought it
was someone I knew but hadn’t recognized.
It turned out, instead, to be some corporate hospitality company
inviting us to Ladies Day at Ascot at a cost
more or less equal to what I would have paid a few years ago for a Series-3
BMW. “John is not at home”, I said
frostily, “but Mr. Jessop is and he wishes to be removed from your prospect
Call me old-fashioned, or even a snob, but I prefer to
be addressed by commercial strangers as Mister.
This goes for public sector employees, too. You’re not my friends. You’re not even working colleagues. If you want my money, then please show a
little respect – and, yes, a modicum of deference.
I’m not a stickler for formality, and I can’t explain
my prejudice with watertight logic, but this spreading hierarchical informality
jars. That it’s all part of the wider systematic
demolition of deference, I recognise. I’ll even concede that it’s warranted up
to a certain point. Admittedly that
point is a poorly-defined one, but some kind of boundary ought to be acknowledged.
You may think that my insistence that the honour of
calling me by my first name has to be earned is terribly pompous, perhaps a
peculiar hangover from the English class system.
If so, remind yourselves that the French and Germans –
among others – remain very particular about use of the familiar address,
especially the second-person pronoun. This distinction between the formal and the informal
is enshrined in their language. As you’ll
no doubt recall from your schooldays, when in France one is ‘Vous’ until
invited, usually after an extended time of friendship (or a brief session of
sex) to become ‘Tu’. In Germany
the equivalents are ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’.
Exceptions to the initial probationary period are made for blood
relatives and children.
In the other direction, however, I’m particularly put
out by being addressed by my given name by children barely out of the high
chair. A friendlier alternative to
calling me Mister would be Uncle John.
If the parents don’t like that, then they should keep their precocious
little brats away from me.
I’m not asking for a rigid form of titular
recognition, such as that employed by the armed forces, just a return to some
kind of structure for the modern age, one to which we can all subscribe,
without feeling that we’ve reverted to the forelock-tugging of Victorian times.
Remember Virgil Tibbs, the black policeman from Chicago helping the local
cops in a hick southern town? “What they
call you up north, boy?” he’s asked.
“The call me MISTER Tibbs,” he snaps back.
You tell ‘em, Virge!