Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Forms of address - more informal, more familiar - not appropriate

After the blog entry I wrote about how to properly address elected officials, I received a number of requests on how to deal with less formal, more commonplace situations where addressing all sorts of people has become extremely relaxed over the years to the point of being disrespectful over the years. I maintain that this is a direct result of generational compensations made by parents as a reaction to their own upbringing. Whatever the reason, the end result diminishes the respect shown to one another in subtle ways which reflect an attitude of laziness, inappropriate familiarity and just plain rudeness.

One reader asks, "Have you addressed the issue of store clerks, bank tellers, and various other folks with whom one has casual business contact calling you by your first name without being invited to do so?" This is a curious dynamic whereby people think that by being more familiar with another person they somehow can become their friend and thereby make the sale or be less threatening. What happens in many cases with this inappropriate familiarity is that the customer is completely put off. Another disrespectful form of address and one of my pet peeves is being called 'babe' or 'hun' by some stranger i.e. shop clerk, taxi driver, bank clerk, etc.

Another reader states, "I have a pet peeve about how the ordinary citizen is addressed, say, in a doctor's office. I am always 'Mary', which I sometimes don't hear because I have a double first name which is Mary Jane. Granted my name is not easy but I could be referred to as Ms. Jones which never happens even if the speaker is 20! Is this lack of effort to call someone by their rightful name because there is overall very little respect for anyone anymore?"

My explanation for this all too common phenomenon is that people simply don't realize that something as simple as how we refer to one another is the very essence of showing respect. We are consumed with the I and me and look for the lazy, easy and I don't care way of conducting ourselves. Without much needed guidance and a modest amount of education people will continue to ignore any of the decency we might show one another.  There is also a carelessness about not listening to or paying attention to a person's name is. It's as though that individual just doesn't matter.

My advice to anyone who thinks this detail really goes unnoticed and doesn't matter is that they are absolutely wrong. There is nothing more personal than one's name. Getting it wrong sends shock waves through most people. This is why it is so important to take the time and make the effort to focus on a person's correct name and title. And if you don't know the person, it is a good idea to call them by their last name (sir name) preceded by Mr., Miss, Mrs. or the unfortunate Ms. form. Only when someone gives you permission to call them by their first name is it okay to do so. If you are introduced by a third party using first names then it is alright to use a first name.

In a professional setting, there is nothing wrong with using formalities. In fact, it is down right rude not to in most cases. Even when going to see your doctor, refer to him or her as 'doctor'. You are seeing them as professionals and they should be addressed accordingly. Similarly, receptionists should not call you by your first name. Familiarity of this sort screams disrespect.

One easy way to teach people how to address one another appropriately is to begin this process at home. We have friends and relatives, each of whom are deserving of being acknowledged by name. In my case, it was Uncle Jim or Aunt Sue or Cousin Bill. I was taught to address friends' parents and other adults as Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith. There is no reason why children today cannot be taught to address their peers and adults with whom they come into contact, to call them by an appropriate name. "Um, hi" is not an option. And there is always the use of sir or ma'am with which many people have been raised. These are respectful terms and avoid your being crude or ignorant when addressing someone.

We like it when we are called by our name. In fact, we are annoyed when people get our names wrong. Using one another's name is a sign of respect. It shows that you matter and that I have taken the time and effort to remember your name. Addressing someone by their proper name lets that person know that they stand out in your thoughts. Though memory does not always serve us well and we can forget names from time to time, simply admit that you have forgotten a name, apologize and ask for the name again. Since this happens to all of us, it should not be considered bad form. Remember the cardinal rule of recognizing the intent behind what we say. We don't purposely forget names and should not be chastised for it.

Being lazy about how we address one another is a different matter completely. Laziness is oddly enough an act. It is done with purpose albeit minimal. I recommend paying close attention to how we address each other. As it matters to you how you are introduced and spoken to, it matters to everyone else too. We all deserve the same level of respect. This simple act goes a long way in making the communities in which we live more civilized.