by syaffolee

First Name Basis Or Not

I’m uncomfortable with addressing people who are older than I am by their first name. It’s probably due to my upbringing where I was accustomed to addressing everyone older than me by their titles: uncle, aunt, older cousin. In fact, I addressed my parents’ friends and their kids as “uncle”, “aunt”, and “older cousin” even though they were obviously not related. It’s a sign of respect in Asian cultures. So it was natural for me to call teachers as “Mrs. Johnson” or “Mr. Smith” or “Dr. Brown.” That was expected and required.

Things got sticky when I got older. Friends’ parents began introducing themselves by their first name. That was weird because I don’t address my parents by their first names and I didn’t see why I should start with other people’s parents. And then I started working at the local library and I was forced to address the other librarians by their first names because they never gave their last names upon introduction. If I had worked at a grocery store, this would not have made me uncomfortable since the clerks were typically young. However, the youngest librarian there before I came aboard was at least thirty years older.

Admittedly over time I’ve “loosened up” some. I call my advisors and the younger professors by their first names. I even call the secretaries by their first names (well, everyone does, although judging by the sour faces that are always pasted on “administrative assistants” maybe everyone ought to revert to addressing them in a respectful manner). However, if someone is really old, I will always by default address him or her by the title. It seems demeaning for an older person and false for me to address someone who is by far wiser and more experienced like a peer.*

However, the opposite is not true. What I mean is that I do not prefer to be referred to as “ma’am” or “miss.” Not only does this make me feel older than my years, but also the person who is addressing me is according respect, wisdom, and experience that I have not earned. This is not to say that I prefer endearments either. In fact, they’re worse. “Honey” and “Sweetie” makes me cringe because those “titles” relegate me to one of the masses of stereotypical girls. Once somebody called me “Princess” and I had to check my urge to shove him into the oncoming traffic.

Perhaps that is why so many people prefer to be on a first name basis. It emphasizes the person over mob.**

*One exception is older people online. I will typically address them by the handle or name they refer to themselves on their sites.

**Another exception is the prestigious title. If you are president or dean or CEO, your title says you are an Important Person. To a lesser extent, this is also true for PhDs and MDs but most “doctors” I’ve met are very laid back about it and prefer to be called Professor or by first name. Unless, of course, if the doctor happens to be a high school teacher who likes beating teenagers with authority problems into submission.