That's Mom to you, Mr. Kiddo

What we call others, and what we ask to be called ourselves, does still matter in a world of first-name-only pop stars and retail associates.

Michael Sohn/AP/FILE
First names only please - In this Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 file photo, U.S. pop star Madonna smiles during a visit to Berlin.

It was with real relief that I read in my local paper recently how Kelly Ripa and her ABC talk show co-host Michael Strahan don’t like it when kids call their parents by their first names. Evidently there’s a trend of this afoot  – most likely a micro-trend – which is news to people who assume that if you call people by anything but their parental names, they aren’t your parents.  

Naming trends traditionally have centered around popularity. The new Jackson vs. the old James, for instance. Madison where once there was Margaret.  Sometimes, something gender neutral: Skyler. Avery. Piper. A popular soap opera actress once contributed to a blip of Brittneys. A celebrity’s example might cause a fan to bestow, with hopefulness, a similar, single, statement name in the manner of Bono, Pink or Raffi.

But the everyday name game often is more insidious, and part of an evolving culture-wide dilemma of address. Which is appropriate – Bob or Mr. Smith?  How do you introduce someone – as just Bob? Or as Bob Smith? Or should you not bother to introduce them at all? In the confusion, do you – like many – find it easier just not to call people by name at all, electing to forgo the personal connection that happens when you do? And it’s not just about the adults. The way you teach your children to deal with the great name free-for-all can affect how confidently they handle social interactions as they mature into the world of grown-ups.  

Much of the uncertainty about how we should address each other stems from an increasing informality in the culture, especially common among young people, says Cleveland Evans, PhD,  professor of psychology at Bellevue University, and past president of the American Name Society. The aim seems to be to avoid insult by being universally friendly, he explains. Still, he suggests, his preference is that children – until they are 12 years old at a minimum  – address adults formally –  that is, using a title such as Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. And, as for any possible trend-let of having your kids call you by your first name, well, no. He’s not a fan. Not before age 12 and not after.  Kids, he says, need clarity where authority figures are concerned. Being on a first-name basis with parents, he believes “tends to send a signal that this is more of a friendship relationship than it should be.”

Even, now, in its 18th edition, Emily Post’s Etiquette – an authority figure in itself for many – concurs. The authors point out that today’s casual world notwithstanding, children should learn to call adults by their title and last name.  Regional customs such as “Sir” or “Miss Cindy,” or respect for “Aunt Maisie,” who’s really just mom’s good friend, might be the exception.  And of course everywhere, jobs experts caution that grownup employees in even the most chill industries use formal address until invited to do otherwise.  

Parents may be doing their children a big favor when they raise them to revert to formal names with adults, but they often have to wade through a confusing popular culture to do it. As Professor Evans noted, the informalization of society is a long and seemingly relentless trend. “Victorians were crazy the other way,” he notes, with even wives addressing their husbands formally. Remember the fictional Bennetts of Pride and Prejudice fame?  

Today, there’s often no surname in sight, what with the friend-ing up of the retail world. Having big stores’ “associates” be known by their first names in order to make the stores seem friendlier actually breeds a false familiarity, Evans believes. Still, the “call me Bob” mindset has jumped from the nametag into the larger culture, again, especially in the young. “A lot of young people have reversed the conventional view.  They think it’s more polite to use somebody’s first name,” he says. Yikes. 

Last names came into use in Europe a thousand years ago in response to towns grown so large that it was necessary to distinguish one “Guinevere” from another. Today, when the town has grown beyond all imagining, those who do have two names often seem reluctant to use them. “The younger generation makes much less use of the last name,” said the professor, and many parents being introduced to their children’s friends agree. Evans sees the proliferation of divorce and remarriage, along with the practice of women keeping their names after marriage, as well as the trend toward smaller families, as combining to diminish the importance of the family name. But that’s not always the case. If you’re a Rockefeller, for instance – or perhaps the local equivalent of one – surname alone still matters. 

While a simple parental “we Smiths don’t do that” will turn many a child’s head, in another family, it could be met with a yawn. Young parents who see surnames as only marginally important are the ones who often aim, Evans reports, for ever-more-unusual first names for their babies. There’s even a “Google rationale” among some, he says, whereby parents want a child’s name to be rare enough to pop up first when Googled years later, at career time.  Being findable on Google can cut both ways, though, making a cherub’s youthful indiscretions as easily identified as he is, and, Evans warned, even making him easier to stalk. 

Perhaps the discomfort about calling people by name – or about introducing ourselves or our friends fully – may come from uncertainty. Maybe you think that you’re not important enough to me that I would care who you are. Or vice versa. And if the uncertainty is mostly among the young, then the rest of us might make it clear that we do care who you are.  Even if you don’t live in my town. Even if I have no idea who your parents are. Even if I’ll likely never lay eyes on you again.

My knowing your name gives the two of us a starting point for a little small-talk, or even a real conversation. It distinguishes you from the many other Madisons I have met and will meet, and that really does matter.  And if you take a chance and call me Mrs. McCauley, well that’s ok. It may or may not make me feel old. Ultimately, it makes our association a bit more textured, that’s all, than an encounter of peers would be. And who knows – we may bump into each other sometime in that great big town out there. Won’t it feel good to see someone we know?

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