Monday, 21 July 2014

What did you just call me?

My name is Martha.  This is how I would introduce myself in almost every situation.  If more formality is called for, or I'm checking in for an appointment, I would add the surname: Hello, I'm Martha White.  Beyond those first exciting minutes of marriage, however, I cannot think of any scenario where I would introduce myself as Mrs White. 

Entirely gratuitous wedding photo
 Moreover, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand those that I have addressed in such a fashion over the last ten years or so.  Some of the more senior managers at work.  My obstetrician, if "Doctor" falls into the same category as Mr and Mrs.  Slightly unusually, the couple we bought our house from - at least for the first two or three meetings.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that I had never given a thought to how Toby referred to adults.  We used our friends' first names; therefore he did, too.  At church, in our neighbourhood, even when he started preschool, no one differentiated between how they introduced themselves to us, the grown-ups, or him, the child.  Like me, they probably hardly ever think of themselves as a Mr or Mrs.  Unless, of course, they're a teacher - that final bastion of Mr-and-Mrs-dom.

Then the other day I was having a conversation with a friend about etiquette, and discussing those Southern American staples of courtesy - Sir / Ma'am, useful in so many situations (including, surprisingly, telling off your kids: "Stacey! No ma'am!"); and Miss / Mr Firstname, for anyone you feel needs little more respect than their first name alone might confer.  Growing up in Texas, my friend had had these conventions impressed on her since babyhood.  While we were there, we slipped relatively easily into the same usage.  But Toby, at that stage, was either non-existent or barely talking, and certainly unlikely to be hollering, "Hey!  Barbara!" at respectable old ladies.  It wasn't until we returned to England that he was likely to be using anyone's name when actually talking to them - and I realised that, if Mr and Mrs are dead, there is no polite British equivalent to those Texan terms.

I suppose the question is, does it matter?  I would never consider it to be a mark of disrespect if somebody used my first name, whatever age that somebody was - provided, of course, they weren't saying something rude to me!  Calling me Mrs White, on the other hand, would have me checking whether you were actually referring to me.  So for myself and most of my peers, it's a no-brainer.  I don't see any intrinsic benefit in perpetuating almost obsolete forms of address, purely for the sake of it.  Toby certainly comprehends the relationship between "Mrs Brown", "Lucy Brown" and "Lucy", but I don't think he would regard any of those as more polite, simply as different ways to refer to the same person.  As he encounters different situations, he will learn which are most appropriate, but I would hope, in this world of universal first names, that no one will consider him deliberately rude simply for using their given name.

Of course, I'm not giving up being called "Mum" any time soon.  Now that really is a title to be earned!

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