Many years ago while I was visiting an elderly member of my church in a nursing home, a young employee of the establishment marched into his room without knocking, proceeding airily but not unpleasantly to remind him, using his first name, of something she thought he should bear in mind about the afternoon’s activities. The man was a retired college professor in his nineties, physically very frail, but mentally alert, a pleasant and distinguished gentleman for whom I had immense respect. This is the first occasion I remember in which I was struck by the extraordinary rudeness of this twenty-year old’s calling such as he by his first name. Even if she had been a twenty year old queen instead of an orderly it would have been disgusting, for ripe humanity, especially such as Dr. Smith's, carries with it a dignity that even savages know enough to respect. Savages, yes--but the typical modern American, imbued with a complex of notions that overrules all aristocracies, even those of honor, no.
Judith Martin has some good things to say about this practice in Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Warner, 1982). The general rule is “Rudeness that is introduced under the name of informality or intimacy is still rudeness” (p. 208). In answer to a twenty-six year old who was bothered by the undue intimacy implied by the ungranted use of her first name by strangers, Martin observes that “such usage is not only undignified, but makes a sham of the ideas of friendship and equality. There is no such thing as instant intimacy” (p. 76). What we have here is in fact an invasion of privacy, an unthinking reduction of the dignity of another human being, and the forcible taking of something that may be given as gift—and which even on occasion should be in humility returned when offered. It harms true and right hierarchies by ignoring them, and harms true and right equalities by presuming upon them.
I think a good many people who still place some value on order and politeness, even though they use first names where they really shouldn’t, wouldn’t mind returning to an etiquette they have been forced by common barbarism to regard as antique or bourgeois. Several months ago I was seated at a dinner attended by the families of an organization to which I belong. One of the children, a loud and stupid boy of ten or twelve, kept addressing a past director, a man of more than seventy, by his first name. Clearly the table was disturbed by this. The gentleman bore up under it and made no protest to the boy or his imbecile parents, but the company’s discomfort with this behavior was clear.
As a midwestern American, I accept as a matter of course fairly informal manners of address. I am comfortable when adults with whom I am on friendly terms call me by my first name. But it does not seem to me that people who are much younger than I should do this, or that I should address those significantly older than I am in this way. Those whose offices are or should be considered distinguished by society at large should be addressed by default by their titles, especially when they are appearing in those titles’ capacity. When chatting with him at table I call Dr. Hitchcock “Jim,” but if I am introducing him to other people, he is identified by one of his titles. Father Reardon, a reverend and elder priest, gets even higher consideration. Even in intimate company it seems right for me to address him as “Father” more times than I call him “Pat,” for although he is my friend (and whatever the quality of his jokes) he is also objectively a father in God—one of the highest ranks a man can have.
It is frustrating to have to avoid rudeness oneself by forbearing to correct rude people, but as undemocratic as they may think it, when I hear them call others what they will I judge their upbringing, and so inevitably to some degree their worth, by their manner of address. A polite man is not necessarily a good man, but a rude one, even if no offense is intended by undue familiarity, is a lower creature than he ought to be.