Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Miss Brown to you

It seems to me that every time I go into a store and pull out a credit card to pay for something, the person looks at the name on the card and addresses me by my first name - or a variant of it. I am sure that they think that they are being friendly. Maybe it's even a store policy for its employees, but I have one thing to say about this: stop!

It doesn't just happen in stores. I have had this happen in doctors' and dentists' offices, at ticket counters, at University - in fact, any place where people have access to some amount of my personal information - even if it's a very small piece.
Perhaps it is a reaction to some real or imagined problem with the "how do you address a woman" after the reintroduction of the perfectly reasonable title of Ms. which like, Mrs. and Miss, are all abbreviations of the the term "mistress" meaning the same thing as Ma'am, short, of course, for "madam." I'm telling, you, just go with "ms." Believe me, you'll be corrected, if that's not what Mrs. Vanderbilt-Smythe prefers, and she'll still be less offended than if you addressed her as Amelia.

All this is actually a mask for a non-etiquette, or at least a different sort of etiquette, problem: Why Americans can't be formal. Yes, we seem to have lost the ability to have any sense of formality. Those folks who know me in person are no doubt wondering if I was hit on the head shortly before writing this post, but the truth is, even though my preferred style of dress is jeans and a t-shirt, maybe with a sweater when it gets cold, and high-tops pretty much year round, I think that we as a nation have really lost something. Not because I think we should all be wearing suits and ties and dinner dresses if we go out to a restaurant, or dressing up to go traveling on a train, but because our much loved "informality" is a cover-up for a loss of the ability to be intimate.

We believe that if we just call each other by first names all the time, we must be buds. It's just not true. What we have lost is the opportunity to get to know one another over time, to be granted the permission to call each other by gradations of intimacy as we get to know one another, the reproval of moving too quickly in a friendship and saying, "that's Miss Brown to you."

And informality covers up other ills, too. If you call your boss by his first name, we must be friends right? So then he has the right to call on you day or night, invite you to parties that aren't really parties, and which you must attend, and go on retreats in which you spend your weekend with people whom you may or may not like, but in any case you haven't the opportunity to choose, since you're obligated to be there on time you could spend with your family or friends. And if we're friends, then we don't need to engage in quarrelsome discussions about parental leave - why would you need that in your contract, we're all friends here - we can work that out when the time comes -unless of course, I don't want to, because it's not in your contract - why don't you take two weeks vacation, or just settle for FMLA unpaid? See you when you run out of money. And of course, there are plenty of workplaces where the "intimacy" goes only one way; the boss is Mr. Winston-Franklin, but everyone who is supervised is Joe and Janet. Don't you resent that, Jan?

In fact, I think that a certain level of business formality at work, and personal formality in acquaintances might very well go far to solving some of the problems we have with people not knowing how to behave in a variety of social and work situations.

I want to throw in, in my own defense, an exchange I had with someone some time ago. I was working on a cover letter for a job, or something like that, and my very good friend was helping me. I think that he had said that I should put some sort of statement in the letter that someone had made about me to show the kind of person I was and my qualities as an employee. So I put in the statement that a secretary (not my own) had said, that I treat everyone exactly the same, whether they were a president or a secretary. My friend responded along the lines of, "That's the best thing anyone has ever said about you?" I was kind of embarrassed, and took it out. But in retrospect, I wish I hadn't. I think that, actually, it is the best thing anyone has ever said about me. I can't imagine a better thing to say about someone.
And it's not like I'm super-formal in my work relationships, either. But it seems to me that among those who are informal, that informality tends to run only one way.

I have noticed that among many of my colleagues, informality is a tool used to promote one's own authority. And, God knows, we could use a little more kavod haRav - I do not begrudge my colleagues one bit of it. I don't know any shuls (outside of ultra-Orthodoxy) where when the rabbi comes to a room to teach, those being taught rise out of respect. It seems to me that to rise for those we claim to respect might be a good thing. Why? I know it seems kind of arrogant to ask people to rise for a person. But let's say we are rising for the role, which is teacher (for that matter, I'd love to see students taught to rise for all their teachers when class begins, but I don't see that getting past the first day of school before the parents call in screaming), rather than for the person. But perhaps there might be some way to show that calling the rabbi by her title and last name are better for the role than Rabbi first name - especially since some rabbis end up called by one thing and some by another, and just in case you were wondering, there does seem to be a large gender component to who gets called what. But perhaps the person teaching your community, who was respected enough to be hired for that purpose, ought to be given a modicum of distance (Thankfully this does leave me out, since I don't work in that kind of arrangement. Please continue to not call me by my title unless you're asking me for a psak). Because as rabbis know, the distance is there, whether it is acknowledged or not.

I guess what I am saying is that when we confuse informality with intimacy, we all lose, because actual intimacy gets brushed aside for a cheap substitute. I would rather spend a few years getting to know someone, and then having them say, "Oh, please call me Fred," then call them Fred right off, and not know whether or not we're really friends. Not to mention the scads of in-laws who can now stop wondering what to call their partner's parents, and settle for "Um," and "Ah," since they can't bring themselves to call their in-laws either Mom and Pop, as if their own had abandoned them and they'd been adopted by some kindly strangers, or John and Mary (or since I'm Jewish, let's say, Jonah and Miriam) but just also can't bring themselves to be "too formal" and call them Mr and Ms. because then the spouse's parents will think that the bride doesn't like them. If we could just acknowledge that sometimes there are roles we play to smooth our way in life, and that if we want friendships and more, we have to wait for them, we could start using more formal terms without making it seem as if we were rejecting the people we are addressing. Let's just make it a rule. And it seems to me also, that especially in terms of work, I'd really much rather call the janitor Mr. Johnson, than "Joe," -why should he have to suffer from being addressed as if he were my buddy, rather than my colleague in the work of making a certain place function?

And by the way, you at the salescounter, with the badge that says, "Sarah," can I call you Miss Brown, please?

1 comment:

tarfon said...

Yishar kohech!