Monday, February 23, 2015

Please address me as Ian. I insist.

In the Brady Bunch follow-ups of the 1980s and 1990s (The Brady Brides, A Very Brady Christmas and The Bradys), Jan Brady is married to a college professor named Philip Covington III, who is the Oxford Dictionary definition of uptight. A running joke is that when people (usually close friends and family) call him "Phil," he angrily corrects them: "Philip!" Many times, this exchange happens right after a moment you think he's finally let up on his ever-present pomposity. Philip's angst over his name is the perfect sitcom shorthand for how rigid he is.

As far as names go, count me on the familiarity side. My standing rule is that I want everyone to call me Ian, because that's my name. I don't feel right calling someone — say, my niece — by their first name while they feel compelled to call me something else. I don't object to "Uncle Ian," which is what she calls me (and is kind of cute), but I also wouldn't flip my lid if she dropped the uncle part like a lot of people might.

More often than not in my experience, people — regardless of stature — introduce themselves by what they want you to call them. I then can instinctually derive their place on the Ian-to-Philip scale. Whatever it is, I honor it, even if I wish the peg was elsewhere on the scale.

As deeply ingrained as it is in most people, it's weird to think about why we consider referring to someone by a title or by their last name as intrinsically more respectful than referring to them by their first name. I suppose it has to do with with establishing distance and/or hierarchy, which for many is synonymous with respect. But I've heard enough sarcastic and condescending "Mr. McGibboneys" to understand that respect is a much more nuanced notion than that.

Which is why, were I to ever meet the president, I'd call him "Mr. President." But if he said, "Call me Barack," I would have no problem calling him Barack, at least on a personal level. Either way, my level of respect for him is the same. Because I find it far more respectable to honor someone's wishes than to follow the rote assumption that they prefer titles.

What grates on me is when people insist on it. "I earned this title" or, "I command respect!" Another one of my personal rules is to ensure that if someone has a problem with me, that the problem is all theirs — in other words, that if someone disrespects me, it's because they're being a jerk, not because I did something wrong. That's not always the case, but it's my aim. When people insist on appropriate props via inappropriate pontificating, they cede that high ground. Think of the petty and ineffective Lt. Steven Hauk from Good Morning, Vietnam, who is constantly begging the men he works with to salute him or call him sir. He might be right in a protocol sense, but his petulance makes it all the less likely that anyone will genuinely respect him.

Of course, some would say that respect is mandated to a degree because age, titles and designations imply a wisdom that should be honored. That's true to a degree. But not to the one Michael R. Strain takes it:

And, ultimately, equality in all things is false. A PhD has added to the stock of human knowledge; an undergraduate hasn’t. A priest can transform bread and wine; a layman can’t. Chancellor Merkel can affect the near course of history; I can’t. My friend’s father has successfully raised four children; I haven’t. The way we address each other should reflect these differences because these differences are real and material, and obvious.

Ugh. Do I need to even get into how wrong that is? The idea that it's that black-and-white is exactly from where so many terrible philosophies emanate in the first place.

(Interestingly enough, Strain is a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, meaning he very likely voted for a president who not only repeatedly referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "Angela," but also gave her an unsolicited shoulder rub. Which sort of undermines entirely Strain's criticism of Obama for doing the same, except for the rub.)

So maybe the answer isn't a return to hierarchic formality, but to treat all people with respect. Real respect.

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