What is my name?

One’s name is coterminous with one’s identity. To have it used carelessly shows lack of respect for one’s humanity. To decide how another shall be addressed is to take power over him.

The accused in the dock is addressed as the bench decides he shall be addressed. He is called by his surname, his personal name totally ignored throughout the proceedings other than for the purpose of identification. Thus his powerlessness is made clear to him and contrasted with the awesome power of the bench.

The same method is used in military relationships, to clarify who has authority over whom. It even used to be the norm in hospitals, with nurses addressing each other and their subordinates by surname only. (As a toddler, I only knew my mother’s nursing friends by their surnames.) But that had to go, of course, in the name of the trade-unionised egalitarianism of comrades.

Aggressive Marxoid egalitarians insist on the discarding of formal forms of address as part of their war in which they intend to take control. In creating the revolution, the first step is to take control of the language. From this, all else flows, beginning with the destruction of the right of the individual to respect and liberty, especially the power to decide how they shall be addressed. When the socialist paradise comes to pass we shall have no names at all other than for the purposes of state record-keeping, but only the name of ‘Comrade’.

Everyone, especially the vulnerable, should be asked how they wish to be addressed and when this is not possible the default should be the full formal form. It places the small distance between equal persons which is necessary to denote that neither has control of the other and that intimacy will not be assumed without permission. To do otherwise is invasion of privacy. In some circumstances, especially with the vulnerable, it intimidates and can even feel close to assault.

This used to be part of basic training for all hospital personnel. Why is this no longer the case?

Beyond patronisation, there is a disguised aggression in the presumptive use of someone’s first name. This custom migrated to the UK in the 1970s from the USA where it originated in the sales training manuals of the business schools. It harnesses for commercial purpose the common but by no means universal use of first names which is inherent but only to an extent in American republican egalitarianism.

The sales psychologists in the business schools correctly saw that to be the first to use someone’s personal name in an initial encounter is to invade the other’s privacy, thus taking power over them while disguising the gambit as a gesture of faux-friendship. The other is placed at a disadvantage, risking seeming churlish if they should refuse what purports to be an amiable gesture when in fact there is nothing amiable about it. It is aggression to a purpose, a vital strategic step in sales or other negotiations. R L Stevenson said that everyone lives by selling something, which was never and nowhere more true than in the USA where half one’s neighbours are ‘in sales’. The new sales behaviour quickly became a societal norm.

The imposition of the presumptive use of first names has been one of the chief components of the erosion of respect for and the increase of aggression towards the other which is now a major problem in many Anglophone societies but especially the UK and the USA.

The importance of forms of address and above all of the use of first names has been known in all societies over millennia. It has  been taught in folk tales and founding myths for thousands of generations through fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin and the Biblical (Exodus) story in which God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush. God addresses Moses by his personal name but refuses to divulge his own name. ‘I am Who Am.’ Thus are power relationships established and enforced by those who take the initiative in deciding to divulge, use or not use personal names.

A frail old person does not need his vulnerability emphasised by those with power to invade his privacy and his person.

Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. John XXI 18.

The reality of the power relationship is already clear and frightening. The first action by the person with power must be to comfort the frail, frightened one by bringing about and demonstrating balance in the power relationship. This can be achieved swiftly and simply by the use of formal address which immediately acknowledges and pays respect to the unique identity, value and rights of the weaker individual. It underlines the innate equality of the individual human persons regardless of their roles and the balance of power between them.

At last some of this, and its importance in the treatment of and the prospects for health in the old and frail has been recognised in today’s report. But again one must ask why this simple and very basic psychological insight was ever omitted from the training of those working in the medical or other care of the elderly?

Unlike other societies, the British – almost uniquely – long ago dropped the routine use of Sir and Madam. Maybe it is time to bring them back.

 

(Also posted at my own blog.) 

18 comments for “What is my name?

  1. March 1, 2012 at 5:39 am

    I am very odd in this. I manage to live my life without referring to any one by any name whatsoever, unless I’m speaking with a third party.
    If i need to direct my speech to someone i look at them and begin speaking, if that fails then an “excuse me may be required.

  2. Sg
    March 1, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Until recently I taught in a provincial college, and of course it is all first names now between staff and students. Subtly (or sometimes overtly) it comes over as a lack of respect, and I began to wonder if it might help the learning process to go back to Mr or Miss to establish that information is being handed down and comes with a certain authority.

    This seems pompous, but I was not their ‘mate’ and I had certain information to transmit. Being told to fuck off, even in a friendly way, undermines the fact I needed them to achieve certain tasks in a timely manner. If education is for the benefit of those who don’t know then it helps the learning process to respect the process. Treating it all casually suggests learning is just something one one might or might not do as the mood takes you.

    In the college students I dealt with, the tendency was towards the latter.

  3. March 1, 2012 at 9:42 am

    I recall an incident when I was working with the AA driving school a few years back. One of the instructors was brought in to phone around all those instructors who had not taken and passed the hazard perception test as they would lose their ADI licence at the end of the year if they had not taken it. Anyway, he would address the recipients of the call by first name. There was one such recipient who replied very tersely, that he wasn’t “John” (or whatever) he was “Mr….” to you.

    That, perhaps, is the best way to deal with strangers who are too familiar.

  4. john in cheshire
    March 1, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    LR, “..one such recipient who replied very tersely, that he wasn’t “John” (or whatever) he was “Mr….” to you…”
    Exactly, and I’ve done the same several times over the years, usually when someone is acting to my disadvantage while being over-familiar. And I think that if I ever have to spend any time either in hospital or other form of accommodation, I will demand to be addressed as Mr. What is amazing, though is that because it is now so widely accepted that people can use your Christian name without first seeking your permission, they are affronted when you object.

    • March 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Unlike the French who will always use the formal until invited to use the informal.

      • March 2, 2012 at 10:09 am

        Though it’s worth bearing in mind that, a couple of centuries ago, the Parisians abolished the formal terms and insisted on ‘Citizen’ for all.

        Turned out that it caught on about as well as calling today the twelfth day of Ventose under the Revolutionaries’ new calendar system; the Parisians may have liked it but the rest of the country flatly ignored the whole business and carried on as normal.

        I wonder how much of this trend towards first-name us is fuelled by television and modern communications.

    • March 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      I’ve never done it, but it occurs to me that a way to even the score could be to start referring to them by a pet version of their own christian name. Dicky, johnny, lizzie that sort of thing.
      take it up a notch.

  5. Able
    March 2, 2012 at 5:31 am

    I’m not sure on this one. I’m a nurse and (being forty-mumble) I trained in the old way. I address everyone as Mr. or Mrs. before being (if done so) asked to use a Christian name by them or, and here’s the kicker, if the situation warrants it.

    The assumption of a lack of respect implicit in using a Christian name for a patient you are caring for is a little spurious I feel. Responses to modes of address appear, from personal experience, to be both age and class based. Patients younger than I (an unfortunately rapidly growing section of the population for some strange reason) appear to respond better to a formal address (perhaps as evidence of some experience led superiority on my part?) as do the more ‘upper-class’ elements (in recognition of their own feelings of superiority?). The older patient seems happier with a less formal relationship once introduced.

    Consider. I am about to insert a cold piece of equipment (I keep them in the fridge – or the freezer if you’re especially obnoxious) into a delicate area of your anatomy. Which would you prefer, “Mr Blogs bend over please (said with an evil glint in the eye, a manic laugh and much smacking of rubber gloved hands)” or ” It’s OK Fred, assume the position and I’ll be as gentle as possible”?

    I guess what I am attempting to say is that as individuals we will wish for, and respond to, situations and how we are addressed differently. The less formal approach, even when not previously granted, is more appropriate at times (and in a hospital personal care situation that is most of the time). The form of address is almost irrelevant. If you are treated respectfully then being called ‘Buggerlugs’ would make little difference (although I do feel it is unfair of my colleagues to single out my one less than perfect feature).

    As a personal preference, I find it more palatable to be addressed in a friendly manner, even with the local slang colloquialisms. When addressed as Mr. Able I either assume I’m in trouble (I dream that one day my bank manager will call me ‘pet’, and only partly because she’s gorgeous) or start looking around to see where my father is.

    I might also point out that, being ex-miltary, should I address anyone as Sir or Ma’am then the chances are I have very little respect for them at all 😉

    • March 2, 2012 at 7:48 am

      Yeah, I don’t use sir and never will, it has too many negative connotations. Unless you spell it with a “c”, that is…

      • Able
        March 2, 2012 at 10:35 am

        Sir does have negative connotations for me mainly due to a bitter experience (and to misquote Michael Z Williamson).

        Whilst in the RAF, as an NCO and reasonably competent, I was encouraged to apply for Officer training.

        I did so and subsequently breezed through all the aptitude and skill tests scoring in the top 1% (according to the supervising officer). The interviews went almost as well, it was a sure thing I would be offered a place.

        Then it all went to pieces. Why? Well it turned out I failed a basic and fundamental qualifying requirement for being an officer and a gentleman.

        My parents were married!

        😉

  6. Able
    March 2, 2012 at 5:31 am

    I’m not sure on this one. I’m a nurse and (being forty-mumble) I trained in the old way. I address everyone as Mr. or Mrs. before being (if done so) asked to use a Christian name by them or, and here’s the kicker, if the situation warrants it.

    The assumption of a lack of respect implicit in using a Christian name for a patient you are caring for is a little spurious I feel. Responses to modes of address appear, from personal experience, to be both age and class based. Patients younger than I (an unfortunately rapidly growing section of the population for some strange reason) appear to respond better to a formal address (perhaps as evidence of some experience led superiority on my part?) as do the more ‘upper-class’ elements (in recognition of their own feelings of superiority?). The older patient seems happier with a less formal relationship once introduced.

    Consider. I am about to insert a cold piece of equipment (I keep them in the fridge – or the freezer if you’re especially obnoxious) into a delicate area of your anatomy. Which would you prefer, “Mr Blogs bend over please (said with an evil glint in the eye, a manic laugh and much smacking of rubber gloved hands)” or ” It’s OK Fred, assume the position and I’ll be as gentle as possible”?

    I guess what I am attempting to say is that as individuals we will wish for, and respond to, situations and how we are addressed differently. The less formal approach, even when not previously granted, is more appropriate at times (and in a hospital personal care situation that is most of the time). The form of address is almost irrelevant. If you are treated respectfully then being called ‘Buggerlugs’ would make little difference (although I do feel it is unfair of my colleagues to single out my one less than perfect feature).

    As a personal preference, I find it more palatable to be addressed in a friendly manner, even with the local slang colloquialisms. When addressed as Mr. Able I either assume I’m in trouble (I dream that one day my bank manager will call me ‘pet’, and only partly because she’s gorgeous) or start looking around to see where my father is.

    I might also point out that, being ex-military, should I address anyone as Sir or Ma’am then the chances are I have very little respect for them at all 😉

  7. Able
    March 2, 2012 at 5:33 am

    oops, sorry for that multiple post, a slip brought on by age (or it may have been the contemplating my bank manager, who can say)

  8. Peter MacFarlane
    March 2, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I went right through school with people whose first names I never knew.

    All masters were “Sir”, all other boys were surnames, modified in case of brothers by things like big, little, major, minor, so-and-so’s brother, etc.

    While I was at school, I was “MacFarlane” and my younger brother was “MacFarlane’s brother”, of course as soon as I left the situations reversed, which confused me a little when I went back for his leaver ceremony…

    Christian names just didn’t come into it.

    Things may have changed a little in the forty-odd years since then.

    • March 2, 2012 at 11:31 am

      The practice was always unique to boys’ schools, many of which have since gone co-ed.

      For those of us who don’t find it easy to remember names (which is something of a major disadvantage in teaching), it was a useful custom, there being usually only one or two of each name in any class – not to mention the helpful clues of family resemblance.

      These days, thanks to a startling lack of originality on the part of parents, it is not uncommon to find half a dozen Emmas, Jacks or Toms scattered around the room.

  9. Tattyfalarr
    March 2, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    For christ’s sake is really absolutely necessary to make laws on what we call each other…so long as it is not abusive or insulting in the true sense of those words ?

    Is anyone really ever traumatised beyond redemption by NOT being called by their full title ?

    We’ll end up legislating ourselves into silence. Stop this madness !!!!
    😉

    • March 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      I don’t recall anyone saying anything about bringing in laws.

  10. March 4, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Your plea and questions are resonating on blogsites up and down t’Internet, and almost without exception, there is agreement. So why is there even a need for such instructions as to
    ‘Call me by my Name’?

    It is purely and simply because the ‘touchy-feely- brigade talks down to everyone, mainly because they just ‘know that they are better’ than those they speak to!

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