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The First Name Familiar? It Sticks in the Throat of One Raised on Mr., Mrs.

January 28, 1988|JOSEPH P. BELL

We had a house guest last week, a feisty 83-year-old who drives about the country every year visiting old friends and dispensing wisdom. The wisdom is usually couched in anecdotes full of heroes, villains and unsoftened opinion. He has decided--and he's probably right--that if you achieve 83, it is no longer necessary to carefully balance opinion in the interest of evenhandedness. He knows what he knows, and he believes what he believes.

One of his current villains is a nurse at his doctor's office. He had visited there recently and was in the waiting room when the nurse summoned him to the inner sanctum by calling out his first name. He didn't lower the book he was reading. She called him again. And again. He didn't budge. Finally in exasperation she shouted, "Mister Cox." He responded instantly and politely. The lesson was implicit, but he said the nurse would probably do the same thing the next time he visited his doctor. And he would react the same way. It's a small protest, but all he has available.

He went on to rail against the use of the first person familiar by children and strangers and people who scarcely know him. He's planted his flag firmly on this ground, and I sympathize with his position--although with my usual flabby resolve, I don't stand on it steadfastly. I was thinking about that later the same day when I received back-to-back telephone calls that underscored his point.

The first was from the representative of a car dealer in whose shop I had just had some expensive repair work done. The man on the line said: "Joe, we're just checking up to make sure our work was satisfactory." I applauded the sentiment, but the use of my first name irritated the hell out of me.

A few minutes later, a secretary I also didn't know called me from the office of a man I was trying to reach. She addressed me as "Joseph," a name I never use. Again, the familiarity jarred me.

This seems to be largely a generational concern. When I was growing up, children were routinely taught to address anyone older than 12 as "mister," a habit that stuck with me. I have, for example, been going to the same dentist for more than 20 years, but I still address him as "doctor." It somehow feels right. I called friends of may parents "mister" and "missus" long after I was a grown man. That felt right, too. And today when I meet people socially or in the workplace under circumstances in which the first name familiar is embraced quickly and casually, it still sometimes sticks in my throat.

Most American children today--at least those in my view--are raised to use first names easily, regardless of age, sex or station in life. I'm really not sure whether this is social progress that bothers me simply because it jars my septuagenarian sensibilities--or whether it's a kind of retrogression implicit in the youth culture of this country. Either way, it seems to me to undermine any effort to teach respect for age and to lay the groundwork for dismissing not only the problems but the contributions of the elderly in American society today.

I don't agree with the argument that age should not automatically command respect, that it must be earned at every stage of our lives. Age has always seemed to me one of the few things that should command respect, no matter how difficult the owner of the age. Or at least it should command respect in the beginning. After that, the older person--like everyone else--should be on his or her own. If their behavior doesn't merit the continued respect for which age has given them a leg up, so be it.

In order to achieve the age I've attained today, I had to survive the Great Depression, a couple of wars, rock 'n' roll music, the failure for 25 years of the California Angels to get into a World Series, and Ronald Reagan. Surely that merits something without the additional requirement of being a good person as well.

I know I'm spitting into the wind with this one. Society has changed so totally that any effort to restore automatic titles of respect for older people among the young would probably sound contrived and hokey. There's always the chance, of course, that we could legislate it since the median age is increasing so rapidly in this country that the Geritol generation will soon outnumber the youth and thus command political power. I don't know what we can do about cocktail parties, though, where first names are de rigueur, or those abysmal people who persist in telephoning at dinner time and address you by your first name to request a solicitation for the Indigent Fathers of America or the Society for the Preservation of Notre Dame Halfbacks.

When I allow myself to think of the way it used to be with the first name familiar, I remember a group of aviation cadets I wet-nursed through flight training early in World War II. The night before they were to graduate and win their wings and commissions, they came to my home for a party. When it was over, they called a cab, and the six of them piled in and took off. I was standing on a balcony watching them go when the cab came to a screeching halt at the corner, then backed up a few yards. The door flew open, a cadet head popped out and shouted, "So long . . . JOE!" And the cab roared off.

It was a satisfying moment for all of us because, in spite of my upbringing, I always resisted the idea of enforced respect--along with a lot of other things--in the military. So I guess I'll let this one go. I won't always like it, but unlike my 83-year-old friend, I'll answer however I'm addressed--and choose some other windmills to tilt.

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