My 90-year-old cousin was a favorite of mine. I looked forward eagerly to our monthly luncheon date. Patiently, I would wait for her in the library of her San Francisco club.
One day while I was marking time browsing among the books, a pleasant looking, elderly woman wandered in. I thought that my greeting was friendly, but she eyed me coldly and asked stiffly, "Have we been introduced?" Astonished, I struggled for composure, but my stammered response was "no."
The woman was clearly offended and turned away. I had, unwittingly, broken rules of etiquette and stumbled in the world of formal manners, a world that I vaguely recalled from childhood. When my cousin arrived and made the appropriate introductions, the other woman relaxed into cordiality.
Flying back to San Diego that evening, I used the time to think about courtesy and tradition. It was shocking to realize how much my world had changed.
I had been raised to honor elders, speak when spoken to, and, certainly never speak to a stranger. Members of my family rarely chatted with other passengers on the trolley, did not make jokes as we waited our turn at the grocery store, and we never engaged in small talk with a telephone operator or ticket taker at the terminal.
These were, simply, nonacquaintances who provided a service, or fellow customers requiring assistance; above all else, we were strangers to one another, destined to remain unknown to each other. Small talk, serious conversation, were reserved for friends and family. We never used anyone's first name, except that of siblings, close-in-age cousins and playmates.
Society, 60 years ago, erected fences by creating specific rules of deportment.
When I entered high school, I was excited to be stepping into the world of adults. The teachers confirmed the notion by addressing me with formality. When I first heard my name, "Miss Gilbert," I grew inches in self-respect.
Then came college and graduate school, and I heard my first name again. Then, it was music to my ears. I knew it meant I was meeting my instructors at a level of friendship!
Friendship was the key to how we addressed one another. Friendship fragmented the fences of formality.
Years later, when I moved to California, many fences came tumbling down even before I found my first friend. It was shocking to me.
The first time I sat in the doctor's waiting room and was summoned by my first name, called by a total stranger, young enough to be my daughter, I was startled. That was 25 years ago; I continue to be surprised each time it happens. My friends call me "Agnes;" the others are strangers.
Although the use of first names often occurs without considering the preference of the individual being addressed, sometimes thought has gone into the decision.
Mary Wild, a nurse in an Encinitas gynecologist's office, calls patients by their first names and finds that most women are comfortable with that. It is part of a policy that has evolved over the years. "Occasionally an elder will ask that her last name be used, and her request is respected," said Wild. "The office works very hard at making patients feel comfortable."
Patients in hospitals and nursing homes, and residents of homes for the elderly, do not always have the ability to express their objections to terms of familiarity from strangers. They know what feels comfortable and familiar and they deserve to hear it.
"We are acutely concerned about how patients perceive us," said Bob Crawford, director of marketing at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido. "Initially we use last names, but once a patient is admitted and made to feel at ease, the mode of address depends on the staff's observation of the individual," he said.
My father-in-law, in a nursing home far from here, grimaced and became uncommunicative and uncooperative every time a nurse or an aide said, "Come on, Herbie, take your medicine." But when the staff, acceding to our request, called him "Mr. Herman," he became responsive even from the depths of his Alzheimer's disorientation.
I have no doubt that the same resistance to familiarity from strangers that motivated the lady in the club to refuse to speak to me, resides in my genes. It is a trait shared by some seniors, but certainly not by all.
Brian Yaklich, supervisor at the Joslyn Senior Center in San Marcos, said that most of the regulars at the center call each other by their first names and wish to be addressed that way. "There are, however, a few consummate gentlemen who still open doors for women and also prefer to be addressed by their last names--and they do not hesitate to say so," Yaklich said.
Off-hand familiarity can wither the already withered expressions on elderly faces. And yet I understand that the use of first names by the young is often a bridge they construct to reach out to others.
I still cringe inwardly, though I no longer register offense. I am trying to go with the flow. Though the stranger's familiarity continues to surprise me, it reminds me that times have changed. I now try to allow a friendly voice to lead me through the door to our more open society.