Hylton I Lightman MD DCH (SA) FAAP

I’ve been thinking about this article for a while.  Actually, I’ve wanted to write about it for a long time.  It bothers me.

“It” is calling me by my first name.

It’s happened in my office.  During office hours.  By some of my patients and their parents.  The parents are young enough to be my children.  Without a moment’s hesitation, if I ever heard or learned that my adult children called older people or professionals by their first names in professional settings – even if these people are their contemporaries — I’d sit down and talk with them.  It’s wrong.

As for the patients, well, once they’ve heard Mommy and Daddy or Ema and Tatty call me Hylton, then of course, it’s been role modelled for them and they just bomb ahead, calling me by my first name.

And it occurs outside my office and not only to me.  There’s a local member of the clergy who calls his congregants and others by their first names.  The feedback about it is uniformly negative and that it’s unimpressive.

So let’s starting breaking down this phenomenon.

Why does it happen?  What is wrong about it?  What can be done?

Thankfully, many of my patients are people whom we know (including their parents, siblings and other extended family members) from other incarnations.  Some relationships span decades.  We may socialize with one another in our homes.  We participate in one another’s simchas.  We carpool together.  Sometimes, this familiarity can lend itself to a blurring of the boundaries and calling others by first names.

Others explain that they will use a person’s first name because they feel close to him and the first name use will help to engender a closer relationship.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there are some basic tenets in life and one of them is Respect for Elders.  Holding true to this assures little if any error.

There is also respect for a person’s “station” in life.  For example, our preschoolers always call their teachers “Morah” or “Rebbe.”  It instills within children respect for the teacher and that we value learning.

The same thing goes for the shul Rav and Rebbitzen.  Despite the extent to which the Rav and Rebbitzen may be involved in our lives, it’s a must to address them appropriately.

Calling a professional by his/her title, especially within the professional’s office and to his staff, is disrespectful.  Plain and simple.  The professional has achieved a certain level of education and you’re entrusting them with some important part of your life, whether it be health, finances or legal matters.  You want to assure that professionalism for obvious reasons.  Using his first name can chip away at the professionalism.

In surfing the Internet, I found an article written by Jodi Glickman, a Peace Corps volunteer turned Goldman Sachs banker turned communications expert and president of Great on the Job, for the Harvard Business Review about 5-6 years ago.  Here’s an excerpt:

When, as a young person, you address someone as Mr. or Ms., you immediately establish yourself as either a) younger or b) lower status, neither of which is particularly helpful to your cause professionally. Instead, walking into a room confidently with a “Hello, John, nice to meet you. I’m Jodi Glickman. It’s a pleasure to be here” establishes you as both confident and mature. It minimizes that status gap rather than amplifying it with a “Hello Mr. Smith, I’m Jodi…”

I disagree with Ms. Glickman.

Life is filled with hierarchies.  It’s there from day 1 of life, when a parent is in charge (or at least should be) and there’s a child to care for and raise.  A little later, when a child enters a classroom, the teacher is in charge, leading and teaching, helping students to develop skills and a love for the subject(s) being taught.  And so forth.

There are (not infrequently) times when a child or teenager may not care for the teacher.  I’m sorry.  It can be a l-o-n-g school year when a child and the teacher or Rebbe are not a “shidduch.”  Unless abuse on the part of the teacher in involved (and I pray it’s not part of the picture), despite the lack of chemistry, all parties concerned are mandated to keep respect first and foremost.  The teacher or Rebbe should never be called by the first name or last name only, either in the classroom or when speaking about the person at home.  Yes, your child may have a legitimate reason for despising the teacher.  But unless there’s abuse going on, my advice is to embrace this as an opportunity to teach the child respect even for people with whom we don’t necessarily like or agree.

As parents, we should teach our children that there will be people in life whom our children will encounter who may not be the “right fit” for them but they have to learn to make it work.  And there must be respect for these people for obvious reasons and especially when they simply are higher up on the totem pole of life.  Addressing the other person appropriately is non negotiable.

Similarly, in the work force, there’s much to be said for addressing people as Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Rabbi, Morah plus the last name.  It’s a formality but it leaves little room for offending another.  Imagine if you started out calling your new boss by her first name only to hear others address her by her title and last name. It will be awkward to switch from using her first name to using her title plus last name.

Conversely, if you start out using title plus last name, it will be much easier and less embarrassing for you to switch to the first name once you know it is acceptable. Often, if you have addressed a person formally, they will respond by saying something like, “Please, call me Shelley.’’

The same is true for written communications. With e-mail especially, it is easy to let the informality of the communication process steer you in the direction of being informal. If you’re sending an e-mail to someone more senior than you, to someone you have not met previously or not already established how you will address them, then deferring to the formal is a safe haven. You won’t go wrong, and the respect you show by addressing the person by title will help you start out on the right foot to build a positive relationship.

What do you do if a person of prominence calls you by your first name and you deem it inappropriate?

Respectfully say something.  If he’s a mentsch, you’ll hopefully not have to say it twice.

The Midrash tells us that we Jews merited leaving Egypt for four reasons.  The first reason stated was because we didn’t change our names.

Let’s return to the old way of calling others by their appropriate names and titles.  Honoring others only reflects well on us, individually and as a people.  It will keep those boundaries in place so, as Tevye the Milkman said, everyone knows who he is and what G-d expects him to do.

As always, daven.

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