Grand Rapids, MI. Strange things happen in the checkout lane. The elderly man at the head of the line was pausing to look at something in his hand. No, not his cell phone. I suspect it was his shopping list. The young man behind him was clearly in a hurry to check out his six-pack and get home to watch Monday Night Football. So, in a semi-polite voice the young guy urged the older fellow on with, “Hey dude.”

I wonder if this old-enough-to-be-his-grandfather gentleman even knew to whom this barely old-enough-to-buy-beer kid was speaking. Has this dignified man in a shirt with a collar and a tweed sport coat ever been called “dude” before? It isn’t likely that he has watched The Big Lebowski, or, if he has, it is even less likely that he was humored by it. “The Dude” who is unemployed and whose life revolves around smoking pot, drinking White Russians, and bowling is pathetic by some people’s standards.

Recently The Wall Street Journal ran an article with the headline “Requiem for a Stately Tradition.” It was not an article about the up-coming royal wedding. It was an announcement that the paper will no longer use Mr. and Ms. in its articles about athletes. The new style sheet for reporting in the sports section of the paper will use a given name and a surname for the first mention of an individual in the article, and after that only the last name will be used. Apparently the editors no longer think stories about jocks require stately reporting. They are duding them down.

In the rest of the Journal writers will still use what they call “honorific courtesy titles.” The column explaining the policy change suggests that titles signal a “baseline of respect.” The decision about who deserves to be spoken of with respect is a matter of which section has the article. Business and international news will still maintain a higher standard regardless of who is mentioned or for what reason. This means that Lindsey Lohan will be called “Ms. Lohan,” Charlie Sheen will still be called “Mr. Sheen,” and Bernard Madoff will still be given an honorific courtesy title because articles about him are not likely to be in the sports section.

Preserving a baseline of respect has an old-fashioned ring to it. I can remember at school being taught science by a veteran who insisted we call him “sir.” If we called him “teacher” he did not respond, and if we did it twice we had to write lines. Once a student tried to launch a protest against writing lines by explaining that it did not offend his dad when he called him “dad.” Our teacher shot the appeal down quickly by explaining that he had called his own father “sir.” We thought it a bit much, but his disclosure did help us understand why he was so rigid. He had never gotten over his father.

I have a friend who told me that she does not know her grandmother’s first name. When she received birthday cards with money inside the card was signed “Gramma” and the check was signed by Mrs. Eugene Field. When my friend wrote a thank you note back she addressed the envelop to Mrs. Eugene Field and on the inside wrote “Dear Gramma.” It does not sound cozy. I would concede that this takes honorifics a step too far.

I never paid much attention to the use of honorific courtesy titles in the newspaper before I read the article in the Journal. It was my habit to read articles for content and ignore the formalities because most major newspapers are well written. Since I read the announcement in The Wall Street Journal I have been paying more attention.

Recently I watched Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The first time I watched it was when it was released in 1974. Jack Nicholson plays J.J. Gittes, a private detective, who is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to find evidence that her husband is having an affair. It is a good plot with many twists to keep the viewer guessing. This time while watching I noticed that Mr. Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray do not shift over to using first names as they become more familiar with each other. Even after spending the night in her bed Mr. Gittes still calls her Mrs. Mulwray in the morning. That casts an interesting light on honorific courtesy titles.

The way we measure courtesy gives hints about how old we are. I admit to feeling uneasy the first time a waiter asked, “What would you guys like to drink?” Most of the guests at the table were women, but it was clear he meant us too because he looked to us first to place our drink orders. I caught this shift in the baseline of respect right as it was happening because I had grown up with the Women’s Liberation Movement.

We stopped calling ourselves girls not because we had reached age eighteen but because we could feel that addressing us this way was sexist. We also objected to the generic term “man” or referring to unnamed individuals as “he.” It was about recognition. About not being made invisible. Now in order to get a drink at a restaurant we let handsome young men call us “guys.” They know better than to call us girls. It is just as insulting to be called “guys” but we let it pass because we don’t want to make a fuss. We have become gentler, and we understand that the young have no memory.

I had a moment of strong identification with the elderly gentleman in the checkout lane. Sometimes I miss the honorifics. Even if someone is trying to sell me something, I don’t mind being called ma’am. I also know better than to expect it. Still I think it is time for me to draw a line. Woe to the waiter who comes to my table and asks, “Hey Dudes, what would you like to drink?”

Mary Vander Goot is a Licensed Psychologist practicing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What began early in her career as research in the history of psychology has morphed into a special interest in the social history of the Boomer generation and their offspring.

 

11 COMMENTS

  1. This discussion reflects on a question we have been asking in our household: How should our children addess adults? When I was young, the default was “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” when referring to the parents of friends. Of late, it seems that most kids–even “good kids” from “good families”–are defaulting to first names. This strikes me as awkward and overly familiar.

    At the same time, I remember the kids whose parents required their kids to use the more traditional “sir.” Those kids seemed weird.

    I don’t want my kids to view everyone in the neighborhood as a drill instructor. But I don’t want them to view adults as pals, either. We have decided to try to hold the line at Mr. and Mrs. with our own kids. The question comes when other kids are addressing us. Do I demand a Mr.? Not answer if they refuse to comply?

  2. This, of course, is a problem endemic to egalitarian societies. As Tocqueville wrote:

    “In democratic countries, manners have ordinarily little grandeur because life there is very petty. They are often vulgar because thought has but few occasions to raise itself above preoccupation with domestic interests. Genuine dignity of manners consists in always showing oneself in one’s place, neither higher nor lower; that is within the reach of the peasant as of the prince. In democracies, all places appear doubtful; hence it happens that manners, which are often haughty, are rarely dignified. In addition, they are neither well regulated nor well informed. Men who live in democracies are too mobile for a certain number of them to succeed in establishing a code of social graces and to be able to keep it in hand so that it is followed. Each therefore acts nearly as he pleases, and a certain incoherence in manners always reigns because they conform to the sentiments and individuals ideas of each rather than to an ideal model given in advance for imitation by all.”

    My father, who is not given to pique, will bristle any time he is out to eat with my mother and the waiter refers to them as “guys.” My father will brusquely point out that his wife is not a guy.

  3. I’m 65. I could be described, should you see me at a check-out counter, as elderly. I’m old enough to be any number of whipper-snappers’ grandfather. Which means there’s no way I could have seen The Big Lebowski? And couldn’t possibly know who the Dude is? Why is that? Not an auspicious start to an article on courtesy.

  4. There’s a world of difference between “not likely” and “no way” – no?

    I’m frequently amazed at how students in class take personal offense at the use of statistics, not seeming to understand how aggregation occurs. As Beckwith notes in his linked article, it’s understanding the difference comprehension and extension.

  5. I used to think that referring to girls as guys was an localist (though not admirable) southern California tradition. I distinctly remember at my university undergraduate orientation the women present being informed that this was the custom here and that they should pause before taking offense. Much has changed in the rest of the country in 20 years as it appears to have been appropriated by the larger anti-culture.

    I am referred to most often by my son’s playmates as “Elijah’s Dad”. I have corrected them a number of times, but our last name simply doesn’t stick in their sugar-embalmed cerebral cortex. One young boy a few years ago was not even fully certain of the proper pronunciation of his own name and was unsure of his own birthday date. In light of this, the loss of manners seems such a trifling.

  6. @Sam

    Ours kids (the ones talking are 3 and 2) call their superiors Mr., Mrs., Dr., Miss, Pastor, etc. Most of the circles we’re in practice this.

    The age grade becomes complicated. When I was in high school, one family I babysat had their kids call me Miss [Maiden Name]. I have my children call the 12ish-18ish group Miss/Mr. [First Name], especially if they are in authority over my kids in my absence (so nursery workers, babysitters…). But when will Miss [First Name] become Miss [Last Name]? It’d be easy if everyone got married in their early twenties, but that doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t figured this out, yet. One lady at church is called both Miss Val and Mrs. Jones.

    I grew up calling my superiors Mr. and Mrs, as did my husband. Now, living in the same town where we grew up, all our parents’ peers get uncomfortable when we call them Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so. But it’s very hard to break the habit. And it also complicates things when our peers stay in town, too, and our kids know 3-4 Mr. “Smiths” (we’re dealing with large families, here).

    Our neighbors’ kids call me and my husband by our first names. I don’t correct them–that’s how their parents refer to us. But our adult neighbors are fine with our kids calling them Mr. and Mrs. I would only step in if they insisted to our children they must be Samantha and Steve. What they teach their kids is their business.

  7. In referring to others, I propose we revive “fellow,” as in “This fellow here,” or for a waiter, “What would you fellows like?” It is cordial without being overly familiar and applies equally to men and women. It reflects a baseline sense of common humanity. “Dude” is never respectful, somehow (although among friends, I can’t get too upset about it). “The cable guy” or even worse, “the cable dude” hardly reflects or inspires the ordinary respect due our fellows, no matter what their role in the community or relationship to us. It is one syllable longer, but ordinary respect seems to me worth the work!

  8. There’s a nice custom in the south that balances ease with courtesy when children address adults: a woman is not addressed by her first name, Mary, but is addressed as “Miss Mary”, the Miss having nothing to do with marital status. I have found that it’s now it’s mostly Blacks who continue this custom, which is too bad.

    On an autobiographical note, my siblings and I were raised to call our mother and father “ma’am” and “sir”. It used to embarrass me no end in high school when I had to talk with my parents in front of friends, and I would slur my words as much as possible to disguise them so that my “Yes, ma’am” came out approximately “‘sam”. I didn’t grow up in the south, but I realize now that this must have come from my father, who was a southerner.

  9. Ma’am and Sir weren’t used in my childhood to my own parents, and I don’t think any of my friends addressed their parents that way. My parents were “Mom” and “Dad” (and later my step-mother became “Ma”, which is what her own children called her).

    Ma’am and Sir were reserved for adults whom we didn’t know well enough to have even last name familiarity. But more normally adults were always “Mr” and “Mrs”. (“Miss” rarely, as apart from student teachers at school, unmarried but wholly adult women were rare in my childhood experience)

    One awkwardness I recall growing up was due to the fact that I am very much out of sync with my generation of cousins– they are all much older than me. It was all well and fine to refer to my parents’ siblings an their spouses as “Aunt So-and-so” and Uncle “So-and-so”), but it was weird calling decidedly adult, sometimes even married, cousins by their first names.

  10. Alright, this article is interesting but in my opinion a little nitpicky. I know most of you will disagree with me but I don’t care what I am called: “Sir”, “Dude” etc. just as long as it is respectful. Its not the word it is the intent behind the word. However, I call all of whom I come in contact with that I don’t know, Sir or M’am. Then again some men get angry at me for calling them sir, they correct me and say “Kid my name isn’t sir its…” or women will look at me in disgust and say “What you think I am THAT old?!” Its happened alot but I personally think it is respectful to address somebody as such.

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