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.