By Any Other Name

Back in the year 2000, Preston King returned to the United States. Sorry, that’s Mr. Preston King. Actually, it’s certainly Professor King, who is head of the Political Science Department of Lancaster University in England. It’s probably Doctor King, which is usually how a person gets to be “professor.” And how he got to be Professor King of Lancaster University in England (rather than Professor King of some other university in his native land, the United States) was by insisting on being called “Mr.” by his draft board in Albany, Georgia, in the late 1950s. The draft board felt that “Preston” would do just fine, thank you, for a draft registrant of the “Negro” persuasion (they had called him “Mr. King” for a while under the mistaken impression that he was white.). King was unwilling to comply with any orders issued by an administrative agency which could not be bothered to address him as it would address a white registrant in the same situation. So he refused to comply with his induction order, and was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Instead, he headed for England, and established his career, his life, and his family there (where his daughter is now a Member of Parliament.)

King came back because President Clinton pardoned him in time for him to be able to attend the funeral of his brother. His family simultaneously mourned his brother and rejoiced over his pardon. Even the judge who originally sentenced him supported the pardon.

Many people under 45 may be just barely aware that there was ever a draft, or that people ever refused to comply with it. Some really erudite types may know that people resisted the draft during the Vietnam War. But Preston King’s act of resistance happened before Vietnam was a twinkle in Robert McNamara’s eye, and it was resistance, not to war, but to a particular form of racist rudeness. Some years later, another African-American, a woman from Alabama named Mary Hamilton, was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to jail for refusing to give testimony in a criminal proceeding unless the prosecutor addressed her as “Miss Hamilton.” The Supreme Court reversed her conviction within a couple of years*–a lot faster than Preston King got his pardon.

Both these stories may seem downright quaint to younger people today, even young African-Americans. So far as I can tell, nobody under 45, regardless of race or national origin, is willing, under ordinary circumstances, to admit to having a last name, much less insist on being called by it. I had occasion, some months ago, to deal with the corporate bureaucracy of some company who had warrantied a consumer gadget that was giving me trouble. I dealt most of the time with a young woman who gave her name as “Sue.” I made the mistake of calling outside the outfit’s business hours once, and got a voice mail that offered to connect me to the directory. The directory began by telling me, “If you know your party’s last name….” and I realized that “Sue” had never entrusted me with that information. Then I realized that, probably, the only people who did know her last name were her fellow workers, her personal friends, and her family. That was a shocking revelation, for one raised on Emily Post–the last name has now replaced the first name as the index of intimacy. I fleetingly entertained the fantasy of the lovestruck swain going down on his knees and telling his inamorata, “Mary, I love you. May I call you Miss Jones?”

Since that incident, I have made a practice of asking for last names when dealing with telephone voices and live functionaries. Most of them reply that their employer has a policy forbidding them to give their last names to customers. Which makes sense, sort of, because it is obviously against their religion to use the customer’s last name more than is absolutely necessary (i.e., the first time they call, to make sure they don’t have a wrong number.) The only way to tell the difference between legitimate callers and telemarketers is that the latter not only call you by your first name, they use it as often as can be grammatically justified, as a way to forge fake intimacy with a possible customer.

A closely related counter-phenomenon has turned up in the law governing the enforcement of child support laws. A woman claiming government assistance either in collecting child support from the father of her child or in getting any of the mingier substitutes for what was formerly known as “welfare” in the absence of such support, is expected to supply the appropriate government agency with not only the first and last name of the alleged father, but his Social Security number and date of birth. It is hard to imagine any of that information being part of the sweet nothings people whisper in each other’s ears in intimate moments. But apparently we expect the ardent male to provide it to the object of his momentary passion, even when we no longer believe he has any obligation to give his last name to the person to whom he is trying to sell aluminum siding. Last names are intimate. Social Security numbers and dates of birth are even more intimate. First names are for strangers.

Apparently this indiscriminate use of first names is viewed, by those who indulge in it, as “friendly.” Fine. I like my friends to call me by my first name. But strangers are not my friends. Not yet, anyway. By definition. The way a stranger stops being a stranger (without necessarily becoming a friend yet, as opposed to an acquaintance) is by introducing himself or herself to me, by both names. Depending on the situation, this may be the time to say, “But you can call me First-name, if you like.” Or I may introduce myself first, by both names, and possibly invite first-naming.

Most of the telephone voices and live functionaries I deal with either don’t introduce themselves at all, or introduce themselves only by first name. Either way they still insist on first-naming me repeatedly without ever being invited to do so. Even my bank’s ATMs call me by my first name. This behavior does not impress me as friendly. It impresses me as rude and presumptuous, and gives me great fellow-feeling for Mr. Preston King and Miss Mary Hamilton. Would I be willing, like them, to give up my native land or my freedom rather than suffer rudeness gladly? So far, I have not even been offered the choice.

So here’s a revolutionary suggestion to those whose business brings them into regular contact with the public, especially that part of the public whose members are over 50 or were reared in some other culture: don’t call people by their first names unless you are invited to do so. When making contact, introduce yourself by first and last names, and wait to be told how the other person wishes to be addressed. Dealing with the public is difficult enough without raising unnecessary hostilities at the outset. Remember that some of the people you deal with may still be willing to suffer exile or jail rather than put up with rudeness.

* 376 U.S. 650 (1964)

Jane Grey(that’s Ms. Grey to you)

One Response to “By Any Other Name”

  1. Why liberals curse corporate insurance,but do not mind eating in McDonalds or shipping FedEx or driving Fords? | Commercial Insurance Says:

    […] By Any Other Name « Wiredsisters’ Weblog […]

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