Call me by my name.

“Call me either one. I don’t care.”

It always surprises me when a student gives that sort of reply in response to my asking “Do you want to be called Liz or Elizabeth?” (or the equivalent, of course, depending on their name).

Three thoughts on the matter of what to call someone who is neither a friend nor a relative:

  • The first thought, of course, is simply to call them what they want to be called. That’s not always so easy, as my opening quote suggests. And there might be reasons to reject their request anyway, as happened with one of my colleagues when a student of his asked to be called by (what he considered to be) a stereotypical ethnic slur.
  • The second thought is to be sure to try to pronounce their name correctly. That too may not be easy, but try. You can read an interesting essay on this issue in a recent post by math teacher Fawn Nguyen, best known for her blog Finding Ways to Nguyen Students Over (get it?). Fawn’s birth name was Phượng (‘Phoenix’), often confused with Phương (a boy’s name) but those of us who don’t read Vietnamese will be stumped by both spellings and will not know how to pronounce either. (Americans don’t even know how to pronounce pho, after all.) If you manage to pronounce Phượng correctly, you will see where the Americanized Fawn came from when she became a U.S. citizen. Anyway, do read that entire post, which is well worth it, and then check out the aforementioned blog after reading some interesting commentary about it.
  • And then there’s the question of choosing between first name and title-plus-last-name (or various variations). You have probably had the experience of seeing a doctor or dentist who insists on first-naming you even though you’re supposed to call him or her by title plus last name. This obvious social inequality is entirely intentional, of course. Around 1959 (when I was 12 years old and had become aware of these issues), my dad wrote an essay on this topic for his regular column in Mental Hospitals magazine, reprinted first in his 1961 book, The World of Doctor Whatsisname, and then in slightly different form in 1971 in the Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey, of which he was the editor in chief. The essay was titled “Call Me Mister,” a subtle reference to the 1951 film of that name, which was a remake of a 1946 Broadway musical about returning home from the Army — my dad loved musicals and had returned that year from his service in Australia and New Guinea, so it would have especially resonated with him. But I digress. You can get some of the flavor of this essay from the first, second, and last paragraphs, which I quote in part:

Out of warmth and affection a physician — or other staff member — might call a patient by his first name. “How are you today, Molly?” seems so much pleasanter than the more formal “How are you today, Mrs. Auchinschloss?”…

But is it? Aside from the family-and-friends circle, first names are associated, in our culture, with patronage and inferiority, unless the first names are used reciprocally. To call the bootblack “Joe” and the elevator attendant “Mike” is to patronize them….

…To address Eugene Morgan as “Gene” is patronizing. To call him “Morgan” is insulting. To call him “Mr. Morgan” — no matter how deteriorated or confused he may be — is to enhance his dignity and salute his individuality. Why should we do less?

You can tell that this way written sixty years ago by the references to long-gone occupations, bootblack and elevator attendant!

Interestingly, my principal health care provider reverses the traditional pattern: she asks me (and all her patients) to call her by her first name, while she addresses me (and presumably all her patients, at least those who are older than she is) by title and last name. Personally I rather like mutual first names — as with my interactions with my dentist — or else mutual title and last name, but the unexpected reversal of the social norm here has its own charm too. Incidentally, everyone on my entire health care team (which has more than a dozen people in it, since I go to a large HMO) calls me “Mr. Davidson.” Now I just have to work on getting my former students, now adults, to be willing to call me “Larry.”


Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning