Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's In A Name

It started when a 30-something Sunday School teacher came into the kitchen where the regular group of us were having a conversation, and asked me to come down to her class.
“Mr Gatling, could we borrow you for part of our video project?”

I didn’t think about it at the moment, but I did when I returned to the kitchen, and made a mental note to do something about it. When Sunday School was over, and she came to the kitchen to join us, I said to her, “Erin, what’s my name?”

“Mr Gatling,” she replied.

“No, let’s try this again. What’s my name?”

“Ohhhh. Keith,” she said.

The rest of the kitchen crowd laughed, and someone said, “Yeah, Mr Gatling is his father.”

Well, that wasn’t quite it. It was the fact that I work with people her age and younger, to whom I’m Keith, and there are other people her age at church to whom I’m Keith. As a teacher, she probably works with people my age that she’s on a first name basis with. So why was I Mr Gatling to her?

Because she grew up in this church, and probably remembers me from when she was a teenager, and then I was definitely Mr Gatling to her. Now that she was a grownup too, it was time to change that.

As we got to talking about this, one of the women in the kitchen said how much she hated it when adults introduced themselves to her kids by their first name. She said, “My kids have to call you Mr or Mrs Gatling, or if you don’t like that, I’ll settle for Mr Keith or Miss Cheryl. It’s a matter of respect.”

I bit my tongue.

You see, to me respect isn’t necessarily about the forms we use, but about respecting what the other person wants. And if I want to be called Keith, isn’t it being more respectful to go with what I want than what you want? Besides, I can call you Your Royal Highness, and think you’re a horse’s ass. Similarly, I can call you Chuckie, and be willing to follow you into Hell. But I chose not to fight that battle then.

Sometimes it’s about culture. If I’m from a culture that insists that you address me one way, but you’re from a culture that insists that you address me another one, who wins? Who’s right?

And sometimes the culture doesn’t have to be one of region or nationality, but could be one of where you worked. I worked at McDonald’s in high school, and the corporate culture there said that everyone was on a team together, and that meant that everyone was on a first name basis, no matter how old you were. When my mother came to work at McDonald’s with me and my sister for a few weeks while Western Electric was on strike, she immediately became Elsie, and once that genie was out of the bottle, it never went back in.

There is so much more to this, but I don’t have the time right now to talk about the question of how old you were when you first met someone, and how the same age difference can mean different things when you’re 3 and 17 than when you’re 13 and 27.

So…am I Keith, Mr Gatling, Mr G, or even just G? It all depends on who you are and when I met you.

And if you respect me, you’ll address me the way that I’d prefer to be addressed.

Although, if it really makes you feel more comfortable, I’ll let you call me something more formal than I might be happy with.

Oh Great Exalted One would be nice.


  1. It's definitely something that is hard to change your brain-mouth connection on. When I was substitute teaching, I dreaded subbing at the elementary school I grew up at. While I loved that school, there were still too many teachers working there that were there when I was attending there as a student. I had the HARDEST time calling these teachers that I called Mr. or Mrs. XXXXX by their first names. Thankfully I only subbed there a couple times. It just felt strange to me to go from the role of student to the role of peer in such a place. I think that's why we've enjoyed the move out here. We've gotten involved in a church where we can be on a first name basis with other adults.

    I'm with you on the more formal titles, though. Our friends insist that we're Mr. Howie and Mrs. Teresa to their kids, but I couldn't really care less whether they include Mr. or Mrs. in front of our first names. They certainly don't need to use our last name after Mr. or Mrs. though (although some of Becca's friends DO call me Mrs. M because I volunteered in their school quite often last year). My child calls teachers Mrs/Miss/Mr and then either first or last name, but some of our friends, I try to get her to use a little more formal names, since all our friends try to get their kids to use more formal "address" but it just never has worked in that way because we've always addressed our friends by first name, so my child has done so as well, just following suit. :) And I don't really care if my friends' kids do the same for me.

  2. In my building there are several teachers who were my students. Some call me by my first name, and some call me Mr. Nichols. I kinda get a kick out of it. Like you, I encourage them to call me John, but I don't let it bother me if they don't.