Rudeness Has a First Name

Instant informality actually sabotages true friendship
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This past summer, while staying in a hotel during a business trip, I had occasion to ask the front desk for a 6 A.M. wake-up call. The call came right on time, and its content so startled me that I had no trouble escaping the tug of sleep. "This is your wake-up call, Stephen," said the operator.

Stephen?

Stephen is most certainly my given name, but I grew up in an old-fashioned age, and a more civil one. I was raised with the belief that calling a stranger by his first name is a privilege, not a right, and it is available only if bestowed. Calling people we have just met by their first names is said to be part of the new informality of our day. But it is, I think, actually part of the new incivility, or perhaps what we ought to call the new rudeness.

How deep does this new rudeness run? I have seen it in doctors' offices, where receptionists scarcely out of high school presume to use the first names of patients old enough to be their grandparents, patients they have never met before, people who merit respect simply by virtue of their longevity. A couple of years ago, at the office of a surgeon, I was asked to fill out a form that included as one of the questions what I would prefer to be called. Happy to be asked, I wrote "Mr. Carter." The receptionist read the form and proceeded to call me "Stephen."

Salespeople, of course, are perennial masters of this technique, believing, I think, that if they use our first names, we will feel closer to them. Or maybe a marketing study somewhere has discovered that it is harder for potential customers who are on a first-name basis with the salesperson to say no. The last time I shopped for a new car, I informed the salesman before we began that if he called me by my first name, it would ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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