Opinionista Khadija Patel 27 February 2012

How did we get to a first name basis anyway?

I thought I was being polite by sending a text message to a political analyst asking for permission to call him later that evening. It was a Sunday after all – much of the civilised world would not countenance the unwarranted aggravation to their afternoon nap for the questions of a pesky journalist. I thought I had acted with due deference to his superior rank and station. He thought otherwise.

“Do you always call people who you have never met by their first name?” he asked. I recoiled in shame and apologised immediately. I had certainly not meant any disrespect but addressing him by his first name – and using the incorrect variation of the spelling of that first name – earned me a terse lecture in the dire lack of decorum in journalists like myself. “Well I never call anyone by their first name unless they invite me to. And if I do use their first name, I make sure to spell it correctly. Why do journalists believe that the basic rules of politeness do not apply to commentators?” he asked.

Slinking ever further into shame, I apologised again.

Much like many Afrikaans speaking children are brought up to address adults as “oom” or “tannie” despite the lack of a familial bond, as a child I was taught to address anybody older than me as “uncle” or “aunty”. We’d like to think of it as a covert strategy among the brown skinned to lull the general population into a sense of jovial familiarity before we launch our plan to take over the world, but there is also a more noble function to this linguistic strategy. Addressing strangers as “uncle” or “aunty”, drawing out the middle syllable in each to enunciate a particular Johannesburg Indian accent, is a way for children and adolescents to express politeness and respect for their elders. It’s like the ‘venerable’ fake Malema said, “If you are young, you must always respect elders, even if you enter politics, that doesn’t stop, you can argue, but don’t shout.”

Much as we are reluctant to turn out like Julius, we can’t really carry on addressing every stranger older than us as “uncle” or “aunty”. At least I could not. My very first foray out of high school disarmed me of my last defence against the impending doom of adulthood. I was asked to address people far older than me by their first name. There is an untold horror in that evolution of “uncles” to colleagues, lecturers and indeed, bosses. The awkwardness does eventually give way to the easy familiarity of addressing strangers, no matter their princely rank, by their first names. 

Still, social survival is pinned on a need to accord some measure of respect to strangers but with the norm increasingly accelerating towards a first name basis on a first meeting, the range of linguistic devices in the English language to actually articulate this politeness is limited. English is limited in the range of possible forms of politeness it offers. French, for example, has a built-in “honorific” system in which a measure of politeness and respect is encoded within the language itself. English conversely, relegated “Thou” and “ye” to linguistic oblivion in the 17th century. Everyone has been “you” since.

And over the past 30 years, the narrow options in English have further contracted. First names have become the standard form of address between English-speaking adults. Yes, it may have started off as an American phenomenon but even the stodgiest of Brits resort to a first name basis to ensure a veneer of equality among interlocutors.

This first-time encounter is however a delicate interactional moment. My encounter with the analyst proved that these encounters are particularly fraught when the conversational common sense is not equally common. If conflicting conversational standards and assumptions are at work, we tend to take for granted the little details like the appropriate form of address until a misunderstanding occurs.

As I stewed over my bungled encounter with the analyst, I realised the folly of my own approach. I happily assumed my way is everybody else’s way too. It was far easier, far more natural, to address analyst as if he belonged to my own subset of human species. It was a text message after all, the domicile of my generation.

The technology however was irrelevant. The greatest import of the misunderstanding lies in the use of language in the interaction. Beneath any interaction between people, even the driest conversation about the weather, relationships are defined and negotiated. When we speak, write or, indeed, text we consciously or unconsciously show off our identities, our belonging to a specific culture or social group. We reaffirm a desire to come close or distance ourselves from others. The choice then of how to address a stranger for the first time is particularly significant. Choosing to address the analyst by his first name was ultimately the expression of a set of feelings and attitudes. It certainly was not consciously done but it was the result of an evaluation of the analyst, someone who I had long admired and perhaps sought to be friendly towards.

I overlooked, however, the fact that he is one among the few thousand people who own a title beyond the blandness of a mere “Mr”. He was after all a “Professor”, beside whom I faded into bleary insignificance. The way we address each other in social settings is a gauge to understanding the underlying social structure and the values that determine them. I was persuaded to move as quickly as possible to a friendly footing but instead I was perceived to have acted with insufficient deference. He remains forever, “Professor”. DM

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