It’s all in a name or is it the title that matters most

Reactiv Group call centre, Lowfields Business Park, Elland.
Reactiv Group call centre, Lowfields Business Park, Elland.

Some time ago, there was an item in the Yorkshire Post about the use of first or Christian names.

The columnist was complaining about unsolicited phone calls where the caller (who had no idea who he was) used his first name when trying to sell him something.

It struck a chord with me because it’s something that frequently annoys me too.

You may remember that, a few months ago, I wrote about the reminiscences of Mr Robert Hall, a life-long Wetherby resident who now lives in Wetherby Manor.

During our chat, one of the staff came in to bring his afternoon tea and I commented on the fact that she addressed him as Bob.

He said that when he first arrived, he was asked how he wanted to be addressed and he decided that Bob was fine. How nice that he was given the choice.

We then chatted for some time about how things have changed.

When I first met him in the early 1970’s, I would no sooner have dreamt of calling him by his first name than fly!

When I was young, adults were always Mr or Mrs – or friends of my parents were often Auntie or Uncle (which, I must admit, was sometimes rather confusing).

Nowadays it is the complete opposite and even small children address adults by their first name, not to mention anonymous callers on the telephone.

So, what is it exactly that annoys people?

One reason often put forward is that it shows a lack of respect – but does it always?

When I started as a lecturer in a Leeds College of Further Education, I was a bit surprised to discover that the students used first names when talking to their tutors.

In actual fact, it didn’t make a great deal of difference to their attitude to us.

Some tutors were most definitely treated with respect – and others weren’t.

I don’t think it had anything to do with the use of first names, but was more about individual tutors and the way they behaved and were perceived by the students.

It is a different situation in schools where the norm these days seems to be Sir and Miss - but I’m sure that it still has no bearing on which teachers are treated with respect and which aren’t.

I remember a situation when my mother was in hospital and was addressed by her first name, even by the very young members of staff – she was in her eighties and she really didn’t like it.

I don’t think for one minute that the staff intended any disrespect. It was the culture of the time and the establishment.

Unlike the situation at Wetherby Manor, she wasn’t given a choice.

So is it just an age thing? Not necessarily.

When someone I don’t know from Adam rings me up and uses my first name, my hackles instantly rise because I would like to decide who uses my first name and who doesn’t – and call centre staff definitely fall into the second category.

In the same way, I don’t like being on first name terms with someone who is doing a job for me – if things go wrong, it is so much more difficult to deal with.

One of the biggest problems language students experience is with the word ‘you’ because English is one of the few languages which only has one word for it.

The French have two – ‘tu’ which is the familiar form, and ‘vous’ which is the formal one.

Foreigners agonise endlessly over which one to use because they don’t want to appear over-familiar or unnecessarily formal.

In fact, the rules have become more relaxed in recent years and the use of first names and ‘tu’ is much more widespread than in the past.

Our French neighbours though still use ‘vous’ and call me ‘Madame’, even after 25 years!

A couple of years ago, I had the honour of presenting awards to our local Air Cadets.

When I arrived, I was greeted by a very smartly turned out young man at the Town Hall door with a salute and ‘Good evening, Ma’am’. It made my day!

So is it more about what is appropriate and inappropriate?

Had the Air Cadet greeted me with ‘Hi, Cindy’ – I would not have been very impressed because the occasion was a formal one.

As it was, he got it absolutely right (not to mention making my day!).

I suppose it is why books are written on etiquette and how to address Bishops, Prime Ministers and other VIPs.

There are times when informality and first names are appropriate and times when they are very definitely inappropriate – ringing me at 9pm about some spurious PPI claim and calling me Cindy, for example – or am I just being Victoria Meldrew again?