When I was a kid, I never would’ve dreamed of calling my parents’ friends by their first names. Everyone who looked older than a high school senior was “Mr.” this or “Miss” that. First names were only used when accompanied by an honorific like “Uncle” or “Nanny.” (You’ve never heard someone call his grandmother something like “Nanny June” or “Nanny Dee”? Well, welcome to the South.) And of course my pastor was “Brother Bob.”
I always assumed I would be on the other side of that equation as an adult. You grow up, you get a checkbook, you start taking an interest in things like yard work and Ken Burns documentaries, and people start calling you “Mr.”
Now I find myself as a middle-aged guy, and I am still really uncomfortable calling my dad’s friends by their first names. But I have absolutely no desire for anybody to call me “Mr. Anderson.”
And it’s not just me. I don’t have any peers who expect to be called Mr. or Mrs., or who expect their kids to use those titles when talking to other adults. Sometimes, I’ll see a parent coaching a very young child to use a title with an adult’s first name (“Mr. Robert”; “Miss Carol”). But by the time a child is around late elementary school age, I expect to be introduced to him as just “Jason.” This bothers me not one bit.
What happened? I’m asking not because I want to reverse this trend, but because this seems like a pretty major change to the culture, and we’ve never had any kind of discussion about what it gains us, and what it loses.
Not being allowed to use first names created a respectful distance between kids and adults. There was an adult world that was separate from kid world, and kids looked upon it with a sense of awe and mystery. Grown-ups were imbued with cosmic wisdom that we kids could never understand. They knew how to read all those little numbers in the business section of the newspaper! They knew where to go to buy things like carpet or propane! They knew how to tie ties, because apparently that’s an important thing!
The value of that bright dividing line between kids and adults is that it gave kids a goal of maturity to aspire to, and it gave adults a minimum standard for grown-up behavior. Act like someone who deserves to be called “sir” or “ma’am.”
Now that respectful distance is gone. And so kids are more like adults, and adults are more like kids. And not necessarily in good ways.
At the same time, though, that respectful distance held a coldness that kept the generations from better relating to each other. Breaking down that barrier makes each side seem more like people to the other, rather than incomprehensible alien invaders. It’s easier to build relationships when you can call each other by name. I remember as a kid that it was always cool when an adult let you call him by his first name; it made you feel like you’d taken a step toward that mysterious land of grown-upness. And then you went home and read the business section of the paper like you knew what it meant.
Even if it would be better for the culture, I don’t know where to go to find the desire to be called Mr. Anderson. It’s not in me. Though maybe it should be. I hope to be the kind of grown-up that deserves respect, but for good or ill, the last Mr. Anderson in my family is my dad.