At Last

I am thrilled that someone finally brought to the national scene the issue of doctors’ addressing patients and nurses by their first names. “Exam-Room Rules: What’s in a Name?” contains much that I agree with – about the disparity between a 25 year old M.D. who is allowed to call an experienced nurse of 50 “Betty” or whatever, but she has to call the greenhorn “doctor.” Worse, I think it is a sign of disrespect  to call the patients by their first names.

This whole issue is likely to fade as the etiquette generation passes into oblivion. I don’t think most of my contemporaries care. And younger folks are happy with “Yo, homey” and “Hey, girlfriend.”

My mother always went ballistic when doctors called her by her first name, especially on first meeting. She always corrected them, usually to the embarrassment of the doctor.

Here’s what I wrote about the issue in At Home Inside:

Mother had a violent objection to anyone’s addressing older people by their first names. When her regular doctor wasn’t available, she saw his partner. Mother found his care adequate, “Other than the fact that he called me ‘Ann.’ It seems to be the usual procedure in doctor’s offices and hospitals to call patients by their first names, though I don’t know why. Mebbe to reduce the patient to a humbler station in life, to suggest childhood, a paternal relationship? Why? Does the doctor expect the patients to call him by his first name? Of course not.” [Journal February 7, 1991]

She especially objected if the person using the first name was much younger. Mother and Aunt Bush went one day to a local bank to have their signatures notarized, and the young loan officer kept calling my aunt “Helen.”

“He kind of nodded at Mrs. B. I said … ‘Who are you talking to? – this is my sister – to you she is Mrs. Bush – and I don’t like that.’ His face turned red and kept getting redder.” He apologized repeatedly, but as they left, Mother said, “ ‘You know the only reason he did that was because we were black – I would find it difficult to believe that if we’d been white – two older white women – he’d have dared call us by our first names.’ ” [Journal June 11, 1978]

At one point Mother tried to analyze her aversion to casual forms of address and discovered an explanation in a novel by one of our favorite mystery writers. “It’s cop psychology to use first names when talking to a suspect. It diminishes them, robs them of dignity, like stripping a man naked before you question him.” [Tony Hillerman, People of Darkness] Mother came to refer to the habit of people in authority using first names as a demeaning “phony kind of intimacy.”

Even people whose position entitled them to call others by their first names came in for criticism. “… and the president calls the reporters by their first names – the reporters submissively call him Mr. President.” [Journal May 14, 1982] This particular episode occurred during the administration of Ronald Reagan for whom Mother reserved some of her nastiest epithets, mostly having to do with his age. Senile was the least pejorative.

My own personal view is  much more relaxed. When people call on the phone and say, “Mrs. Riley?’ I still say, “Larry’s mother isn’t here – oops, that’s me.” Mostly I just hate it when people mispronounce “Petry,” which they do pretty much everywhere except on the bayou. In our family, it’s a long e, not short!


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