May I call you Mister, Mister?

One of the blessings I have been reflecting on this year is the friendship and acquaintance of so many fine Christian young people. Some of them call me Jeff, but most call me Mr. Culbreath. That’s probably a function of their upbringing in traditionalist Catholic families. Indeed, that’s how we raise our own children. With new acquaintances I am still tempted to say “please call me Jeff”, but then I immediately regret putting the young person in such an awkward position against his own natural instincts. Furthermore I regret discouraging what is unmistakably a laudable trend – the growing respect of Christian young people for their elders.

I know well how awkward this can be in social situations. All the old rules have been abandoned or forgotten, and bringing them back wholesale is unworkable today. But the present custom of first-names for everyone, in every direction and circumstance, is also unsustainable, opposing both human nature and Christian common sense. One hardly knows what to say anymore, and pretty much everything is bound to give offense.

What is interesting to me is the fact that those who disdain ordinary salutations of “mister”, “doctor”, “father”, or what have you, for themselves, are most likely to be offended by those who insist on using them for others. For example, I have always preferred to address men as “mister” who are older by ten or more years. I prefer to address other men, who are beyond their teens or early twenties, as “mister” until one or the other of us invites greater familiarity. But I have been chastised on numerous occasions for doing so, often in the following manner: “Mr. Jones is my grandfather. Call me Bill.” Sometimes this comes from men in their fifties!

And then there are those with advanced degrees who absolutely hate to be called “doctor” and will rebuke anyone who tries. I’ve known a few who are fanatical about this. If such people think this is a sign of humility, they are mistaken. It is more likely a sign that they do not regard their own colleagues as worthy of distinction. On the other side, I once worked with a woman who refused to call anyone “doctor” who wasn’t an M.D., telling me that “they’re no better than anyone else”. Egalitarianism as Luciferian pride.

There are many special relationships that resist any universal rules we might suggest. Precedent carries a lot of weight: if I called you Susie when you were 25, I will probably still call you Susie when you are 55, and maybe you will still call me Mr. Culbreath when we’re both ordering the senior specials at Denny’s. The internet also complicates things. Blogging, facebooking, tweeting and whatever else is out there definitely has a leveling influence and almost forces an egalitarian social ethic. If I called you “William” online before I knew you were “Dr. McGrath”, and if much time has passed and our relationship has solidified, changing will be difficult and I can only beg to be “grandfathered in”.

To my young friends: Either way works for me. If you’re more comfortable with Jeff, please go right ahead and I won’t discourage you. It’s not easy to move from present cultural norms to a system that seems kind of unfriendly and distant by contrast. But if I seem to prefer Mr. Culbreath, and I do, it isn’t that I like being reminded that I’m old enough to be your father – far from it! – but that I approve of the instinct to address one’s elders in a respectful way, and I want to make it easier for young people to act on this. Truthfully, it warms my heart.