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.


19 thoughts on “May I call you Mister, Mister?

  1. I am generally quite formal, but standard American English makes it hard sometimes. Here in the South, it is quite common to call someone “Mr.” or “Ms.” and then their first name, as is well known. That is no sign of disresepect at all, and AG grew up doing this with her neighbors. She still remembers the first time she realized she was “old” when little children started calling her “Ms. [insert first name]”. In Spanish, you only address someone as “Sr.” or “Sra.” when you don’t know the person. If you do know that person, it is fairly common to add a “don” or “doña” to their first name, which at the same time demonstrates affection and respect: “Don Jorge”, “Doña Julieta”. Just another deficiency of standard American English (along with the lack of a real second person plural, what’s up with that?)

    AG also hates being called “Dr.”, even though she has a rather useless doctorate in neurobiology from the University of Chicago. Maybe she simply does not like to stand on ceremony, or maybe she is just afraid of being mistaken for a medical doctor. But I don’t have a PH.D., so it is not my place to judge her on that one.


  2. Of course, the other problem is the lack of formal/informal address in English. I knew a man who is a priest now from Marseilles who used to say that you could know a person for twenty years and still address that person in the formal “vous”. “Tu” was actually rarer than you would think. Children in the Spanish-speaking world are always taught to address elders as “Usted”, and it would be extremely out of place to address them otherwise. Even now, I address my grandparents as “usted”, even though I may have not done so as a child, and my mother slips in and out of “usted” even with her own parents. Some parts of the Spanish-speaking world became so formal that they lost the informal tense altogether, like the lower classes in Colombia, who will even address their own parents as “usted”.

    Of course, the opposite is also the case. Particularly in some less cultured sectors, the informal is becoming king now. In Argentina, I once was told, “Gracias a vos”, even though I was a seminarian in full cassock. (The “voseo” is a product of late colonial Spanish when the “tu” form was disposed of altogether and replaced with a “vos”, a modified second person plural, that serves as the informal tense in Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Central America.) In any event, English seems like a rather impoverished language in terms of courtesy compared to the Romance languages.


  3. Great post! I wasn’t raised to use “sir” or “mister,” but in my early 20’s, some friends and I just realized it was the right thing to do, and we were neither particularly religious nor conservative.

    I use “Mr.” and “Miss” along with family names with my college-aged students here in Korea. I find it creates not only a mood of mutual respect, but also a necessary distance.


  4. Mr. Vasques,

    I’ve heard that kids in Colombia even use “Usted” with each other. I’ve also heard that in Cuba, “tu” is used almost universally. In Chile, the lower classes use “vos” while the upper classes use “tu.” In the Argentine, from what I understand, everyone uses “vos.”

    Korean makes even the the Romance languages seem “rather impoverished… in terms of courtesy.” Not only titles and honorifics used, the are morphological changes to verbs, syntactic changes to sentences, and lexical changes to vocabulary. For example, if I wanted to ask whether my wife had eaten, I could simply say, “Bap-eun?” To my mother-in-law, I would say, “Shiksa hasheossseopnika?”

    What’s more, and I confess to not liking this, the honorific forms are used when there is only a difference of one year in age, with the “junior” using formal forms and the “senior” responding with informal ones. The story is still told at the university I teach at of the student who violated the rule ten years ago in the cafeteria.


  5. Good point about don and doña and the lack of a familiar form in most modern English after about the 1600s (but in parts of northern England thou didn’t die out: ‘Tha thinks?’ = ‘Thou thinkest?’ = ‘Think so?’). Russian still has familiar and formal yous (I think all family members use ty with each other) and like ‘don Firstname’ there’s the first name + patronymic for people you know but are junior to (Gorbachev is Mikhail Sergeyevich to many and was Misha to his wife).

    I hear you although my girlfriend’s father, in his late 60s, introduced himself to me as Bob so that’s what I use. I consider that an honour.


  6. I’ve seen both of these effects in a single Facebook thread once, where a sibling of a young friend called me “Zach” and was corrected by her sister “hey, that’s ‘Mr. Frey’ to you!”

    While when I hear “Mr. Frey” I am still, at 42, tempted to look around to see if my father is in the room … I agree with you about this being a generally beneficial trend, and it is also how we are trying to bring up our children.

    And it seems to me that part of being a adult is being willing to endure some of the formalities. If I haven’t earned the right to a little respect at this point, something’s wrong!

    On the other hand — I’ll admit that I’ve let myself become comfortable being on a first-name basis with men who are my elders by 10, 20, or more years. That was somewhat of a conscious decision, again as a reminder to myself that I’ve joined the world of the grownups. At my age, it shouldn’t just be my father who is the “Mr. Frey” in the room.

    Good food for thought, Mr. Culbreath. :)


  7. I love this! As Jeff knows, my husband and I are in our 30’s. We have in our area what we call “the Rosary Group” and we invite the more conservative Catholic families we meet to join if they want to. It’s been wonderful. It has formed community that is lacking in most places. I believe about 60 children will be involved soon, at least when the next couple babies are born. When we were about half this size, our eldest children were getting to be about six years old, and we all decided that we would, as a group, start telling our children to call all of us Mrs and Mr. Once we all decided to do it, we often started calling each other this, also, with a smile. We have some exceptions that pre-date our decision, and our kids often do know the first names of all these people. We are very glad we’ve decided to go this way, but we aren’t absolute about it, either.


  8. How I wish I had taught my children to use Mr. and Mrs. Most of them are still very young, but we live in a small, beach town where everybody knows your name. Sometimes I long for the respect, and even that polite distance, that comes with not becoming too familiar too fast. I find the baby boomers hate the Mr. and Mrs. titles the most, in my experience.

    Anyone out there with an idea for changing our family’s bad habit of first names for everyone? (My oldest child is 12.)


  9. Regarding being called doctor: one professor of mine refused to be addressed as doctor and it was for his own humble disdain of others in the field (Classics) who insisted on being called doctor. The point is, this professor realized that too many in the modern academy think too highly of themselves to deserve the titled of “learned” (which is what doctor means).


  10. My rule of thumb is once you’ve been married to one of my children for a couple of years, I MAY ask you to use my first name, if I like you.


  11. I teach my boys (3 aged 14, 13 and 9) that one needs to show respect to others if they ever desire to be respected themselves. My boys call the parents of their friends “Mr. X” and “Mrs. X” and oddly enough – other parents always complement my wife and I on their behavior! Oh yes, when they only know the first name of an adult they simply add the “Mr.” or “Mrs.” (or Ms.) to it. I didn’t invent that – they just started doing it on their own! Seems to work for everyone and while we strongly encourage them to use the proper address we’ve never handed out any punishment for mistakes – the rewards of doing it seem adequate for them. As our oldest starts high school I’ve noticed that some of his teammates even pick up on the use and copy the style of addressing the parents of their teammates! I guess virtue can be contagious.


  12. “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.”

    Exactly. I still recall to this day, my utter mortification when the mother of a childhood friend told me upon my graduation from high school to call her by her first name. Ahhhhh! No no no.

    I will be visiting her this week and now tha tboth her daughter and I have grown children of our own, I will finally feel qualified to call her by her christian name and not *Mrs. J*. Perhaps I feel I’ve finally earned my stripes to address her as a familiar, if not an equal. :)


  13. I’m in my mid-twenties, and I just started teaching in highschool. The students call me “Mister,” and this is the first time in my life I’ve been addressed that way. I like it very much. It keeps things much more professional and keeps standards high. Also, it thrusts me into the adult role I’ve looked up to my entire life but haven’t felt “in” even after graduating from university.


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