I once had a doctor, my junior by 10 or 15 years, who always addressed me as “young lady.” He probably thought he was being charming. I thought he was being condescending and irritating as hell.
Yet I never asked him to stop. There’s something about the doctor-patient relationship that makes many people afraid to offend anyone wearing a white coat, even when the doctors themselves are relentlessly offensive.
But that was then. I probably wouldn’t put up the “young lady” stuff now. In recent years I’ve had enough bad experiences with doctors to cure my reticence and deference.
I started thinking about all this last week after reading a New York Times essay by a woman doctor who has noticed an increase in “chummy” behavior from patients. More and more patients, she says, are calling doctors by their first names. At first she thought it was happening only to female physicians, and in her own case the overly friendly patients are mostly older men. But she’s heard from male doctors who also say that some patients, men and women alike, address them by their first names without being invited to do so. She wonders if it makes the patients feel less vulnerable if they can dispense with the doctor’s title.
Personally, I would never address a doctor by his or her first name. I don’t want doctors calling me Sandra either, but I’ve known some who did. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed that a majority of patients surveyed, particularly older patients, want their doctors to address them by their first names. But this older patient does not. I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way, though. Maybe I simply feel safer when the relationship is professional and dignified in every sense. A 35-year-old doctor addressing me by my first name, while expecting me to call him Doctor, is just as demeaning as being called “young lady.”
The doctor’s Times essay pointed out that nurses – the people who really hold our lives in their hands when we’re hospitalized – are routinely addressed by their first names, not just by doctors but by patients. Every nurse I’ve encountered in recent years has introduced herself only by her first name but has usually addressed me as Mrs. Parshall. That’s just the way things are in the medical profession, I guess, and it seems to be accepted by everyone involved. I find it jarring, though, when a nurse calls me by my first name the minute she meets me. I can’t very well object, though, can I? After all, I’m calling her by her first name.
When I thought about it, I realized that every encounter has its own etiquette rules regarding names. At the grocery store, where I see the same clerks every week but never get to know them, I am on a first-name basis with them but they always call me Mrs. Parshall. At the salon where I have my hair cut, everybody calls me Sandra. Department store clerks are trained to thank customers by name, but I would be shocked if a store employee ever said, “Thanks, Sandra.” I don’t know how to address department store clerks, so I never use their names at all.
Waiters and waitresses? Plumbers? Yard workers? Most of the time I never learn their last names, and they always call me Mrs. Parshall. What we call each other is a sure sign of our relative status. Anybody who thinks America is a classless society should pay attention to how people address one another.
All of us in the book world, I’m happy to say, are on a first-name basis. A writer may start a query letter to an agent with “Dear Ms. Jones” but once the representation contract is signed Ms. Jones promptly becomes Jane. Writers call their editors – and people higher up in the publishing chain – by their first names. It’s all very friendly. True, that agent or editor or publisher may control the writer’s work and dreams and destiny, but they don’t demand formality while they go about it.
What do you prefer to be called? Would you ever call your doctor by his or her first name? Do you want a doctor to address you by your given name? Have you ever been offended when someone you’d just met used your first name?
Whatever you call yourself or wish others to call you, I hope you have a lovely holiday season!