Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What did you just call me?

Sandra Parshall

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 t
he “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 most
ly 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 re
lationship 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 f
irst 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 cal
l you, I hope you have a lovely holiday season!


Joyce said...

I'm with you. One of my pet peeves is when children (unless they're related to me) call me by my first name. I was always taught to address adults by Mr. or Mrs., and I taught my kids the same thing. I cringe every time the next-door-neighbor kid calls me Joyce instead of Mrs. Tremel. Children are rarely taught courtesy any more.

I took taekwondo for ten years and students are taught to always refer to higher ranked students and the instructors as Mr. or Mrs. If I saw my instructor (who is about 15 years my junior) even now, I'd call him Mr. Kaminski. And I'd probably bow, too.

Anonymous said...

The reason we introduce ourselves to patients—in my case clients—by our first names is security.We don't want people to be able to track us to where we live. I'm doubly at risk because I have an usual last name.

I went to nursing school on the cusp of big changes in doctor-nurse relationships. When I entered nursing school there were doctors who expected us to stop what we were going and stand when they entered the nurses' station. By the time I graduated, they might still have been expecting it, but we didn't do it any more.

I do call the 3 doctors I work with on a regular basis by their first names, but I can't bring myself to use anything but Doctor with most of the locums that I work with only occasionally.

Terry Odell said...

Interesting post.

As a former schoolteacher, I 'expected' to be called by Mrs. (Ms hadn't been invented, but I accepted it willingly when it began to be used more often).

My doctor calls me by my first name, but I still call him Dr. We're the same age, and even when discussing our kids or when I'd see him working out at the Y, he was always Dr.

When I was in the hospital, I was Mrs. to the staff.

My bank tellers have obviously been told to use the customers' names. Some use my first, some Mrs. Same with grocery store clerks. I thought I was being stuck up when it bugged me that they'd use my first name.

I am usually taken aback when little kids call me by my first name, but that seems to be the norm.

One of my kids' high school teachers retired and we ended up working the same convention registration temp jobs from time to time. It took me 2 years to be able to call him by his first name. He was a teacher. Teachers are Mr., Ms. or Mrs. Likewise, when I was dealing with all those convention-goers, I always used Mr. or Ms. Or "Sir" or "Ma'am". Yet colleagues on my side of the counter often used first names.

A lot, I think has to do with the fact that we're here in Disney territory and everything there is on a first name basis.

Lonnie Cruse said...

What no one has mentioned yet and really drives me nuts is being called "Honey" by people I don't know. Store clerks, waitress/waiter, whatever, and it happens a lot in our area. My best friends says it doesn't bother her but since I don't know these people, I feel it's too familiar. Sigh. I'm old and cranky but not THAT old and cranky.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think with doctors and other authority figures there should be some parity--if they call you by your first name, you should reciprocate. There should be an element of respect on both sides, and I find addressing my doctor with a title while she calls me by my first name demeaning.

It was a shock when my daughter's grade-school pals used to call me by my first name, but that was the local convention.

And my local liquor store clerk calls me "young lady" all the time--I know he's younger than I am!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It's all about power and dominance, and I know it's been studied--at least by feminist sociologists. Years ago an American woman living in France summed it up for me when she said, "If you call someone Mademoiselle, she'll call you Madame (far more respectful). If you call her Madame, she'll call you Mademoiselle." The subtext seems to be "Who's the alpha here?". That said, we always called our parents' friends by their first names. Staying with a friend in the South recently, I was horrified when she tried to make her 8 and 10 year old kids call me "Miss Liz". In my experience, children appreciate it as being taken seriously when you establish a quasi-peer relationship (within limits).

Sandra Parshall said...

Calling adults by their first names is one of the worst habits kids have been allowed to develop. I consider it part of a general lack of respect for adults -- and for authority. In the interest of a more civil society, I'm in favor of keeping certain "walls" in place between children and adults and between adults who are strangers to one another or know each other only in a professional setting (such as a doctor's office).

However, anyone who has read my books and likes them should feel free to call me Sandy!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I have a pal who's a PhD. When medical doctors call him "Rob" and expect him to call them Dr. Schmo, Rob always asks them to call him Dr. Firmin. This makes sense.

I call my Doctor "Doctor Treadway" and she calls me Hank. I think about it every time. But it would be hard for me to call her Kate. Why is that? Sheila, am I--un-self-actualized?

My producer (age 35) calls her mother "Judy." I think that's so odd--it makes me cringe every time.

And I remember, with great clarity, when I evolved from Senorita to Senora in Mexico. Sigh.

Sandy, I'm with you. (As always..) Buy my book, call me anything (nice) you want.

Mari said...

I work in retail and I call customers Mr. or Mrs. or Ms., even when they are much younger than me. Since I don't do the sales and as the AdMin. I handle their money , sometimes I need that little bit of distance to relay bad news.

It works well for me.

Marilynne said...

It's mostly salesmen who call me Mrs. Smith. It takes me a moment to realize they're talking to me.

As each of my nieces and nephews, has grown up, I've given them permission to call me by my first name, but most of them can't change a long habit. I'm still Auntie to them.

Eddie said...

I recall my grandparents referring to each other as Mr. or Mrs. I prefer to be called by my first name by people I've been introduced to, including children, but I'll admit to being slightly perplexed as to what to call my doctor when speaking to her. I'll call her Dr. when addressing her employees.

I have to agree with Liz that I find the occasional Southern convention of a child addressing an adult as Mr/Miss First Name to be a bit unsettling and my initial reaction to it is to regard it as sarcastic.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I suspect our ideas of what's respectful come from our upbringing. We had wonderful relationships with our parents' friends, and it was considered perfectly normal to address them by first names.

signlady217 said...

Wow. As a child we were to address adults by Mr./Mrs. Last Name, never by their first name. And we would never even dreamed of calling our parents or their friends by their first names. Yikes! Nowadays, if I'm not sure what to call someone, I usually just ask them what they would prefer. Even kids, esp. teenagers; for example, their mom calls them Matthew and their friends call them Matt; most of the time asking takes all the awkwardness out of the equation.

I remember a student that asked what they should call me when we were out on field trips and I said "Mrs. Last Name, just like you have to in class and anywhere else you see me." They weren't too happy, as another teacher let them call him by his first name all the time. Oh, well.

The "Miss First Name" still kind of throws me, but at least it is showing respect, which I do appreciate.

Sales clerks, bank tellers, etc., I mostly don't worry about too much.

Donis Casey said...

I'm also an older woman who hates being called 'young lady'. I feel that calling an older person 'young man/lady' simply implies that they are anything but.
Another Southern custom - my parents both called their mothers in-law Mrs., which I never hear done any more. They both were very close to each others' parents, but I took the use of the honorifics to be a sign of deep respect. When I married, it would have been almost impossible for me to call my mother-in-law by her first name. But my mother asked my husband to call her "Beth."

Carol said...

I call my internist, my chiropractor, and my acupuncturist "doctor." Otherwise, as a product of the entertainment industry where we call each other by first names, "ms" sounds foreign to me. I asked my medical folks to call me by my first name. The imbalance has never bothered me. I'm joining Hank in wondering if I'm un-self-actualized (:

My cats call me household help.

Carola said...

What do you call doctors who read your books? The first time I went to see my present family doctor, she told me she loved Daisy, and my dermatologist often comes by when I'm selling my books locally. I find it impossible to call them anything at all. And come to think of it, I don't remember either of them addressing me by name--any name. My dentist, on the other hand (the one who, when I told her my latest victim was a dentist, said, "Not a female dentist called Terri, I hope!") is definitely Terri and she calls me Carola. But then, I dedicated Die Laughing to her (precautionary measure) and when it came out, she bought copies for everyone in her office :-)

Sandra Parshall said...

I grew up in the deep south, and in my experience the "Miss First Name" form of address was most often used by servants or others in a subordinate position, just as "Mr. First Name" was. The wonderful novel THE HELP brought it all back. That was a different world, and we should all be glad it's gone.


Personally, I prefer being called by my first name. After having been married, divorced, and remarried - the "Mrs" doesn't define who I am; Linda does. As a kid, I'd have never called an adult by her first name but it's never bothered me when kids have called me by my first name.

In business, when I meet a prospective client or business associate, I usually ask her/him what s/he prefers to be called. I figure I can't go wrong that way and seldom offend anyone. Many people my age or older (I'm 53) prefer to be called Mr. or Mrs. by people who are younger than they are and, if asked their preference, will certainly state it.

I have an odd thing to report about doctors. Of all the doctors I've had as clients over the years, when I've asked them what they prefer to be called, they've all--without exception--invited me to call them by their first names! Perhaps that's because they've been MY clients and they view us as peers... I always call my own doctors "Dr."

Darden North said...

It's always interesting to me when my two professions cross lines ... practicing medicine and writing fiction ..., so I cannot pass up the opportunity here to comment. I practice ob/gyn fulltime in Mississippi, a state still known for cordiality. When I meet a patient in my office for the first time, I call them by their first name and then introduce myself as "Darden North" then let them take it from there. If they choose to call me "Darden," that's fine but the familiarity seems to bother the nurses and the appointment secretaries in the office. I think that the convention is that most patients will prefer to address their physicians as "Doctor." I have one or two physician patients that call me "Doctor North." I also address my own physicians as "Doctor" when making appointmentsfor myself. The bottom line, however, is that we physicians appreciate the patient coming to see us and trusting us, and if they want to call us by our first names, then that's OK.

Norma said...

I'm way late reading the digests, but I wanted to tell you what my family doctor called us years ago. All the children (4 girls and 1 boy) were called Richard - my hubby's first name. I was mother. I think my husband was Richard as well. I figured he didn't want to learn so many names.

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