In a recent interview, Tom Ford tells a story about going to a restaurant. The waitress walks up to him, smiles brightly and says, "Hi Tom, I am ___, and I will be serving you today." "Actually," responds Tom, "I prefer Mr Ford."
Yes, the fashion designer would like it to be known that now that he is in his 40s, he really doesn’t appreciate being called ‘Tom’ any longer. He would like it if you addressed him as ‘Mr Ford’, giving him the respect due to his years.
Stuffy, old-fashioned nonsense? A throwback to an earlier age when manners were at a premium? Or just plain old snobbery?
Well, you be the judge of that. But I have to confess to a certain sneaking sympathy for Mr Ford and his point of view. The older I get, the more irksome I find the current propensity to first-name everyone, regardless of age, gender, situation or context.
The worst offenders, on the whole, are medical folk. For some reason, they seem to believe that the magic letters Dr before their name allow them the liberty to first name every one else. But you, of course, must always address them as Dr So and So on pain of death (not literally, I hope!). And no, it doesn’t make sense to me either.
The other compulsive first-namers that I come into contact with most often are PR people. It doesn’t matter that they have never met you; that they are often a good 15 years younger than you; and that it is a professional relationship that they hope to establish. The very first phone call they make or the first ever email they send will set to establish first-name terms with you.
If you find this sort of familiarity annoying in the professional context and try and reset the ground rules by replying with a cool Ms or Mr So and So in the hope that they get the hint – well, don’t hold your breath because it will never happen.
As it happens, I do find this rather annoying. I put this down to being brought up in a more respectful culture in which you never first-named anybody until invited to do so. Senior colleagues at my first work place were always addressed with a Mr or Ms, or – this being Calcutta – with the suffix of ‘Babu’, ‘Da’ or ‘Di’. The very idea of addressing someone who was older than you by his or her first name was regarded as blasphemy. It wasn’t about seniority or status either. The office peon also had a respectful ‘Da’ added to his name.
I am still a creature of that culture. Even now when I call up to fix an interview with someone, or send an email to a professional contact, I wouldn’t even dream of addressing them by their first names. But increasingly I find that others have no such compunction.
To be honest, it’s not the first-naming that irritates me the most. It is the implicit over-familiarity that rankles. And that over-familiarity has become endemic in our world. As a 50-something friend of mine recently complained, "Where does the order-taker at Starbucks get off calling me by my first name. I am old enough to be his mother!"
But I guess age no longer commands respect in our world. The new-fangled democratisation means that everyone is equal, and even those whom we could have given birth to can first-name us with impunity.
Speaking for myself, I have to confess that over-familiarity is one of my bugbears. But there is an element of perversity at play here as well. When people call me Ms Goswami I tend to reply, "Oh please, call me Seema." But anyone who first-names me without as much as a by your leave, tends to set my back up.
And that’s when I totally get where Tom Ford is coming from.
From HT Brunch, July 14
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