Thursday, March 8, 2018

If You Don't Know What First Name I Use, Should You Be Calling Me By My First Name?

When I first started teaching, forms of address were simple: my students called me "Mr. Erlich," and I called them "Miss/Mr./Mrs./later Ms. Last Name." Then my students mildly objected to formal usage for themselves, and I mildly complained about their complaint to a colleague, sniffily noting that it was a matter of indifference. And he threw back at me a line I'd used, "If it's a matter of indifference to you, and they care, do it their way."
Since I taught English, what I did was spend a few minutes first day of class on forms of address, and we had an exercise in very limited democracy where the students voted on how we addressed one another — with the restriction that we'd stay on one level of formality, and that wouldn't include calling each other by just our last names (which is for superiors to inferiors or close friends or colleagues). They almost always voted for "a first-name basis," but I had to insist that I really wanted "Rich" and not "Uhhhh." (The "Mr. Erlich" vs. "Dr." or "Professor Erlich" is another issue. When and where I was, it was "Mr." when I got my Ph.D. — after the first couple of weeks, anyway.)
Retired, I'm caring again about how I'm called, especially in medical contexts where I already feel somewhat juvenilized. When called "Richard," I'm tempted to say, "I don't go by 'Richard'" and if asked what I go by reply, "If you don't know the first name I use, maybe you should call me 'Mr. Erlich.'"
It's "Err-lick," as in "to "err is human," and either pronunciation of that "err" is fine, and if you use a German "ch," that's also okay, and I'll shudder and accept "er-lich," with an English "ch." That's two syllables of a fairly common name. People should try, but pronunciation issues aren't the main point. The point for my students was a legitimate desire to stave off adulthood (which in the US often sucks); and, more generally, the issue is good ol' semi-sincere American friendliness.
About now in life, from people half my age who don't know me, I think I prefer some stodgy formality. Especially when that first name reference is followed by, "And how are *you* today?" when they really don't care and — unless getting medical information — do *not* want you to tell them.


  1. I have to admit - there are many things from your courses & your teaching that stick with me, and that I use in my own teaching, but this conversation about names is one I think about often.

    I'm not a Dr., I'm not a Professor, and my students seem, usually, to come from backgrounds with a very different understanding of authority/respect between unequal levels of relationship. I urge them to call me Jessica (or Jess) - they insist on Mrs. LastName (and I gently guide them toward Ms.). That point about "if it's a matter of indifference to you..." is a good one and, I think, a better way for me to frame this than begrudging acceptance.

    1. Hi, Jess!

      I'm a bit late replying .... I'm glad I was helpful for your teaching (and very happy you were my student).