What’s the New Rule for Honorifics?

When we were little, it was easy: everyone was Mister This, Mrs That, Morah Something, or Rabbi OrAnother.

It got complicated when I called a friend’s mother “Mrs. Mother” and she replied, “Oh, you can call me Miri now.”

Then I noticed a trend: middle-aged married women introducing themselves to me by their first names.

Granted, I’m a lot closer in age to middle-aged now. But it can’t possibly be okay to just call everyone by their first names now, can it? What’s the new rule?

I’m probably slow getting out of the gate on this one, but until recently, I wasn’t expanding my circle of middle-aged acquaintances very much.  So this is a very new issue.

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19 thoughts on “What’s the New Rule for Honorifics?

  1. I have the same issue. We’re at such a confusing stage! I think some people feel that now that we’re adults, we’ve entered the world of calling people by their first names. But I feel like not everyone is in agreement with that, and it’s hard to know what’s appropriate when. I end up not calling anyone anything.

  2. I generally go by “Mr. (mylastname)” at work when I speak by phone or meet with representatives from other companies, or when out on business lunches. I then help break the ice by letting them know they can call me by my first name.

    After building a working relationship, everyone goes by first names.

    Often I find when I call someone I have never spoken to yet for business related, I just ask for First and Last and then just use their first after that.

    Summer interns and summer students get introduced to me with my first and last. I think it makes them more comfortable.

    By phone I always start with Mr. or Ms. and If it’s a women who sounds older I say Mrs. until they correct me.

    Generally everyone breaks down to first names once a relationship has been developed (probably because some peoples last names can be very hard to pronounce, or confusing if they’re from a different culture).

    I’m only in my mid 20’s.

  3. I vote for calling us “Mrs. _______”. If I want you to call me by my first name, I’ll let you know. (No offense, but unless we are work colleagues or neighbors, I probably don’t:) I am always surprised when people 20 or 30 years younger than me call me by my first name without asking.

  4. One family friend found it hysterical I was calling her “Mrs. ______,” and she insisted I call her by her first name. But I try to avoid name-calling at all, keeping it general, “Hello!” and that’s it.

    But I’m now on awkward territory with my aunts and uncles. Calling them “Aunt” or “Tante” seems affectatious, but my father is horrified that I call them by their first names. I just don’t know what to do.

  5. The only people who call me Mrs. Mystery are my kids’ teachers and my kids’ friends, and…honestly…it always feels like they’re calling someone else. It doesn’t feel like me. Everyone else uses my first name. It’s how I want it. It’s me.
    Middle aged…ouch :).

  6. One rule I’ve used in the past is that if the person is closer to my age than to my parents’ age, I call them Firstname Lastname, otherwise I call them Mr./Mrs. Lastname.

    At work I haven’t really had this problem. At my old job everyone (including senior management) went by their first names, and at my new job, I just go by how I’m introduced to the person.

  7. But I try to avoid name-calling at all, keeping it general, “Hello!” and that’s it.

    I think that is the danger of the confusion. You should be interacting with people on a personal level, and doing so requires calling the person by a name of some sort.

  8. I just go with Mrs. Lastname until and unless corrected. That way I’m not presuming on my relationship. The hard part was when I worked in a “first name office” and I knew one of my co-workers as “Rabbi Lastname” and that’s what I called him – Rabbis I don’t call by their first names unless we’re related – but everyone else who worked there called him First-name.

  9. As a middle aged woman, I am most comfortable when people a generation younger than me call me Mrs. Lastname. And as the wife of someone who prefers not to call any women by their first name unless they are family, I am fine with all men calling me Mrs. Lastname, even those my age.
    In a secular work setting, first name basis is standard.

  10. Way I do it, typically –

    Work – First name unless they’re called Mr/Mrs/Ms by everyone else or if they work for the IRS. (They always introduce themselves as Mr. or Mrs…)

    Personal – If they introduce themselves with just a first name – first name. If they’re closer to your age than your folks – first name. Others – default to last name, they will tell you if you should do otherwise.

  11. Princess Lea:

    I am guessing that I am about double your age, and I still call any (remaining!) aunts and uncle “Aunt _____” or “Uncle ________”. They don’t stop being my aunt or uncle just because I am a great-aunt myself.

  12. But there’s the whole age angle, no?

    I’m an aunt myself, and I don’t expect (nor do I want!) the kiddies to call me “Aunt Lea.” There will always be an age gap. None of my other cousins call my aunts or uncles with a prefix.

    My mother has aunts or uncles, and while she is definitely a great-aunt many many times over, she doesn’t use titles.

  13. I guess it varies from family to family, but if my aunt was x years older than me when I was little, she’s still x years older than me now. All my nieces and nephews (and their spouses) call me “Aunt _______”.

  14. My rules of thumb, personally, are:
    If they are somewhat older than me but I knew them when they were younger- first name.
    If they are older than me and give me specific permission to call them that, first name.
    If they are older than me and co-worker/parent of a close friend/person I like chatting with at shul or wherever, but they don’t tell me what to call them, I just don’t call them anything. Usually that works although sometimes you have to phrase your sentences a little more interestingly.
    If they are a teacher, rebetzin/rabbi, any other official position, or if I meet them in a more formal setting, I always go with the last name.

    I don’t like the “Aunt ___” thing, I think it’s weird if we’re not actually related.

    I hope that seems sensible- it seems to work for me most of the time.

  15. Like many other commenters, I’ve had the exact same problem. A couple years ago, I ran into a friend’s mother in the grocery store and introduced her to my husband as “Mrs. Soandso” and she responded, her voice dripping annoyance, “Ploni, thank you.” (no, her name is not Ploni Soandso, but they seemed like good stand-ins). For me, that was a horribly uncomfortable moment. It’s one thing to say, “You can call me Ploni now.” (which I wouldn’t be comfortable doing) but to respond with obvious anger at my having called her Mrs. was a little over the top.

    I maintain the same rules as all of the above: If they’re closer to my parents’ age, I default to Mr. or Mrs. If they’re closer to my age, I call them by their first name.

    One thing I do differently: If someone requests that I call them by their first name, I attach a Ms. at the beginning. (As in “Ms. Jamie” or “Ms. Laura”) I was just thinking what I might do if a man made that request, but the fact is I’ve never had a man insist on being called by his first name when I called him mister. (Though there was one awkward encounter where I referred to Mr. Soandso, and was corrected to Ms. Soandso. There’s just no recovering from some mistakes.)

  16. My professor addresses us by our last names because she thinks its incorrect for her to call us by our first name if we are to call her DR. … and this phenomenon u describe is very american i think

  17. Princess Lea – I don’t understand why an actual Aunt or Uncle would cease to be called Aunt or Uncle – ever. It’s inherently different from a contemporary of your parents who may transition into wanting to be called by their first name.

    Tehila/Middle aged opinion – It’s quite common in my hometown for parents of my friends to be called by Uncle or Aunt firstname. Some people invite it, while for others it has just become part of the culture there. On the whole, the OOT community is smaller and very family-like in atmosphere, which may explain the conferred title. Some people are very involved (in a positive, honest sense, of course) with others younger than they are – friends of their children, for example – that one could legitimately consider them having the role of an uncle or aunt akin to an actual relative. This practice did cause some confusion for my wife, who thought that perhaps we were all a big town of inbred folks.

    I grew up in a town where etiquette and protocol are still highly esteemed values, so calling adults by their first name (with the exclusion of the uncle and aunt figures I just mentioned) was almost unheard of. Even now, when I am confronted with someone who tells me, “Don’t call me Mr. Almoni, that’s my father. Call me Ploni,” I respectfully decline. I’m not sure if I’m helping the situation, but it seems like it’s one of those boundaries I can’t bring myself to cross.

    I also had a huge problem with this when I was in Israel and several rabbeim were popularly called Rav First-name (to which they agreed or accepted without any offense), and I was the one weirdo calling them Rav Last-name. One rebbetzin here, who I have always called Mrs. Last-name, now wants ASoG and I to call her by her first name. ASoG might start doing it, but I don’t think I ever will be able to… I guess I’ll stick to my gentlemanly ways.

  18. What are your thoughts about the following situation?

    My sibling varying age from 1 yr younger than me to 2.5 years older than my eldest child. (I am the oldest of 10 spread out over more than 20 years.) Over the years I had my kids call the older of my sibs “Aunt ___” or “Uncle ___”. while they called the ones closest to their own age just “___”. (No I don’t remember where the cutoff was — probably closer to the younger ones. and the differentiation was only relevant for my older kids.)

    Similarly, now that one of the younger “Uncle ___ “s married someone close to my eldest’s age, my eldest, as expected, does NOT call her “Aunt” (their pretty much contemporaries give or take a year or so). However I feel that my younger children (who are 10-15 years younger than their new aunt) SHOULD call her (as well as ALL their parents’ sibs) “Aunt ___”. For some reason this situation seems even weirder that the one above since she came into the family as an adult (while my own youngest sibs grew up along with my own kids).

    How would/do you deal with such a situation?

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