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Call Me Mrs. Braverman Revisited

February 17, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

Calling someone by their first name is an expression of closeness that I reserve for the relationships that really count.

A while back I wrote a piece discussing the issue of people (significantly) younger than me addressing me by my first name. I suggested (and many of you seemed to agree) that this was not desirable, that it implied an inappropriate level of familiarity, a relationship of peers rather than one of respect (Just to clarify; I’m not claiming wisdom, only age!)

An interaction I had with my internet service provider the other day propelled me to revisit the issue. I was speaking with the tech support representative. “Do you mind if I call you Emuna?” he asked. Call me a curmudgeon but I answered, “Yes, I do mind.”

He was a little taken aback. I know they’re trained to ask the question. I know it’s very “Dale Carnegie” and meant to create some sense of closeness between the customer and the service provider. But I wasn’t looking for an intimate relationship. This is not a judgment on their value as a human being or their skills at their job (although in this case…). Usually I just go along with it because it’s easier than interrupting their patter but it makes me uncomfortable.

So this hapless worker was the first victim of my decision to take a stand. To his credit, he recovered quickly and addressed me more formally. I was reminded of my elementary school French classes. The French use a different form of the word “you” depending on who they are addressing – tu for the familiar and close versus vous for the more distant. They may be on to something.

Not all relationships are the same. And not only am I bothered by the presumed familiarity of the DSL cable employee, but I think it may hinder our other relationships as well, or at the very least confuse us.

If everyone calls me Emuna and talks to me in that chatty, best friends way (the everlasting influence of Oprah perhaps?), what’s the demarcation line? The boundary between real relationships and artificial or instrumental ones gets confused. In Jewish life, distinctions are important. At the end of Shabbos every week, we recite the Havdalah (differentiation) prayer that highlights the distinctions between the holy and the profane, the six days of the week and the Shabbos, the Jewish people and the other nations of the world. These differences teach us important lessons about who we are and how to view our experiences.

There is clearly a distinction between a spouse and a friend, a close friend and an acquaintance, an acquaintance and a service provider, an employer and an employee.

Relationships are diminished rather than enhanced where they are all treated the same, where the lines are unclear.

I’ll never forget an experience I had about 20 years ago. I was getting to know someone and we seemed to be on the way to forging a new friendship. Trying to read the cues, I assumed a certain depth of relationship based on the hugs and kisses exchanged whenever we would meet or part. One day I happened to see her leaving her manicure salon and exchanging similar tokens of physical affection with the woman who painted her nails. Maybe she was also a close friend but somehow I think not.

We may have lost our sensitivity but calling someone by their first name is an expression of intimacy, of closeness. I’d like to reserve it for the relationships that really count. Otherwise, Mrs. Braverman is just fine.

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