By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC
Perhaps it is because I have reached middle age, but I find myself writing more and more articles about “how things should be,” or, “the good old days.” Yet the reality is, this is one I could have written twenty years ago. The topic? Kids calling adults by their first names.
My first opinions on the topic stem from my father. He was a high school principal. As a young child I can remember him speaking on the phone with a friend and colleague and referring to him as “Doctor.” I knew the man was another principal, not a medical doctor, and surmised that this was a title my father, as an educator, felt was worthy of respect. I do not know why that stuck with me, but it did. In college I went out of my way to address my professors as “Dr.” if I knew they had a PhD, even if they did not seem to care if any other students did.
After school, I went into sales. At age 23, everyone I called on was older than I was. So, it felt very natural to simply address them all by “Mr.” or “Ms.” However, as I got a few years under my belt, a couple of things happened: One, I began to call on people only slightly older than me and, two, I moved into a management role where I was responsible for hiring and training new salespeople, most of whom were also older.
This became a point of debate within my organization. Many salespeople said they felt odd referring to someone their age or younger as “Mr.” or “Ms.” My instruction was to let the customer decide. This is what I meant: If I, even as a youngster, approached a new client on a cold call and said, “I’m Brian. And your name is….?” No matter their age they would have replied with their first name. I watched young salespeople do it, sometimes with clients old enough to be their grandparents, and the clients always felt they were required to give their first names. As if they would appear stuffy if they used Mr. or Ms. Yet, I could tell by their body language they often did not like it.
On the other hand, when I said, “I’m Brian and your name is Mr….” they would usually provide their last name, which is how I addressed them going forward. Occasionally they would reply with their first name. When this happened, I knew that is what they wanted me to call them. Great! No problem. Yet I guarantee you that they appreciated the show of respect I gave by offering the formal title instead of assuming I was on a first name basis with them.
I explained to my older sales reps that no one is going to be offended if you offer to call them Mr. or Mrs., and if they feel more comfortable with a first name, they will tell you. But some people will be offended if you lead with the first name.
I spent a lot of time in high school and college learning a foreign language. Many of the Romance languages employ a formal and also a familiar form of the word “you.” Which means, that when meeting someone new one would ask, “How are you” differently than when posing the same question to an acquaintance.
This is all background for the main point of this article. Back when we moved into our current house, there were thirty-three young kids in the thirteen houses on our cul-de-sac. Nearly all the parents communed together every day after work while the kids rode bikes and scooters and played sports on the street. We all immediately became good friends.
And nearly all the kids, some in pre-school, called the adults by their first names. The only exceptions were our four kids and the two sons of our wonderful next-door neighbors who immigrated from Russia. (Probably not coincidentally, our kids and theirs were also the only ones not allowed to watch R-rated movies before they were teenagers and who were not given violent video games to play).
The odd thing is that I am sure most of these parents grew up with a different outlook on the topic. I am betting they were taught to use Mr. and Mrs. when speaking with adults. It is possible the change in how they parented their kids was simply a little laziness. Since they would talk to each other using people’s first names, when their kids began parroting it they just didn’t bother to tell them anything different. It may also have been a peer pressure thing. Because the truth is that the kids who used Mr. and Ms. were in the minority and, thus, the oddballs. Maybe some of the parents were afraid their kids would be made fun of for using formal titles when no one else did.
In any event, all those kids are grown now and, as happens, new families are moving onto the street with young children. Our Russian neighbors are still there but new folks bought the house on the other side of us. They are great. They have two terrific kids under the age of nine. And both kids call me Brian. Interestingly I have heard the dad say, “Dane, can you say hi to Mr. Brian?” But even with that, the “Mr.” is left out.
Finally, I am going to bring this full circle. I have bumped into kids who I coached years ago, back when they were in grade school, and are now grown and out of college. It is a little jarring to me if they call me by my first name. Especially because, heck, you can always call a former coach, “Coach”. I happen to think you should always call a former coach, “Coach,” no matter how old either of you are. That should be one of the benefits we earn from coaching! I say that tongue-in-cheek, but kinda not.
I wonder, am I being a stick in the mud? Should all my kids’ friends call me “Mr.” forever? If not, what is the age when a young person can drop the title and transition from using a term of respect to a term of equality? Eighteen? Twenty-one? When they are on their own and have a job? I don’t know.
I do know one thing. Just like I taught my salespeople all those years ago: No one is going to be offended by being referred to as Mr. or Ms. … or “Coach.” And if they would rather you use their first name, they will let you know.