August 8, 2012

Is It a Breakdown in Etiquette?

Assume that you are not personal friends. How would you address a school principal or, for that matter, President Barack Obama? Would it be on a first name basis? If not, why? Now I don’t mean to be Victorian about this so please put yourself in my shoes as I relate a couple of experiences to you, and then decide if it’s my sensibilities gone afoul or a breakdown in manners.

This last weekend I visited my favorite lake resort. After enjoying a successful morning of fishing, my lovely bride of nearly a quarter century and I decided we were hungry. Normally we would sit down at the resort’s four-star restaurant and enjoy their fine food before journeying back home — but not this time. Why? The last time we ate there, a new waiter came back to our table after running my credit card and said something like, “Eldon, I’m XY,” and then looking straight at my wife, continued, “And what’s your name?” Now, we did not know this waiter, nor had we seen him before. He obviously gained my name from the credit card with Eldon Taylor, Ph.D. printed clearly on its face.

Typically my wife has always been greeted in this restaurant as Mrs. Taylor, and she likes that. I don’t particularly care if I am referred to as Mr. or Dr. Taylor, but what is this first name stuff and why does it bother me? Does it disturb you? Would this encounter put you off of the restaurant? Let me continue my story, add some additional context, and then see how you would answer those questions.

I was in a Walmart last week with my two sons. The female cashier was very pleasant, and our exchange went something like this.

Cashier: “Did you find everything okay today, sir?”
Eldon: “Yes I did — thank you.”
Cashier: “Are you enjoying the good weather, sir?”
Eldon: “I certainly am — how about you?”
Cashier: “Yes sir — it has been very nice.”
Eldon: “How long were you in the military?”
Cashier: “Twelve years, sir. My husband retired from the military, as did my father. Why do you ask?”
Eldon: “It’s extremely uncommon today to encounter your level of politeness. The way you use ‘sir’ is the way I was brought up. A level of respect and etiquette that you just don’t find often today, so I assumed you must have been in the military.”
Cashier: “Actually, I was taught that at home as well, sir.”

Think back to the waiter. If he took the credit card of Bill Clinton or Bill Gates, do you think he would come back to the table and say, “Hi Bill, I’m XY,” and then look at their wives and say, “What’s your name?” Somehow I think not. Now, I don’t fancy myself to be of comparable importance, but that’s not the point either. Here is the point.

While attending college I worked for Sears as a commission salesperson and later as a sales manager and sales trainer. This is how I paid for a large part of my education. I was always the No. 1 salesperson in the organization for the area or product I sold. I insisted of myself and those who worked for me that the most important thing they could convey to the customer was their specialness. Customers were always referred to as Mr. or Mrs. I believed then, and I do still today, that when you treat people this way, you not only show respect, but you win their respect as well.

Now, if you would not say to Bill Clinton, “Hi Bill, I’m XY,” why wouldn’t you? I suggest that it’s a matter of respect? To give more respect to one unknown person than to another is to show disrespect? In other words, if you would greet famous Bill with Mr. or some other formal title, is it not a show of disrespect to do otherwise with ordinary Bill?

I understand the whole “let’s be friendly” movement. I also hear those who wish to say we should all be more friendly so what’s the big deal about first names — we can all be on a first name basis. Some will even add words like, “After all, we are all one.” The problem comes when you recognize that giving one respect over another diminishes someone and perhaps that’s why we have a protocol called manners in the first place. So am I just old fashioned?

For me, first names are reserved for friends, associates, and on a permission-given basis. I always tell radio hosts right up front, please just call me Eldon. I host my own show and prefer Eldon and I let everyone know that; but I am the one saying, “Let’s get to know each other, please just think of me as Eldon.”

Now contrast the attitude of the cashier at Walmart with the waiter as it applies to whether or not you feel special. I vote with my dollars as much as I do with any other force available to me. Consequently, my wife and I drove down the mountain to a small town “greasy spoon.” The food was terrific, the price was less — and guess what? You’re right, the waitress and staff were very pleasant and they treated us as though we were special!

Thanks for the read and I welcome your feedback,

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor
Provocative Enlightenment
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions