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Forms of Address (The Dignity of Namelessness)

In twenty-first-century America, as only the latest manifestation of a long cultural drift, “first-name basis” is prevailingly the norm, although there are certain pockets of resistance, particularly in the South. When addressed by my first name over the telephone by customer service representatives, I used to respond, “Do we know each other?”, but the incredulity that réplique engendered soon forced me to drop it and accept the inevitable. It is noteworthy that some companies obviously train their representatives to use the formal prefixes and to avoid forenames, but this practice is getting rare enough to be remarked.

A personal vignette involving forms of address, therefore, might be worth chronicling here. Whenever I am in Manchester, Vermont, every Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. I frequent a small upstairs restaurant on Main Street to have pancakes or a waffle for breakfast before proceeding to fetch the Sunday newspaper. The same two middle-aged ladies always wait on me, both of whom greet me cheerfully, wish me a “good week” when I leave, and are impeccably polite in every respect. But over the two years, week in and week out, that I have been following this Sunday morning routine, neither lady has ever asked me my name, nor I theirs. We transact our prandial linguistic exchanges in splendid anonymity, thereby preserving a kind of dignity that somehow enhances the meal and is regrettably absent in many precincts of American life.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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