Just Call Me Mister
On cold or wet days, middle-class Manhattanites take their children to Playspace, an old tenement building packed full of wonderful climbing and sliding contraptions. There‟s just one irritating detail: When you arrive at the wicket to pay your money the girl pulls out a big felt marker and adhesive lapel tag, and asks you your name.
“Frum,” I say.
“No, your first name.”
“What do you need my first name for?”
“I‟m going to write it on the tag, so that if any of the other children or any of the staff members need to speak to you, they know what to call you.”
“In that case, write „Mr. Frum.‟”
At which I am shot a look as if I had asked to be called the Duke of Plaza Toro.
In encouraging five-year-olds to address grown-ups by their first names, Playspace is only very slightly ahead of the times. As a journalist, I speak to dozens of total strangers on the telephone every day. I can faithfully report that the custom of addressing strangers formally is as dead as the carte de visite. There‟s hardly a
secretary or receptionist left on the continent who does not reply when she‟s given a
message for her boss, “I‟ll tell him you called, David,” or a PR agent from Bangor to
Bangkok who does not begin his telephonic spiel with a cheerful, “Hello Davis!”
This is true not only of telephone callers, but of letter writers too. Yesterday morning‟s mail brought a letter from a neighborhood chiropractor drumming up business. It begins, “Dear David…”… Here‟s a letter from the lady in charge of
public relations at one of the largest banks in the United States. “Dear Dave,” it starts.
I like that even less.
You don‟t have to be a journalist to collect amazing first-name stories. Place a
collect call, and the operator first-names you. A 78-year-old man who buys a hamburger at Lick‟s will be first-named by the teenager behind the counter.
Habitual first-namers claim they are motivated by nothing worse than uncontrollably exuberant friendliness. I don‟t believe it. If I asked the order-takers at
Lick‟s to lend me $50, then friendliness would vanish in a whoosh. The PR-man drops all his cheerfulness the moment he hears I can‟t use his story idea. No, it‟s not
friendliness that drives first-namers: it‟s aggression.
A little history. Until comparatively recently, the title “Mr.” was reserved for
people of a certain station in life. Think of Jane Austen‟s novels: the landlord is Mr.
knightley, but even the most prosperous of his tenant farmers was referred to by last name alone. Now think of a movie from the 1930s. Everybody is addressed as “Mr.”,
even the very poorest people— because everyone is entitled to be treated with
Over the past two or three decades, we have reverted from the etiquette of the
th1930s to that of the 18 century. The PR agents who call me “David” uninvited would
never, if they could somehow get him on the phone, address Rupert Murdoch that way. The lady from the bank would never first-name the bank‟s chairman. Like the
mock-cheery staff at Playspace, they are engaged in a smiley-faced act of belittlement,
in an assertion of power disguised as bonhomie.
Precisely because it is disguised as bonhomie, though, most people have trouble objecting to first-naming, even when it bothers them. First-namers make it unmistakably clear they regard anyone who objects to the practice as unspeakably stuffy. And nobody wants to be thought stuffy.
But why not? Stuffiness is an excessive regard for one‟s dignity, and excess is
relative. In a word where too many people behave with zero dignity, anyone who wants what would once have been considered a very ordinary ration will naturally seem stuffy in comparison. Oprah Winfrey thinks it stuffy when politicians don‟t want
to discuss their drinking problems on camera. Playboy thinks it‟s stuffy when an
actress won‟t pose nude. At Playspace, they think it‟s stuffy of me not to want to be
called “David” by my daughter‟s playmates… To the boorish self-respect will always
seem stuffy. But why should the boors be permitted to make the rules?
Questions on Content
1. Describe a few of the circumstances in which Frum objects to being called by his
first name. do you agree with his reasoning, or do you, in fact, feel his is “stuffy”?
2. Frum suggests that “first-namers” are driven by aggression., mot friendliness, and
a desire for power, not good cheer. Do you agree? Be prepared to defend your
Questions on Structure and Style:
3. Discuss how Frum uses references to Playspace to provide structure as well as
content in this selection.
4. Describe the tone of Frum‟s prose. Provide specific examples of diction and
syntax that demonstrates his tone.
5. What is Frum‟s thesis? Is it implied or directly stated?