Here's a little game I invented the other day after phoning the water company to complain about my bill and hearing an overly-chipper woman say, "Hi, Peter. How may I help you?"
Increasingly I find that strangers who address me by my first name are the very people from whom I'd prefer an ounce of respect in the form of the honorific "Mr." On the other hand, the folks who graciously call me Mr. Funt are usually the ones to whom I immediately say, "Oh, please, call me Peter."
I'll get to the game in a moment but, honestly, how did we manage to become so careless and casual in greeting one another? I taught a journalism class for high school students last winter and about fell over when two students addressed me repeatedly as Peter. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to give them the Prof. Kingsfield treatment: "Mister Hart!" Then again, "The Paper Chase" film came out in 1973 and today Kingsfield's students would probably reply, "Well, Charles..."
I became so annoyed at emails from United Airlines that began, "Hello, Peter," that I wrote back asking for an explanation. The reply, presumably automated, began, "Thanks, Peter, we're looking into your request." I heard nothing further.
I imagine athletes and entertainers expect first-name treatment, even in private life. You wouldn't call Dave "Mr. Letterman," or Willie "Mr. Mays," regardless of whether you were asking for an autograph or fixing their plumbing. But we who are less secure about our position in life tend to covet a bit of formality with strangers.
When I was editor of the magazine "On Cable" I used to receive mail that began, "Dear On."
Apparently there's quite a brew-ha-ha among Starbucks' customers over whether to give their real first names when ordering a drink. Many turn to Bart Simpson's playbook and try to come up with rude fake names. Others, like Yankee star Derek Jeter, just try to remain anonymous. Jeter orders at Starbucks with the name "Philip."
Hand in hand, so to speak, with first-name greetings is the increasing eagerness of service personnel to shake hands. Clerks at Enterprise seem to think a handshake somehow makes renting a poorly cleaned car less galling. Comcast's cable techs favor a handshake, which I believe is off-putting even for less germ-phobic customers than myself.
I think the digital age promotes informality. "Hi, Peter" turns up in emails all the time, while the postman still brings letters that begin, "Dear Mr. Funt." The other day I received (yet another) email from President Obama that began (honestly), "Hey Peter." The leader of the free world signed it "Barack."
So, here's the game. Name the five people for whom receiving one of those first-name emails from, say, United Airlines, would be most inappropriate. President Obama has clearly disqualified himself, and Vice President Biden is a plain old Joe if ever there was one.
Here's my list:
Hi Jorge (as in Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis), you can check-in online 24-hours prior to departure.
Hi Antonin (Supreme Court Justice Scalia), want more legroom on your upcoming flight?
Hi Warren (82-year-old billionaire Buffett), earn double miles this month.
Hi Christine (Lagarde, the IMF chief), your flight is cancelled due to late arrival of equipment caused by bad weather that is beyond our control.
Hi Ban (Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General), thanks. We're looking into your request.
Peter Funt's Column distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.