The air is filled with the babble of intimacy. Over the telephone comes the voice of a person to whom I have never been introduced, hoping to enlist my funds in an ostensibly charitable endeavor; "Hello, Jonathan," she begins. In the mail is a missive from a gentleman in California, previously unknown to me, seeking favors; "Dear Jonathan," he addresses me. In the doctor's office a secretary whose name I do not know hands me a sheet of paper; "Please fill out this form, Jonathan," she says.
This is the new familiarity, and there is no defense against it. In a culture whose high priests are Phil Donahue and Leo Buscaglia and Barbara Walters, to insist on a measure of formality in your dealings with persons you do not know is to mark yourself as a snob, a fuddy-duddy encrusted with the barnacles of Victorian reticence -- or, as Christopher Clausen puts it in the current issue of The American Scholar, describing an encounter with a receptionist, as "that stuffy elitist who repelled her desire to be friendly." To address strangers by honorifics, and to expect that they in turn address you similarly, is now regarded as strictly antisocial behavior.
Our society, which likes to think of itself as "open" and "caring" and "feeling," regards this as a good thing. But Clausen does not, and neither do I. In his brief, penetrating essay, "A Decent Impersonality," Clausen, who teaches English at Pennsylvania State University, argues that the trend toward "indiscriminate informality" does not enrich human relationships, it trivializes them, with unhappy consequences for both public and private life. In public life, he quite correctly notes, "it implies that personality and its expression are the only things to be valued in a public situation or servant," and "candidates for public office come more and more to be judged by the same standards as entertainers." As for private life:
"The rituals of courtship, of the making of friends, of growing old are all in serious disrepair, so much so that one can hardly discuss them without seeming nostalgic. But let's say it anyway: one of the best arguments against having sex on the first date is that it leaves nowhere else to go, thereby short-circuiting the whole process of rituals by which true intimacy and knowledge of another person have to be created. There is a pace at which formality and reserve yield naturally to intimacy; when that pace is forced, the relationship is likely to remain permanently superficial. As for the less highly charged development of friendships, if 'friendliness' and informality are demanded in all encounters, how can real friendship be distinguished from mass-produced copies?"
Not merely does this "indiscriminate informality" sweep away all the barriers of decorum and restraint by which we protect the privacy of our intimate selves, it substitutes artificial relationships for real ones. A person unknown to me who insists on calling me "Jonathan" -- which, and it is to the point to say so, is not what I am called by most people who know me well -- is displaying not a genuine interest in me but an indifference to whatever it is in me that might distinguish me from others; which is to say that not merely is the abandonment of the last name a shortcut to false intimacy, it is a denial of the individuality of the person being addressed.
The point came home to me several years ago when, while living in Miami, I made it a point to go out each noon for swimming and sun at the apartment complex where I lived. Many of my neighbors were single people and young married couples, and poolside was a natural meeting place. Introductions were commonplace; it was impossible not to overhear them. "Hi! I'm Sherrie. This is Justin, and this is Laura, and this is Rex." "Oh, hi, Sherrie! I'm Don, and this is my wife Christie, and this is Jason and his friend Linda." And there they all were: instant intimates.
What, I used to wonder, ever became of them? Did they chatter on into the evening, comparing notes about fern bars and discos, and end up in bed together -- this being the likely culmination of the day's activities -- without ever attaching last names to the first ones they had so casually tossed about? Did they ever learn anything about each other that really mattered, that gave them glimpses into each others' personalities and characters more revealing than the disclosure of mutually favored rock musicians and Chinese takeout shops?
Probably not; probably they managed to achieve the ecstasies of physical union without knowing anything important about each other. By night they gave each other's erogenous zones a first-class workout, and in the morning they awoke as strangers. This is because to deny a person's full name is to deny the person himself. A first name, by itself, is nothing; combine that first name with a surname, throw in a middle name or two for good measure, and at once you have an individual, a person with a history. A person, after all, is the sum of all those who came before him, whose lives ultimately produced his own, and it is in his middle and last names that more than a hint of his history and true identity is contained.
But quite apart from that, the insistence on instant and indiscriminate informality gives equal importance -- which is to say none -- to all relationships. It bypasses, and thus eliminates, the gradual process by which evolve personal, as opposed to impersonal, relationships. There was a time, and it was not so long ago, when the abandonment of honorifics meant a significant alteration in a relationship; two people who had theretofore called each other "Mr." declared, by deciding to use first names, that acquaintanceship had become friendship, with all the possibilities for intimacy and mutual reward that friendship offers. There was also a time when the use of honorifics was a gesture in respect of age, a way of acknowledging that older people have more knowledge and experience of life's joys and sorrows than do young people; for this, custom dictated, they deserved our deference and its symbolic expression.
Those times are gone for good, I suppose, but there is nothing good about it. It is sad indeed to see an old woman called "Mary" by a young receptionist; the latter may think she is kind and "caring," but in truth she is condescending and belittling, denying "Mary" the dignity of age. It is sad as well that the entire culture is now on a first-name basis, so that there is no longer a distinction between one's relationship with a friend and one's dealings with a merchant. This is not intimacy, but self-delusion.