We were all gathered in the lunchroom of my Catholic grade school. I was in seventh grade, about to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. The archbishop wandered in to give us a little pre-Mass pep talk. His excellency told us to call him “Archbishop Jim.” His intention was surely to make us feel more comfortable around him, but I was shocked. He was a direct successor to the Apostles. He had the power of transubstantiation in his hands. He could forgive sins in the name of God. At a minimum, he was a lot older than me, and my parents told me to call adults “Mr. Maese,” not “Brook.”
“Archbishop Jim?” Nope. I couldn’t say it.
Years later, when I began working at the august American Enterprise Institute, I got to know the august Charles Murray. I called him “Dr. Murray” until the third time he told me to call him “Charles.” So “Charles” it is, but only by request. FDR once referred to Gen. George Marshall as “George.” Marshall was irritated at “such a misrepresentation of our intimacy,” and it showed. From then on, President Roosevelt never used the general’s first name.
I was reminded of all this when I read a news account last week of a press conference featuring President Obama and the chancellor of Germany. My jaw hit the floor when I read the president referring to the chancellor, Angela Merkel, as “Angela.”
Surely the reporter got it wrong. So I went to the White House transcript, and was horrified to see that the president referred to the chancellor by her first name nearly two dozen times. The opening paragraph alone is littered with informality. “Angela, of course, has been here many times.” “Well into her third term, Angela is now one of Germany’s longest-serving chancellors.” “As we all saw in Rio, Angela is one of her team’s biggest fans.” (After a barrage of unseemly familiarity, the chancellor’s first sentence was “Thank you, President, dear Barack.” I would like to think that she decided it polite to respond in kind, but couldn’t stop herself from including two terms of respect before uttering the president’s first name. The name “Barack” never returns in the transcript. Even still, she erred.)
“Angela?” My goodness. “Ms. Merkel,” “the chancellor,” “Chancellor Merkel” (if that usage is permitted in Germany), “madam chancellor” or “Dr. Merkel” would be fine. But “Angela?”
“Angela” is one of the most powerful and important heads of government in the world today. And she was a guest, not only of the president but of the United States. Even if the president and the chancellor are on a first-name basis in private, she ought to be given respect by being accorded some distance through formality. Using her first name in public is beneath her station — and yes, station is the right word.
Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals.
And, of course, in the deepest sense we are all equal: equal before God, equal in moral worth. C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, wrote that “you have never talked to a mere mortal.” And you haven’t. All people, as Lewis put it, are “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
But equality in the deepest sense does not mean equality in all things, especially on this side of eternity. Equality in all things is, indeed, frightening. (Do you remember how Robespierre’s égalité worked out?) And not only frightening, but boring, as well. Our differences make us interesting.
And, ultimately, equality in all things is false. A PhD has added to the stock of human knowledge; an undergraduate hasn’t. A priest can transform bread and wine; a layman can’t. Chancellor Merkel can affect the near course of history; I can’t. My friend’s father has successfully raised four children; I haven’t. The way we address each other should reflect these differences because these differences are real and material, and obvious.
And they help facilitate social interaction. It’s easier to take moral instruction from “Father Suwalsky” than it is from “Dave.” “Father Suwalsky” has institutional authority reflected in an institutional title. It’s easier to accept knowledge from “Dr. Bean” than it is from “Jessica” — “Dr. Bean” has authority over knowledge. I’d find it a lot easier to undergo cancer treatment from “Dr. Hymes” than from “Ken.” It’s much easier to interact with people decades older than you if you address them in a way that recognizes their lived experience and wisdom.
If every relationship begins on a first-name basis, then I am robbed of the ability to signal to someone that he has become a friend or close colleague by inviting him to address me by my first name. If the guy who comes to fix my cable calls me “Michael,” then what is left for my friends to call me? And isn’t it a little easier for the cable guy to give substandard service to “Tom” than to “Mr. Creal?”
So far I have suffered in silence, asking to be addressed as “Mr. Strain” only once, years ago, during a heated phone conversation with an agent of my health insurance company. But to see the president, in public, referring to the chancellor of Germany by her first name tells me that informality has gone way too far. It’s time to swing the pendulum a good distance back.
“Chancellor Merkel.” Certainly not “Angela.” And perhaps a little more respectful distance through formality for the rest of us, too. After all, it’s just good manners.
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- How I taught my infant to use an adult toilet
- Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.
- I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination. I was wrong.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story referred to Merkel as a head of state. That is the German president’s job. Merkel, as chancellor, is head of government.