Answers on Morals and Manners

Answers on Morals and Manners

Answers on Morals and Manners

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Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 5 1998 3:30 AM

Answers on Morals and Manners

Drawing upon her rich experience of life, Prudence (Prudie to her friends) responds to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, and other subjects. Please send your questions for publication to Queries should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

Note to readers: Prudie received so many letters on the "first name" problem that she decided to devote a whole week to the subject.

I read with interest the question in your recent column regarding the use of first names by strangers, specifically in business situations. Like the gentleman who wrote, I am a liberal Democrat and do not consider myself old-fashioned. I, however, am a 20-year-old woman.
I was taught to address my elders and those in formal settings by their proper appellations. I use my colleagues' first names but would not dream of first-naming a business contact. But: What is the rule for referring to oneself? I find it odd to refer to myself as Miss, but wonder how seriously others take me when I give my first name and then address them as "Mr." or "Mrs."

--T.S. in Lawrence, Kan.

Dear T.,
What an interesting proposition you put. Prudie, who's got a few years on you, has dealt with this herself.
When meeting a repairman or other service worker, Prudie introduces herself with both her first and last names, trying not to seem overly formal or grand. (They usually wind up calling you "Mrs." anyway.) On the phone, however, it is best to identify yourself in the manner in which you wish to be addressed.
If first-naming is acceptable, say, "This is Miranda." If it is not, say, "This is Mrs. Last-Name."
As for your business contacts, they will surely take your addressing them as "Mr." or "Mrs." (while stating both your first and last names) as a sign of respect. And Prudie's compliments to your parents for raising you so correctly.


--Prudie, formally

Dear Prudie,
The letter you printed about first-naming strangers reminded me of a wonderful--true--story from a few years ago. A woman friend of mine, very high up in a man's world, was becoming annoyed each time a (male) bigwig called and his secretary would not put the Big He of the moment on until she herself was on the line ... even though her secretary always said, "Put him through."
When my friend picked up, some man's secretary would say, "Liz?" (I'm cloaking the woman's identity because her first name is well known.) "Can you hold while I see if Mr. So-and-So can pick up?"
"Liz" tried something new. "Does Mr. So-and-So have a first name?" The secretary would become rattled, and stammer, "Well, yes," but she didn't see the relevance.
"Well, what is it?" said Liz. "Since we're all on a first-name basis here."
Said the secretary, "Well, it's Cal."
"Fine," said Liz, "tell Cal that Liz is holding for him, and if he isn't ready to talk, tell him that Miss Eberhardt hung up."

--Laughing at the Memory

Dear Laugh,
Your recollection was so delicious Prudie ate it with a spoon. It is always wonderful when one thinks of the perfect retort at the time--and not the next day.


--Prudie, admiringly

Dear Ms. Prudie,
This is regarding the query from the 75-year-old gentleman who gets annoyed when strangers call him by his first name. Your answer votes against first-name familiarity between strangers. I am in general agreement with you on this issue, though I find that inconsistent with the fact that perfect strangers feel free to use "Prudie" in their salutations to you--which is not only a first name but a rather presumptuous foreshortening of it, to boot.
However, that is not my real question, which concerns your disdain for those who invite you to "have a nice day." You're too hard on this phrase. I believe it has about the same semantic weight as "goodbye," which is after all an abbreviated form of a wish that the interlocutor enjoy a positive leaving experience. In any event, such is my speculation. For what it's worth, I live on the West Coast, which is, as is well known, filled with speakers hellbent on corrupting our otherwise pristine tongue.

Yours for leniency in phatic communication,

P.S.: Also "cordially," of course.

Dear Mike,
Perfect strangers get to address Prudie by her first name because we in the advice biz are kind of instant friends. Prudie knows you wouldn't have it any other way.
As for your plea for leniency about what you consider the new "goodbye," Prudie finds you an articulate advocate and will consider toning down her antipathy toward the phrase. Prudie admits that the conversational sign-off is merely an overworked cliché, after all, and not a capital offense. (Though she always feels better when answering the instruction to have a nice day with Miss Manners' wonderful line, "Thank you, but I have other plans.")


--Prudie, tolerantly

Dear Prudence,
Thank you for your enlightening answer to "Wondering in Tucson, Ariz." The advice is of great use to me, as my job requires me to call on people and develop relationships in a business-business arena. My conversations often mark the first time I am speaking with someone (and making the first impression for my company), and I certainly don't want to offend.
Your advice is encouraging me to use an appropriate title when addressing someone for the first time. However, I'm often calling women. What is your advice on the appropriate female prefix for me to use? Some women are absolutely appalled at the title of "Ms." when they are, in fact, a "Mrs." And is there any place for "Miss"?

--Wanting Not To Offend in Chicago

Dear Want,
"Miss" would seem to be the safe form of address, since even married women recognize it as a sign of respect. Also, by not assuming a married state with the "Mrs.," you don't risk alienating a woman who is single and wishes to be taken for no man's wife. You might try to remember this little silliness from a fourth-grader as a prompt: A miss is as good as a ... mister.


--Prudie, miss-teriously