Lorraine M. Dorfman, Ph.D.
When did respect become passé? In an attempt to trace the etiology of the erosion of respect, I was unable to find an origin because it seems respect changes with every era.
In today’s world, the primary example of disrespect that immediately comes to mind is the predilection to call everyone, even strangers, by their first names. A sales person, making a cold call, addresses you by your first name. You never met this person. You do not know this person’s name, much less this person’s family. The sales person believes that calling you by your first name is friendlier and will put you more in the frame of mind to buy whatever the salesperson wants to sell.
Children are introduced to adults by the adult’s first name. The adult could be a friend of the parent or a pediatrician. It does not matter. Aunts, uncles, and step-parents are addressed by their first names.
At an earlier time, if adults were to be addressed by a first name, it was preceded by an honorific of Miss, Ms., Mr., Sir, Mrs., Dr., Lady, Lord, Aunt, Uncle, Grandma, or Grandpa. Not even servants were addressed by their first names. Your next-door neighbor, who brought you vegetables from her garden, was Miss Sissy. If you were a child, she was your elder. You would not dream of addressing her with anything less than the level of respect she warranted as your elder. Even if Ms. Sissy was a crabby old lady, you would not disrespect her. As an adult, you still would address her as Ms. Sissy unless she was a close friend. You would show respect to others because you respect yourself and you would want to be treated with the same respect.
In the French language, different second person singular pronouns are used, depending upon level of familiarity. The more formal pronoun is used with everyone but family and close friends. It is the equivalent of using an honorific. In India and some Southeast Asian countries, Namaste is used as a respectful form of greeting with relatives and strangers alike.
We continue to use honorifics such as Mom and Dad. These are terms of relationship and endearment as well as respect. Why drop the honorific for Aunt Sally, regardless of whether you have become an adult yourself? Nothing has changed about the relationship between you or the difference in your ages. Even priests are afforded the honorific of Father in front of their names.
Then, there’s the matter of what to call a step-parent, much less the parents of a step-parent. We simply do not have honorifics already in place. This is a situation in which an honorific has to be invented. Dada James may seem awkward and Father James implies something completely different. To address your mother’s husband by his first name just seems to lower his status and allow disrespect.
Why not begin a trend of respect, starting with yourself?