MICHAEL WOLSEY: In the name game it always pays to be polite
My granddaughter goes to a primary school where the children call the teachers by their first name.
It is, from what I can judge, a very good school and she is happy there. But, as a general policy, I feel a bit uneasy about this first name thing. I certainly wouldn’t like to see it extended to secondary schools, as some people in Britain have been suggesting, following a call from a body there called Educate & Celebrate.
Its chief executive, Elly Barnes, was speaking at a conference organised by the National Education Union and she didn’t actually mention first names. What she wanted was an end to ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. She called them sexist terms and said some schools had replaced them with the gender-neutral word, ‘Teacher’.
I have no particular problem with that, but I was surprised by the number of people who took to print and social media to propose that, as an alternative, students and teachers should get on first name terms.
First name exchanges are for friends and teachers are not their students’ friends. The relationship may be perfectly friendly, but they are not friends: not chums, not pals, not mates. Children are at school to be educated and teachers are there to educate them. It is right that some distance be kept and respect shown.
Schools are almost the last bastion of respectful terms of address. Another is Dáil Éireann where TDs refer to each other as Deputy Whatever. Elsewhere we are all on first name terms, with the result that here, and in Britain, we no longer have appropriate words of address to use, or at least none that we feel comfortable with.
My father and mother were called Mr and Mrs, but that was 60 years ago and now seems ridiculously formal.
Other nationalities have no problem with this. In France I am addressed as Monsieur and, if I am with a woman, she will be Madame. ” M’ssieurs, ‘dames,” says the ticket collector as he appears in your train carriage. ”Vous allez ou, Monsieur?” asks the chauffeur de taxi.
In Spain, I am Senor, a woman is Senora. And a conversation which involves a transaction will be dotted with ‘gracias’ and ‘por favor’ as a French transaction will be with ‘merci’ and ‘s’il vous plait’.
These French and Spanish tradespeople are no more gracious or friendly than their Irish equivalents but they observe such civilities as a matter of course and it starts with that formal address.
Such politeness has not been lost entirely to the English language. Americans have no problem addressing men as Sir, women as Ma’am, and these addresses are accompanied by other terms of basic civility which we seem to be losing.
Even in a busy New York store, the shop assistant will take time to bid you ‘Good morning’ and will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ for your trade. We should not scoff at their ‘how are you today?’ greetings and ‘have a nice day’ farewells.
Of course they are not sincerely meant. But neither are many things we say in everyday speech. Such phrases are the oil that makes our transactions run smoothly. They are common decencies and in this country we used to understand them well.
“Good morning, Mrs Wolsey,” the grocer would greet my mother.
”Good morning, Mr Murphy,” she would reply. “Isn’t it great to see a bit of sunshine after all that rain?”
Mr Murphy would agree and make some observation of his own. Then, and not before then, they would get down to the business of a purchase, which would be completed with thanks on both sides.
I can hear readers saying, ‘But that was a different time; a different world.” Indeed. But surely these little niceties are as relevant today? They take only a minute or so and are as appropriate to a conversation with a checkout assistant as with a grocer; a call-centre operative as with a bank manager.
No French shop assistant would dream of conducting business without the initial greeting of “Bonjour, Monsieur”.
We have lost the Monsieur equivalent and have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
It’s probably too late to reverse the trend but I hope we can at least retain a little respect in our schools. So sorry, Elly Barnes, but I’d like to stick with Sir and Miss. If that’s alright with you, Ma’am.