What's in a name?
Dropped the shrink a note the other day and, as usual, found myself poised over the paper, struggling with the question of how to address him:Dear Dr. Smith ...No, too formal. I've known the guy for more than a decade.Dear David...Nope, too familiar. Implies he's a pal, which I might like him to be but he's not.Dear Herr Shrink ... Forget it. Way too cute.Um ...Hey, you!Alas. Names are so confusing. What to call the shrink; what to call the parents of your boyfriend or your spouse or your childhood friends; what to call older people, or famous people, or figures of authority. A close friend is about to get married. Her future sister-in-law calls her in-laws Mom and Dad, so she feels compelled to call them Mom and Dad as well, but she also feels conflicted about this: she already has a mom and a dad. Isn't there something disloyal about transferring those titles to a different set of parents? The first names of the fiance's parents are an option Ñ Jeanette and Fred Ñ- but if everyone else in the family refers to them as Mom and Dad, she'll feel weird straying from the norm. She loses sleep over this. The parents' last name is Simpson, so finally she tries to come up with a contraction of Simpson Mom and Simpson Dad. But that leads to the names Sim and Sid, which sound like "simpleton" and "sudden infant death syndrome," not the best way to cement a relationship with prospective in-laws. So, like me with the shrink, she's searching for something more neutral. Something like Hey, you!Names function like codes, reflecting hierarchy, levels of respect, comfort zones. This is why I get so hung up on what to call the shrink. When I first met him, many years ago, he was most definitely Dr. Smith, an older, wiser, somewhat intimidating presence who demanded (at least in my view) a weighty title. Calling him David would have felt presumptuous and rude, like referring to the queen of England as "Betty." These days, I'm considerably less intimidated by the shrink, so "Dr. Smith" seems unnecessarily formal, but making the transition to "David" still makes me self-conscious, as though I'd be stepping out of bounds somehow. Use of a person's first name is so personal, implying the breakdown of certain social barriers: it sounds fine to say, "So, David, let's grab a beer," but it does not sound fine to say, "So, David, let's discuss transference issues."For the life of me, I cannot get myself to call my boyfriend's parents "Frank" and "Louise." This is absurd: everybody else calls them Frank and Louise Ñ- the boyfriend's sister-in-law, the boyfriend's pals, often even the boyfriend himself. But it feels way too casual to me. This is particularly true with Frank, as Frank is the sort of name that sounds best if it's preceded by a really informal word, such as "Yo." Yo, Frank! Sounds good in theory, but you can't say that to your boyfriend's father, can you?Weddings seem to bring all these issues to a head, which is one of the many reasons I'm glad I'm not getting married anytime soon. Weddings throw you right into the fray. What are you supposed to call the rabbi or minister or priest? Do you call your fiance's ancient Aunt Sheila "Aunt Sheila" like everybody else, or do you call her Mrs. Whatever? Do you adopt all those weird familiar nicknames that family members have dreamed up over the years, or do you stick with more formal titles? A friend's boyfriend has an aging uncle whom everybody in the family calls, inexplicably, Oinker. She lives in fear of the day she actually comes face-to-face with this man and has to confront the decision head-on: can she really look into the eyes of a 94-year-old human and utter the words, "Good to meet you, Oinker"? If she doesn't, she suspects she'll be seen as unfriendly; if she does, she'll feel like a raging idiot.Names generate such terrible, subtle anxiety. A few times a year, usually around holidays, I'll call my old friend Nina at her parents' house. I've known her mother and father for more than 25 years now, and I certainly feel comfortable enough with them to refer to them by their Christian names, but I just can't do it. Nina's mother's name is Stella, and the transition from "Mrs. Lesser," which is what I've called her for eons, to "Stella," which I can't utter without plunging mentally into a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, just seems too great. Can't make the leap, so I usually just say, "Oh, hi!" and leave the name out entirely.If some names sound too familiar, others sound ridiculously formal. I'd be a terrible White House correspondent because I'd feel like such a moron calling the president "Mr. President." It sounds inane and artificial, like calling the guy who cleans your teeth "Mr. Dentist." I feel the same way about such titles as "Mr. Speaker" and "Your Majesty." Saying them aloud would make me squirm.But I think a lot of these decisions go beyond the question of what sounds formal and what sounds familiar. What's often at work are murkier issues about distance and closeness, about how much symbolic space you feel compelled to insert between yourself and the person you're addressing. The boyfriend's parents, for example, would really like me to call them Frank and Louise. They'd really like me to be a part of the family, to feel comfortable taking a seat Ñ- literally and figuratively Ñ- at the family table and becoming a member of the tribe. Calling them by the names everyone else in the extended family uses would signal to them a willingness on my part to make that transition, to shift from an outsider's position to an insider's, to slide naturally into the shared language of a clan. For years, I've resisted this, in part because I am a naturally reserved person who takes a long time to warm up to new people, and in part because I got to know them right around the time I lost my own parents. So a part of me Ñ- the part that misses my parents, and acknowledges that they are irreplaceable Ñ- feels compelled to maintain a certain distance from these other parental figures, to communicate my own discomfort at being invited into a new tribe. There's a difference between what feels expected and what feels right, and using familial forms of address causes little voices to go off in my head: "They're his parents, not my parents; his tribe, not mine." I feel uneasy using the easy, comfortable names that signal family membership Ñ- belonging, closeness, kinship; they don't quite feel natural to me, don't quite fit. Not wanting to make this confusion obvious or overt, I call the boyfriend's parents Frank and Louise, but I always feel like I'm tripping over the names, choking on them just a little bit.And so it is, I suppose, with lots of names: when you struggle with the question of what to call people, you're often struggling with the larger question of how close to them you feel Ñ- or want to feel, or are expected to feel. How much distance is built into the relationship? How much is called for? These can be loaded questions, full of ambiguity, and exceptionally difficult to address because they're almost never raised directly. Most of the time, we swim around each other like fish, feeling out what feels right and what feels wrong before we settle, often subconsciously, on the title that makes us feel the least conflicted.What to call the shrink? For now, I think I'll stick with, "Hey, you."