The beauty of our victory in the Revolutionary War went beyond the self-governance it brought us. It also began to dismantle the age-old custom of social classes which existed in European societies. We railed against taxation without representation, but we also despised the apparent snobbery of those who were born into nobility without having done anything to earn their elevated positions.
But we almost fell back into that same arrangement a few short years after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 by which Great Britain formally recognized our independence. When George Washington was elected as our new nation’s first head of state, many lofty forms of address were being discussed by Congress. Instead of being “Your Elective Highness” or other terms dangerously reminiscent of the culture we broke away from, it was decided to call him simply “Mr. President” to Washington’s great relief.1
Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution ends with “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Nevertheless, we still address Queen Elizabeth as “Your Majesty” and “Your Royal Highness” for Prince Philip, to counter our reputation that “British royals are imminently familiar with Americans and our lack of practice with the forms of address used when addressing nobility.2
As our young nation grew, we were noted for the collegial relationships we felt with our Commanders-in-Chief. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”, “Honest Abe”, “Ike” and “Jimmy” are a few examples of this sense of familiarity. Even so, we continue to show respect for the office, if not for the individual we may disagree with. Therefore, we address him as “Mr. President” not “Barack” or impolite descriptives.
But like any trend, it can drift beyond what is respectful as it filters down to the average individual. While growing up in the 1960s suburbs, I began hearing a few friends referring to friends’ parents by their first names. Any suggestion that my sisters and I would consider doing the same was effectively dismissed by my parents, to my everlasting gratitude after I became an adult.
Consequently, when I became my company’s representative to a national standards organization in my early 40’s, I always addressed my 80+ year old mentor in the paper permanence committee as “Mr.Wilson,” not “Bill” as his peers or near-peers could address him. To do otherwise was inconceivable and was confirmed by his humble acceptance of my show of respect.3,4
It is this background which causes me to cringe increasingly each time I hear restaurant servers in their 20’s or 30’s ask “How are you guys doing?” or “What can I get you guys?” to members of my parents’ generation or even to mine.
Informality can be a healthy way of breaking down those barriers which inhibit productive communication. This has helped our experimental republic continue to advance. However, all of us should restrict certain levels of familiarity for use with our peers or to those younger lest we erode the respect necessary to maintain a civilized society.
1 – “Happily the matter is now done with, I hope never to be revived.” – George Washington. Article by
Harlow Giles Unger, “How His ‘Highness’ George Washington Became ‘Mr. President’”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com, 2/14/2014
2 – Robert Hickey, http://www.formsofaddress.info/Prime Minister.html, author of “Honor & Respect”
3 – William K. Wilson, founding chairman of the ASTM D6.20 Sub-Committee on Paper Permanence and its head for over 30 years
4 – For me to call him by his first name would have been similar to the time Michelle Obama put her arm around Queen Elizabeth during an official visit. Ibid.