Common Wisdom: Call Steve, Penny, or Glenn

From time to time my daughters bring me up to date on what is socially current. Knowing that I am always five years or so behind the latest social fads, they take it upon themselves to give me an occasional lesson. In their latest instruction they assured me of the acceptability of an odd new practice — that of often dropping one’s last name in social and business relations.

Most of us have become used to the chatty, intrusive, “Hi, I’m Jennifer, and I’ll be your server tonight.” (The last Jennifer who announced herself told me she would be cleaning my teeth.) It seems that this kind of first-name-only informality extends to nearly all social and business interactions in which the participants are younger than forty-five.

Just how pervasive the first-name fad has become struck me as I recently motored north out of Cincinnati on Interstate 75. “Call Steve, Penny, or Glenn,” blared a new black and yellow billboard, “242-5040.” Nothing else — no reason to call Steve, Penny, or Glenn — just call them. Curious, I did call the number and found it belonged to a media company that sells billboard advertising.

Not long ago, while I was waiting for someone in a hotel lobby, I watched a young businesswoman walk up to three young men with whom she apparently was going to work on a project. One of the men (the only one who appeared to know her) welcomed her with a handshake.

“Hello, Kelly,” he said. Introducing her to the man next to him, he said, “Kelly, this is Greg.” Kelly shook hands with Greg. She then was introduced in turn to the other two men. In this round of introductions no one used a last name. I only hope they had crib sheets stashed somewhere that will tell them those last names. Otherwise it is a marvel that they could make future phone calls or address correspondence to each other.

I suppose I should look upon this first-name fad as merely an irritating, mostly harmless, social wrinkle that eventually will be ironed out of the cultural fabric. I admit it has become such a common practice that I am getting accustomed to it. Those who use only their first names — receptionists, salesmen, beauticians, waiters, telephone solicitors, nurses, students, and all the rest — think they are simply putting others at ease. Yet, I still retain an uncomfortable suspicion that this seemingly benign practice symbolizes part of what ails our culture.

Informality is one thing. It may not be always appealing, but it has its place. The no-name phenomenon is something else. It is an urge to be anonymous, a refusal to reveal one’s identity. Such anonymity implies a reluctance to engage another person in any genuine bond. It therefore rules out friendship. Giving only a first name, one can be friendly, charming, cheerful, and conversational, and yet never offer friendship. One can put up the appearance of closeness and camaraderie without risking the responsibility that friendship necessarily entails. Similarly, in business situations one can, with only a first name, conduct dealings in a chummy, good-guy manner without accepting full responsibility for performance. Using only a first name, one more easily may slide off the hook.

On college campuses, I am told, where social arrangements are often primitive and imprudently casual, the first-name-only practice is nearly universal. Keeping to first names must surely foster the casual sexual encounters that mar the typical college environment. Without last names neither party has to feel embarrassed or guilty or involved.

What’s in a name? What does it mean? Which is more important, first or last names? Both first and last names are essential, of course; both identify a person to others and to himself. Names tell us who we are, and the deep significance of names is no more stunning than when Yahweh told Moses his name. When Yahweh, on the one hand, revealed his name — ” I Am Who I Am” — he told us who he is. Being God, he would do no less. Yahweh’s very name is synonymous with his essence, his identity. Our human names, on the other hand, are not the same as our essence—our names do not explain us. Yet, our names nonetheless do say something about us: They individualize us; they set us apart from other people; they signify that each of us is precious and invaluable. So important are names that the Lord himself often specified names for those to whom he delegated especially heavy work. He gave names to his Son Jesus (“Yahweh Saves”), to John the Baptist (“Yahweh is Gracious”), and to Peter (“the Rock”).

First names set us apart within our immediate circle, among our family and close friends. Within that small circle they are indispensable. A young mother calls Joey, and his playmates know Joey has to go inside, but they can stay outside until someone calls their names. Beyond this small circle, however, the utility of first names drops dramatically.

To link us with the public sphere we need last names. To graduate beyond first or second grade, when we still were allowed to sign our papers with the carefully printed letters “Melissa B.” or “David H.,” we need full-fledged family names. Family names do exactly what they say they do — they locate us within a family. They attach us to a particular family as much as they distinguish us from membership in other families. In so doing they fix us in a community. Five generations of the Motz family, for example, have lived along Clough Creek in our neighborhood. They keep track of the local who married whom, who so-and-so’s father and mother were, and who lived in so-and-so’s house before it was sold to so-and-so. The Motz family is fortunate. It is still anchored, as all families originally are, to a place. Its members for the most part have not become what Wendell Berry calls urban nomads. Motzes, knowing where they come from, know who they are. They are smart, knowledgeable, interesting, engaging, entrepreneurial, devout, neighborly. They built our parish, and to this day they form its mainstay. The women who married into this large-hearted man’s man family are lovely, noble, strongly maternal. They brought to their marriages the attributes of their own genetic and cultural inheritances and, taking the name of Motz, made the family tree even hardier. This healthy hybridization that marks the union of two families in marriage is one of the most remarkable provisions of God’s providence. The new union of two families under one name does not mean the diminution of either the woman’s line or the man’s, but instead heralds an altogether new mixture that offers the possibility of revivifying the race each time a new couple founds a family. A name is what a man gives a woman when he marries her; a name is what she receives as his gift. A name is what a man and woman together give to their children.

Around this name, over generations, a history and a tradition weave their binding threads. When each baby arrives to take anew the family name, the older family members wrap the infant novice in the mantle of responsibility, a garment with which they protect and educate him, and which he in turn receives as his own, to give one day to his children. Under the aegis of a name the family members, young and old, unite to move history. Nothing anchors them in their time and place more powerfully than a name. Nothing charges them with charity toward those with whom they are bonded and bids them to care for each other more powerfully than a name. The ties that each named family has with its members are tough ligaments that naturally bind the family not only to each other but also to a community. Any vibrant community receives water for its roots from families who know each other, trust each other, and link together honorably as economic, social, and spiritual companions.

The latest cultural mores that divide us from our family names also cut us off both from the responsibility we owe our families and community and the care our families and community give us. Without the encumbrance of a family name we sometimes fool ourselves that we may do as we please, free of responsibility to uphold the honor of our family. But without the protection of a family name, we discover that we are all alone. Last names mean more than we think.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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