What's wrong with addressing strangers with their first names? It beats using the wrong one, at least

A new survey says we get annoyed by being addressed in first name terms. But why?

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On Saturday, as it was a Bank Holiday weekend, I called a well-known DIY store to enquire about the late delivery of my lino. I left my mobile phone number and spelt out my name, Katy-with-a-Y, so that Somebody In Flooring could call me back. Five minutes later, my phone rang. “Hello, is that Mrs Guest?” asked Flooring. “This is Katy Guest”, I replied. He was most distressed.

I blame Ask Jeeves, whose new survey claims to prove that people hate being addressed by their first names by strangers. In fact, the survey of 1,000 adults found that the over-60s were most likely to be annoyed by first name terms, with only 33 per cent of them preferring Mr, Mrs or Miss.

As it happens, Mrs Guest – my mum - is over 60. Katy Guest, on the other hand, is not. And Katy Guest doesn’t find it polite for Somebody In Flooring to call her Mrs when she is not; she just wants her lino to be delivered before Easter Monday.

The same thing happened when I took my car for an MOT at a well-known quick fitter’s. “Are you Mrs or Miss?” asked the young man filling in my form. “No”, I replied. “Does my marital status make a difference to the performance of my carburettor?” He didn’t know.

It also happened when I bought a fridge, and spent six weeks trying to get it delivered. Every time I called with my name and order number, someone would ring back and ask for Mrs Guest. “She’s not here!” I would tell them. They refused to use the title “Ms”. They clearly didn’t think that a little Miss ought to be ordering fridges. And they wouldn’t talk to me, Katy. I had to pretend to be married just to get what I’d paid for.

Perhaps the over-60s object to the power disparity of the “Hello doctor”/ “Hello Betty” conversation. Or the stalkerish exchange with a cold caller who knows your name but won’t give out her own. Or the coffee shop that asks for your name, only to write a string of meaningless consonants on your cup. So do I. These things are obviously rude.

But so is refusing to hear somebody’s name, even when they spell it out, and calling them instead by the name of someone that they are not. I certainly think so, and so does Mrs Guest. 

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