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Thursday, December 15, 2016


Listing the names of my relatives who died in Auschwitz brought home to me [thanks to Jerry Fresia’s perceptive comment] the importance of acknowledging people by their names.  Here is another tiny example.  I am undergoing a year-long course of treatment with a drug called Prednisone for an ailment called Polymyalgia Rheumatica that I thought was obscure until I started mentioning that I had it and discovered all sorts of people who also suffer from it [including my own sister!]  Once I began the medication, all pain disappeared, but I must reduce the dosage monthly by very small increments until I am down to one milligram a day.  Last Thursday, I saw my rheumatologist specialist for a routine follow-up [her first name, I kid you not, is Reummy!].  When I checked in at the front desk I was handed several sheets of boilerplate information they are required to give me, both about the clinic and about me.  I read them idly while I waited to be called, and noticed a curious fact.  In the literature, all the doctors are listed by both first and last name, but everyone else – the Physician’s Assistants, Nurses, front desk secretaries, etc. – are listed only by their first names.  I checked, and that is the way their name tags are printed as well.

This is a clear, and I suspect more or less universal, marker of class distinction.  Needless to say, the nurses and physician’s assistants often know more about the diseases being treated at the clinic than newly minted Doctors who get to be known on their first day by both their first and last names.  To be known by your first and last names is in America today a marker of respect and importance, a fact that is of course quite apparent in the Academy. 

I am old fashioned enough not to be comfortable with being known solely by my first name, but I am also rebellious enough to insist that everyone else should receive the same courtesy.  When I got home, I found an email message from the clinic asking me to rate the service I had received.  I gave everyone and everything a top ranking [I mean, so far as I can tell, they are taking good care of me], but at the end of the questionnaire, in the space for “comments,” I recommended that all the people working at the clinic should wear name tags giving their first and last names.

I put down my email address again, but I have not heard from them.


Ed Barreras said...

This had never occurred to me, but I suddenly sense that it is very common. In my pre-school, all the "teachers" (in quotes because they were not normally accredited) were known as [Ms. FIRST NAME]. Once we hit kindergarten, it was the standard [Ms. LAST NAME]. (Or "Mr." -- male teachers are/were rare at the elementary school level.) If nothing else, this shows the subtle infantilization of the practice.

Paul said...

Not on topic (sorry), but as I'm sure you're aware, the Republicans in your state are staging a coup. This is unbelievable.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I plan to blog about it to,orrow. It is beyond unbelievable.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I have worked in hospitals, in several different roles, for over a decade, and always assumed it was for privacy reasons. Indeed, during orientation at my first hospital, we were specifically told not to divulge our last names to patients (or other personal details) as this was deemed unprofessional.

I'm sure there's something to your class-based account as well, though, Professor.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Interesting. Why then divulge the complete names of the doctors?

Tom Cathcart said...

I'm also a long-time hospital employee, and my first reaction was Diogenes's, perhaps even that the employees had requested anonymity to avoid being called up by amorous patients. But when I said that to my wife, a career nurse and nurse exec, she asked your question, Bob. Hmm, maybe nobody wants to hit on a doctor? The email you got was from the "Quality Assurance" Dept. and the survey was probably from a national outfit called Press-Ganey. Hospitals generally take them pretty seriously, partly because the Joint Committee on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations will ask for them as well as for the follow-up actions. [It dates back to the 1980s and the attention that an American engineer named Deming got from teaching Toyota to build way better cars than the Americans.] So my guess is that you will receive a reply, but that it may take a while as your comment wends its way through the bureaucracy in search of either a definitive reason or a change in policy. Count on a month or so. In any case, I'm sure you're right that there's a deep-seated class bias at work here too.

David Palmeter said...

I've noticed that in my local supermarket, the check-out people are identified by first names only, but at the pharmacy the pharmacists' name tags have their full names and degrees. My recollection of emergency rooms, however, is that everyone is identified by full name and degrees or position.

I never thought of it before, but when I was a kid I always called the barber by his first name (Amos) and not his not Mr. Novak, although I knew his full name from his barber's license which was hanging on the wall. I was never told to do otherwise, and I don't think the other kids were either. The family physician, however, and the dentist, even the dog's veterinarian were "Doctor" so and so.

AB said...

I went to a fairly old fashioned British private school, where this practice had a definite class function.

Teachers were referred to as TITLE SURNAME, and addressed either in the same manner or simply as "sir" or "miss" (the latter regardless of marital status).

Porters and groundskeepers were addressed and referred to by first names only, often shortened forms: Terry, Steve, etc. These were permanent employees, male, white, working class.

Cleaners (female, often migrants, subcontracted) were generically referred to as "the cleaner", and only addressed for the purpose of giving instructions (" could you come back a bit later...). No titles or names were used, since we didn't know them, and didn't bother to ask.

Younger or more progressive members of staff addressed the boys by their first names, old or more conservative types used last names only.

So one ends up with interactions like: "Jones!" "Yes Dr Smith?" "Run and ask Terry if there is a spare set of keeper's gloves in the store..."