The question has arisen this week particularly because of the behaviour of Bob Diamond towards the MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee questioning him about the LIBOR scandal. He consistently called them by their first name, while they equally consistently and ostentatiously called him “Mr Diamond”. Is he genuinely on first name terms with all of these people, or was he following the recent internet tradition of calling every one in that way? Whatever, it came across that he was being arrogant, patronising, and insolent, while the MPs were deliberately distancing themselves from him by their formality – in what was, after all, a very formal situation.
I had a similar experience myself a few years ago when there was a public controversy over the circumstances of my brother’s death. I received an email from a Sky News producer wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. I didn’t reply for two years, by which time I reckoned that I was no longer of interest. My reply was scathing: “How dare you address me as a long-term friend when you had never heard of me until two days before, and during a period of acute stress for my family” (I paraphrase – I can’t remember the exact words I used). I wrote about this in an earlier post, and Stewart Clark and I had a complete section on writing letters and emails in our book Words: A User’s Guide.
The question arises, would Mr Diamond talk to the Queen and Prince Philip in the same way: “Liz” and “Phil(ip)”? I suspect not, but if you can address a perfect stranger by their first name, why not? I remember that when I lived in Norway, there were raised eyebrows among my Norwegian colleagues when they heard a Swedish television interviewer use the familiar “du” form to the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. And this was in Scandinavia, a much more relaxed society than Britain.
It is one of the signs that politicians and journalists are becoming too close that the BBC’s Evan Davies, interviewing for the Today programme on Radio 4 frequently teeters on the brink of overfamiliarity with his political interviewees, and non-politicians are almost always given the first name treatment. Do they ask for that, or is it put like this: “Do you mind if I call you …?” to which it would seem churlish to answer “Yes”.
Another question of naming occurs regularly in “The Archers” (Radio 4 soap opera for those outside the UK). It may be to introduce new listeners to the characters so that they can sort them out, but in my experience it is not normal British English usage. The characters frequently refer to other members of the cast by their first name, even when talking about them to close members of the family. Thus “Ruth”, the wife of “David”, and mother of “Pip”, “Josh” and “Ben”, often calls “David”‘s mother “Jill”, even when talking to these characters. In my experience, which may now be old-fashioned, the correct form of address is “your Mum” or “your Gran” (or whatever term is used for the grandmother). The same mis-use (if it is that in 2012) applies across the programme. My own daughter calls her mother-in-law by her first name, but when talking to my son-in-law, she calls her “your Mum”, as I do in talking to my son-in-law. Perhaps my daughter is as old-fashioned as I am.
Now that I’ve displayed my low taste in radio, I’ll stop.