Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

So What Do I Call You Now?

4 Comments

Adulthood is a pesky thing. It keeps rearing up when I least expect it, reminding me that the rules by which I have always abided (why do we say “abided” here, and not “abode?”) have changed; I cannot do things as I have always done them. Responsibility, which I have never feared, suddenly carries real-world repercussions that affect more than just me, and suddenly I occupy a different place in the world.

A lot of this was true in Mongolia, of course, but some of it hits me afresh now that I’ve returned to America, specifically the issue of names. There are an awful lot of people I originally knew as Mr./Ms./Dr. [last name] because I was a child, or a student. But now I’m neither, and that muddies the waters a bit. How does one address a former teacher/professor? A former scout leader? A former boss who also attends my church? My parents’ friends, who I’ve always sort-of-but-not-really known?

Some of these folks make it easy for me. The scout leader addresses me by last name unless I address her by first name; several of my teachers/professors always asked me to call them by their first names, or have told me since graduating that I can do so.

But then there’s the former-boss-who-attends-my church. I knew him first as an adult at church, so I called him Mr. B. But then I started working for him, and I couldn’t call everyone else at the office by their first names and not him. But then, it didn’t seem right to call him by his first name at church, either. So I referred to him by his first name at work and his last name at church and just tried to avoid addressing him by name altogether. For that matter, I still do, even though I no longer work for him.

And what are you supposed to do about professors with doctorates who sign their emails with their first names, or their initials, but never actually address the issue of address? My general policy is to call those with doctorates by their titles unless and until I’m specifically asked to do otherwise, but those signatures add just enough ambiguity to the situation to make me antsy. If you don’t want me to call you by name, why are you signing your emails to me with it? But if you want me to call you by name, why haven’t you asked me to?

Mongolia brought a welcome reprieve from the business of titles. No one there calls anyone Mr. or Mrs. anything, probably because there is no single system of last names. Mongolians don’t usually have single surnames that are passed along the generations; instead, most of them have adopted the Russian patronymic system. Thus, each child bears the name of his or her father – sometimes with the genitive suffix appended, and sometimes not. That’s already a lot of mosts and sometimeses: a Mongolian’s “surname” could be 1) a Russian-style patronymic, with the genitive suffix; 2) a patronymic without the suffix; 3) a Western-style family name.

To further confuse matters, they also reverse the familiar Western order of the names so that the patronymic (or surname) comes first, much like the Chinese family name. Mongolian names in intra-national contexts are always listed this way. But throw a Western country with a different name order into the mix, and it’s a bit of a toss-up as to which will be used. Just writing your name on an official form becomes a headache, lest you accidentally switch the boxes for your “first” and “last” names. Even finding people on Facebook is tricky, since some list their names in Western order, and some in Eastern.

And yet, I said this was simpler to navigate? If you were actually talking to the person, it was indeed.

If you look at a Mongolian business card, you’ll find it very easy to tell which name to use when addressing the person to whom it belongs: it’s in all caps. Thus, my name (transcribed phonetically) would read Бурк КЭЙТЛИН; my coworker’s, Доржсүрэн ҮҮРЦАЙХ. The given name has precedence, and it’s what everyone calls you. Indeed, sometimes they don’t even bother to list the family name/surname/patronymic – just the initial. I have no idea what my coworkers’ last names were because on every roster I ever saw, their names were just listed as Ц. Лхагва or Г. Эрдэнэсувд.

“What?” you ask, “students call their teachers by first name?” Well, sort of. Often they add the word teacher (багш/bagsh, plus a vocative aa) to the end of the teacher’s name – or they just call the teacher teacher. Thus, my students called me Katya-bagshaa or just bagshaa. I called my students,  coworkers, and superiors alike by their first names, and my coworkers called me Katya unless I was actively teaching them (in which case they too called me Katya-bagshaa). It was all wonderfully simple and uniform.

Now, alas, I’m back to wondering  what I’m supposed to call people, especially the ones I now know in different contexts. I just wrote an entire post about how much I dislike being called by unsanctioned nicknames, which is all part of the same topic. I wouldn’t want to cause the same distress to someone else through a similar instance of over-familiarity.

Just tell me what you want to be called, alright? Less ambiguity, less stress all around.

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Author: everywherebuthome

Linguist. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Expat in Mongolia. Writer. Scout, dancer, gymnast, equestrienne.

4 thoughts on “So What Do I Call You Now?

  1. These are tricky waters to navigate! On the whole, I call people by their first name if I know it, and I never call anyone ma’am or sir (which is one of the many reasons I’d be totally unsuited for the armed forces). A lot of that is to do with the fact that I’ve been calling my teachers by their first names since the age of 16; that was just what was done at both my sixth form college and my universities. With emails, if I’m the first to send one I’ll go with a formal manner of address, usually Dear Mr/Ms Surname (actually – this is the one exception to my earlier rule: I will use sir/madam if I don’t have a name to use at all), but once I’ve had a reply I will address them using the name they signed their reply with, and the form of address they used for me. Does that make sense? So I might send an email which said “Dear Mrs King”, but if I receive a reply “Hi May … From Beatrice” then my next email will open with “Hi Beatrice”.

    • It does indeed!

      And I did have a number of teachers along the way who had me call them by their first names – fine arts teachers in HS and then assorted professors in college, all of them PhDs.

      I don’t know that I call anyone “ma’am,” but I use “sir” on a regular (and ironic/playful) basis – “thank you, sir” to a friend holding the door open, for instance.

  2. Tricky waters indeed!

    I’m still struggling in my 40s with some folks… do I call my partner’s mother “mummy?” (doesn’t fit for me!) or “Katsy” (which I mostly use, then some folks look at me strangely).. I live with her son so “Mrs Smith” is waaaay too odd… and I can’t just fall back on the ubiquitous “Aunty.”

    Good luck with this!

  3. I like that in many cultures where you have options for what you call someone, asking is normal. So in Russian, if I sense that something has changed in the relationship, I can say, “Can I call you X?” The other person can say, “no,” and it’s not weird.

    I’ve heard of the German custom of moving from Sie to du, and a ceremony involving a beer toast is involved. I’ve never met someone who actually did it, though.

    In English, I try to keep the same way of referring to someone. I still call my friends’ parents Mr and Mrs. Work is tricky, since I work with my priest in his secular job. I try not to call him “father” at work ;)

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