No matter how long I live in Georgia, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sound of “Mr. Richard.” That’s what kids of all ages call me here. It felt strange the first time a tyke referred to me in that fashion, and even odder on the latest occasion, this morning.
As a boy growing up in New Jersey, I consistently referred to adult strangers, my parents’ friends, and my friends’ parents by their last names. I’d greet them as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Jones,” for example. The sole exceptions were my parents’ closest friends. Though not my relatives, they received honorary “aunt” and “uncle” titles. I never addressed grown-ups by their first names alone.
I remember my shocked reaction the first time a child called me “Mr. Stern.” After finally registering that my father wasn’t in the room and that I was the referenced mister, I nearly dropped a kidney. Holy crap! I thought, I may as well start collecting social security!
I felt even more decrepit when my friends began having children of their own who continued the naming tradition. Unlike my generation, however, some of those kids were allowed to greet parents’ friends by their first names. The practice may’ve seemed less respectful, but it also sounded warmer than the formal alternative.
As far as I can tell, native southerners haven’t yet relaxed their communication conventions. Here though, “Mr. Richard” is the norm, not “Mr. Stern.” I don’t know when the tradition started, or why. What I do know is, the usage apparently applies to every unrelated adult, no matter how tight the relationship. I can’t recall hearing a southern child refer to a close family friend as “uncle” or “aunt.” And I definitely never heard a southern prepubescent refer to adults solely by their first names. Is the convention respectful? Yes. Does it sound cold and distant? I think so.
The wife and I were discussing these details on our return from the airport this morning. The topic came up after we dropped off her twin niece and nephew for their flight home … and ten-year-old Carlo bid me an unexpected adieu: “Bye, Mr. Richard.”
When I asked Sophia if she knew why her nephew had stopped referring to me as “Uncle Richard,” she admitted: “The other day, Carlo heard one of the neighbors’ children call me “Miss Sophia,” and he asked
why. I told him that’s how southern kids refer to the adults they don’t know too well and aren’t close to either.”
“Jeez!” I groused. “I accidentally take him to one female-filled party celebrating a girl’s first menstrual flow, and all of a sudden, it’s ‘Mr. Richard?’ Talk about touchy!”