“My name is Carmen but you can call me Mrs. Calvo.”
How would that go down at a first meeting? Like verbal acquaintance rape I hear you say. But let us consider my old-fashioned mannerly motives, starting with the faux-familiarity of the first name salutation.
First-naming somebody you don’t effectively know can distort power relations, warranting the neglect of initial, contextual courtesy play. Play. For what after all is formality but a subtle game of granting respect and allowing liberties; a courtship, veiling and unveiling social niceties, tightening and loosening straps.
But there is more.
When first the Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood. Next time however he encountered the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by. The third time they came near one another the Fox went up to the Lion and spent the day with him, asking him how his family was, when they would meet again. Then turning his tail, the Fox parted from the Lion without much ceremony.
From The Fox and the Lion by Aesop
Is Aesop right? Does familiarity breed contempt? Or is Apuleius more accurate when he says that as familiarity breeds contempt, rarity wins admiration? Or is it all a matter of interpretation and does acquaintance softens prejudice?
Question is, what does the Lion think?
Hard to say.
But back to the beginning.
Carmen. Whether from Hebrew Karmel, God’s vineyard, or from the Latin word for poem, and despite not being my optimal choice, I am blessed by the lack of a hypocorisma or diminutive (unless if you add the suffix ‘cita’ which has the contradictory effect of making the name even longer).
Not all of you are that lucky. Catherine is Cathy, Abigail is Abi, James is Jimmie, ….
Call it a pet name, a nick name, a term of endearment. But only from the mouth of our loved ones, and even then, limited in time. Little baby Edward, lying in his crib, is Eddy. The same Edward, lying in the arms of his lover, twenty years later, gladly is Ned. But when Edward, another fifty years later gets pneumonia and is admitted into the local hospital’s geriatric ward and becomes Ted, the fun is over and we have entered the patronizing realm of elderspeak aka infantilizing communication.
Elderspeak is the bane of ‘older adulthood’.
“How are we today?”
Addressing elderly people as if they were children is insulting, offensive, belittling and destructive, leading to negative images of aging and worse functional health, affecting lifespan and competence.
Maintaining a sense of self, dignity and integrity is hard when age dictates and limits bodily functions. Being dependent on others for often small, menial tasks can be infuriating. Adding insult to injury by verbally pouring salt into the wound is cruel, unkind and unprofessional. ‘Hon’ or ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie’ does not convey sympathy. Raised, high-pitched voices do not constitute elderly care.
Meanwhile, Google Ventures’ president Bill Maris has $425 million to invest this year and is looking for companies that will slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life. Mr. Maris is convinced it is possible to live to 500 years old.
“We actually have the tools in the life sciences to achieve anything that you have the audacity to envision,” he said. “I just hope to live long enough not to die.”
And, let’s hope for him, to outlive elderspeak.