One of the Delphic maxims exhorts us that “if you are a stranger, act like one.” The learned Elani Temperance does her usual amazing job of explaining the historical context for that bit of wisdom in the post I linked, but I have been trying to practice this particular maxim in a modern context. The result is that I sometimes gives the impression of being slightly old-fashioned, and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.
Strangers are people who are neither friends nor enemies. In her book Longing For Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims, Allyson Szabo says that in ancient Greece, “Strangers were treated with cautious courtesy, as they could easily slide into the ‘enemy’ category, but could also be a god in disguise.” She goes on to say that, when meeting someone new, the Greek “would be warily friendly. He was a stranger. He would not presume to act like a close friend. Even if he knew a mutual friend, that did not give him the rights of a true friend.” (I hesitate to impose upon Ms. Szabo by quoting more liberally from her work; she is a stranger to me, so I wish to act like one.)
The wisdom here is we should not presume the comforts of familiarity where none exist. After considering this maxim for some time, I reached the conclusion that American society has been stripped of linguistic cues regarding relationships. The French language has two forms of “you,” the formal vous and the intimate tu; we have forsaken the English thou as archaic, so that one’s out. In my father’s day, people outside of close friends and relations were address with titles, such as “Mr. Smith” and “Reverend Jones.” Perhaps because those titles frequently announced a woman’s marital status while leaving men to their own devices, the entire convention was discarded as sexist.
All my life I have addressed employers, powerful political figures, priests and priestesses, doctors and diplomats by their first names. I think early Quakers used plain speech in part to honor that difference; I may be wrong about their intent for using “thee” and “thou,” but the practice has largely fallen by the wayside, and is more of a peculiar distraction than anything else.
But the use of titles, and particularly the avoidance of first names, is something I believe can reinforce the relationship of courteous respect that we should have with strangers. When we all refer to each other by first names, we get a false sense of familiarity that begets a false sense of privilege. I use titles and last names as a way of reminding myself that I am a stranger, and should act like one.
Sometimes this raises someone’s hackles, and they ask me to call them by their first name; I have thus far respected the request rather than cause more problems than this practice is designed to solve. Perhaps if the practice becomes more common, I won’t get quite so many peculiar looks.