Saturday 6 April 2013

Dignity whilst still living.

This article by Katherine Whitehorn in last Tuesday's Guardian should be required reading in all NHS hospitals.

Whatever happened to "Miss Blenkinsop, may I call you Mabel?", spoken in hesitant tones? That may have been stuffy and Edwardian, but the whole point of needing permission to use a first name was that it implied intimacy, which, apart from senior relatives, only the owner of the Christian name could bestow.

OK, we all sling first names around more than they did in those days, but we still have surnames for strangers and first names for friends. So it's no wonder we're always irritated by someone from a call-centre presuming to sound like a friend, as the results of a survey for Ask Jeeves reveals. Waiters think they are being winningly friendly if they greet you at breakfast by name, and Starbucks staff, who put your name on your cup, are trying to do the same; but do they really think we're touched by their friendliness? 

In fact, it's more likely to be the opposite. In the book You Just Don't Understand, linguist Deborah Tannen showed that actually, when a doctor calls you Mary but expects you to call him Doctor, he may think he's just being friendly, but actually he's assuming his superiority, just as an august uncle who calls a child Jimmy does not expect to get "Thanks Johnny" in reply.

I always feel patronised when somebody's junior employee – especially if male – uses my first name; it always has a ring of "Now little lady" about it; and if I've been called out of my bath by some stranger who is trying to sell me something, his impertinent use of my Christian name makes me hate his blasted product more than ever.

You might think I'd welcome people using Katharine, since I go by two surnames, my married name and the one I was born with. But actually, friends call me – no, I'm not saying, just in case.

When in hospital and all sorts of unusual and often humiliating things are happening to us we are all in need of a sense of dignity and self worth.  So here, NHS, his is a way you can improve your (our) service without costing or reorganising anything.  I don' know, because I'm not a member, but I bet BUPA patients get their honorific.

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