The Magazine

Manners in Disguise

What seems like familiarity just might be deference.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By STEPHEN MILLER
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But I’m not rigid about using last names in a business transaction. I’ve been going to the same Puerto Rican barber for 30 years. He usually first addresses me as Señor Miller, but when we are chatting, he often switches to Steve. I call him Ralph. (In Spanish he is Raife.)

Like everyone, I’ve been addressed in a variety of ways. When I was a kid my friends usually said, “Hey, Miller!” An unpleasant barber used to say to me, “Son, sit still!” I remember a mean-looking teenager yelling at me, “Hey, you, c’mere!” Instead of running away, I obeyed his command—and he punched me in the face. I have no idea why. A few weeks ago, when I met an old friend for lunch, I said, “Hey, man, how’s it going?” Since my hair now is grayish-white, I am usually addressed as “sir” when I’m by myself.

Do I like “guys” because it makes me feel younger to be in a group addressed as “guys”? Not at all. I know the waitress thinks I’m a geezer. I like the word “guys” for a simple reason: It is a friendly but not overly familiar one-size-fits-all appellation. Young or old, rich or poor, Harvard graduate or high school dropout, fifth-generation American or new immigrant—all Americans are guys.

Stephen Miller is the author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.

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