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Show Ms. Angelou Some Respect, Please

Stephen L. Carter
Show Ms. Angelou Some Respect, Please

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The late Maya Angelou, one of the towering literary figures of the 20th century, would have turned 91 next month. But rather than celebrating her genius, the internet is in the midst of a weird squabble over a decades-old video in which she instructs a younger woman who says “Maya” to call her instead by her title and last name.

No instruction should have been necessary.

Using a stranger’s first name, I was taught, is a privilege, not a right, for the name is the stranger’s own possession, not mine. Using the surname, together with the proper title, was simple good manners. The rule applied with special force when addressing an elder, who was entitled to a special respect.

Nowadays, first names are everywhere: in fundraising appeals from nonprofit groups and politicians, in the sales patter of car dealers, in the voice at the other end of the toll-free help line. I quite recognize that we live in an era considerably less formal than the one during which I grew up, and the new era has its advantages. But when it involves erasing one’s surname from everyday interaction, the supposed informality becomes instead is a forced and creepy intimacy.

My late father was adamant on the matter and passed his adamance on to me. And I will not pretend that my passion about forms of address — or his — is unrelated to our nation’s tortured racial history. Black Americans fought for generations to be called by a last name preceded by a proper appellation, and won a hard victory that the new informality is squandering.

Throughout Jim Crow, white adults were “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and “Miss.” Black adults were addressed by their first names and had little choice but to accept, stiff-lipped, the derisive practice of the day. As black-owned newspapers arose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, editors were at pains to refer to their people through use of what were considered respectful forms of address.

My father used to tell me how before the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, there had been a boycott of Southern stores that refused to use the surnames of their black customers. I’ve been unable to confirm the tale, but one can well imagine such a thing happening. So acute was the concern of black Southerners over the practice during 1950s and 1960s that many of them chose to be listed in the telephone directory only by first initial and surname, to force callers to say “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss.” The cultural potency of the racist refusal to use surnames for black adults led to this classic confrontation between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s 1967 film “In the Heat of the Night.”

And even if we step back from the racial aspect, there’s still a clear disrespect in the insistence on a forced intimacy that denies to the other person any sense of control over the nature of the interaction. It suggests that when we speak, it is up to you, not me, what I am called. This is a flat violation of individual autonomy. When the other person is older, the disrespect is particularly acute.

Which brings us to the professional field where use of first names has become most depressingly common. No, no, not telemarketing: medicine.

The intake form you’re handed on your first visit to a physician’s office usually includes a question asking what you would prefer to be called. Invariably, I write “Mr. Carter.” And despite the fact that this preference appears clearly on the chart, often in bold letters (I’ve peeked), I’m almost always called by my first name, particularly in the waiting room. When I ask, I’m almost always told that federal privacy law requires this practice.

This is a common mythology — and utterly false.

The issue is governed by what is known as the “HIPAA Privacy Rule,” promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services to enforce the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The rule requires that covered entities (such as doctors’ offices) make the “minimum necessary” disclosure of “individually identifiable health information” — which, under the rule, includes patient names.

But by HHS’s own interpretation, even use of a patient’s full name (for example, on a waiting room sign-in sheet) is not a violation, as long as no information about the reason for the visit is disclosed. True, some lawyers in the field have argued that a general practitioner might read the rule less restrictively than, for example, an oncologist. But even on a stricter understanding, it’s clear that a medical practice is free to use first name or last. The patient is not “individually identifiable” unless both are used together.

Besides, the privacy rules can be waived by the patient. (That’s one of the forms you sign when you visit a new doctor.) In short, there’s nothing to stop medical practices from respecting the wishes of their patients. All they have to do is want to.

The same may be said of society at large, which in this informal age violates with impunity the name preferences of individuals. At least the medical offices that so carelessly select first names have a rationale for their rudeness — a poor rationale but a rationale. The rest of us have none.

So when Ms. Angelou insisted on being addressed according to her own preference, she was demanding no more than her due as a free and autonomous individual. Hers — and all of ours.

To contact the author of this story: Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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