The Power of a Name

The first Jan I met who was close to my age, was a girl  who worked with me at Muir Roberts cherry factory one summer during high school. I was thrilled to find another young Jan, not a Janice or a Janet, just plain Jan, and she was under 40.   I used to dislike my name, it seemed so dated and odd (when your famous namesake is a Brady, it’s hard to escape the 70’s persona). But now I love it because it has meshed into my personality and given a label to this body, this life, this spirit. I am Jan. Jan I am.

How we use our name and other people’s names is intricately tied to respect.  But respect is not a one-size-fits-all dynamic.  We often think of respect as being formal, polite, and appropriately distant.  But that kind of respect doesn’t contribute to intimate relationships.  There is also the deep respect of people you know and love well.  These people feel comfortable, accepting and happy to be around you.  They care what you think and if you are well, they respect you because they know you and have judged you worthy of respect.  Respect from strangers is different–this is the formal kind. It does not presume to overstep boundaries,  focuses on manners and knowing our place in a hierarchy.  Both types of respect are essential to our relationships and interactions with people, but I feel like the formal brand of respect disproportionately defines the word “respect” more than the intimate kind does.

Deep respect comes from an intimate knowledge of a person.   The people who respect me the most, who regard me the highest–they don’t call me Mrs. Francisco, or even Jan.  They call me Janny.  Sometimes Janny-pants.  There is such love in hearing “Janny-pants” out of the mouth of one who I love and respect too.  My name is safe with them and so am I.  This love and consideration is the type of respect that I crave the most.  It feels like acceptance and permission to be absolutely myself.  Deep respect is confidence in a person and encouragement to be authentic.  That kind of respect says, “You are good enough.  I love you just like you are.”

There are also titles that sound as sweet as our given names: Grandma or Grandpa, Mom, Sweetie, Uncle, Aunt, Cousin _____ (What?  Doesn’t your family use the “cousin” tag on everyone?) These familial titles, often used in conjunction with our names are also intimate and dear because they belong to a relationship.  I only have a few nieces and nephews, and they are the only ones who can call me Aunt Jan.  And I love being their Aunt Jan. It amplifies a little bit of who I am.  When my kids call me “Jan” I laugh because it’s so odd, but then I say, “Everyone in the world gets to call me Jan.  But only you get to call me Mom.  It’s your special thing, so you should use it!”

I do think there is a place for titles, however. Because our given name is so much intertwined with who we are, we need to protect it in an effort to protect ourselves and maintain our privacy from the strangers around us.  We can encapsulate ourselves within a larger name, title or series of acronymns.  Dr. R. P. Rashad, M.D., Ph.D, P.A. for example.  See that?  His name isn’t even in there!  You can’t tell anything about him personally, just what he wants you to know about him, professionally.  Titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Ma’am and Sir–these show a different kind of respect.  The formality of a title plus last name protects us from strangers encroaching on our special, personal identity.  It sets a boundary that says, “I will not presume to call you by your given name because I have not yet been invited into that circle.”  Titles leave space between people.  Given names can mush us right together.  Being mindful of the effects of how you call a person is an important element of respect.

I feel like in the church, we’ve gotten a little backward with the name issue.  We call each other “Brother” or “Sister” which is a familial title,  but we do it formally.  Back in the day when they actually spoke like this in normal society, they would introduce themselves as “Brother Joseph” or “Brother Brigham”–they were showing the deep respect that comes from family relationships.  They were living out the belief that we are all children of Christ, joined together in His church.  No divisions, no class hierarchy, no positioning.

But now, it is “Brother Jenkins”, a title meant to give distance, a boundary to keep us from knowing each other too closely.  Some insist on being called exclusively by their last names and keep such a wide circumference of formality around them that they never get on closely with their ward members.  Or even worse, some don’t bother to get to know anyone’s name and “Sister” just becomes the gloss term for “I don’t know your name.  Sorry.”  Though some titles in the church do need distance.  Missionaries definitely need some distance.  Apostles need some distance.  Leaders of congregations need some distance in order to not be overrun by everyone needing personal favors all the time.  But for the rank and file members of the church, we need to aim towards deeper respect.

I guess the point of this mental wandering is being mindful of how we allow our name to be used, and how we use others’ names.  It may be good from time to time to evaluate how close we feel to the people we call by their first names, or if we ought to invite people to use our first names.  And I would personally love it if, in the church, we used the more loving rendition of the “Brother/Sister” name.  As in, “Good Morning!  I’m Sister Jan. Please sit here if you would like.”  In the church we need more closeness, less distance;  more love and acceptance, less criticism.   The goal of most friendly relationships should be moving beyond the ring of formality and deference and into the more personal aspects of deep respect and love.  Although moving from one sphere of respect to another is an internal process, our use of names indicates where we are, and where we would like to be, in relationships with others.

This is real respect.

This is deep respect

6 responses to “The Power of a Name

  1. What thoughtful ideas Cousin Jan! Really, I loved the insights about the familiarity and distance associated with names and titles. I have struggled with this in relation to what adults expect from children. I wanted my children to show respect to adults but so many adults insist that kids can call them by their first name. Here in Texas however, I love the custom of how kids can call adults Mr. Joe or Miss Jennifer. It keeps the familiarity and respect clear in one name. As someone raised to call adults Sister Jones and Brother Smith, it feels weird to just go by first names between children and adults. Thanks for this post. 🙂

  2. “Everyone in the world gets to call me Jan. But only you get to call me Mom. It’s your special thing, so you should use it!” <– I love this! What a great way to explain to your kids why they call you "mom" instead of your given name.

    I must say that as much as I like the idea of "Brother/Sister [first name]," I can't stomach it. Our bishop does that often, and it makes me cringe to hear "Sister Dani"! Maybe because it's so unusual I find it bizarre.

    We just got back from Guatemala and I was struck by re-realizing how the different forms of saying "you" and their respective conjugations carry so much weight with regard to respect and familiarity. "Usted" for formal or hierarchical relationships, "tu" for casual, every-day relationships, and "vos" (which I never learned in school) for your most intimate friends and family. I wish we had something like that in English!

    • Dani, we do! We just don’t use it. Thou and thee are supposed to be the closest, familial terms. But again, we’ve flipped it into being a language of respect and deference and now when we pray to our Father, we get all tongue tied with the -ththsss that end the words. Lets thou and me bring it back into vogue, what doest thou say?

      • Ha ha! Can you imagine? This is actually something that really bugs me when I hear talks about thee/thou being a more respectful form of address. First because that’s just not the historical truth, and second — how on earth do you translate that to languages like Spanish and other Latin languages, where the language of prayer actually uses the more intimate form? Okay, off my soapbox.

  3. I love this. The Relief Society President in my ward is making a conscious effort to apply “Sister,” to everyone while we are at church because she noticed that we were only using “Sister,” in reference to the older ladies in our ward. So when someone was conducting you’d hear “Thank you Sister McFarland (older lady) for leading the music now Marianne (young) is going to give our opening prayer.” The people doing it were only trying to show respect to the older ladies, but in reality it creates a barrier and has the potential to make the older Sisters feel excluded. We really should be using Sister or Brother for everyone and it should feel close and comfortable as you described!

    Also, this makes me think about the way we address Heavenly Father in prayer. I like the idea of using the respectful words we do out of a CLOSE respect not the distant kind.

    Great thoughts!


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