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Language about Aging - Names And Forms Of Address

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In interpersonal communication, forms of address and names define social relationships. The use of a person's first name indicates a close, long-standing relationship, hence the expression "to be on a first name basis." Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which the use of an appropriate title (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Doctor, etc.) and surname is necessary because of the formal nature of the discourse; these include job interviews, initial contact with a person, and so forth. This use of forms of address and personal names, though not formalized, derives from implicit rules of discourse that set the stage for ongoing social relationships. Their use thus reveals much about personal associations (e.g., the use of a formal form of address by one conversational participant and an informal one by the other signals the dominant and subordinate speaker). The inappropriate use of forms of address and names may have the effect of infantilizing older adults. Such patronizing and demeaning usage often occurs in health care and geriatric facilities.

Negative linguistic ageism frequently manifests itself in the names and in the forms of address used with older adults. This sort of language behavior is a verbal indication of the infantilizing process. There are five common examples of this subtle form of linguistic abuse. The first one involves the use of an older adult's first name, especially by a younger person, without first asking permission to do so. This tactic immediately establishes power relationships in a conversation. It should be noted, however, that there is a tendency in contemporary U.S. society to use a person's name without seeking permission though many older adults are not accustomed to this practice. Second, the use of diminutive forms of first names, such as Johnny or Annie, with older individuals is a more degrading usage than using the first name—these are forms that are generally reserved for speaking with small children. A third example involves the inappropriate use of terms of affection and endearment (dear, honey, poor dear, good girl, good boy) by people who have no claim to their use. Diminutive forms (dearie, sweetie) of these words only add to this infantilizing humiliation. A fourth example of names used with older people includes such generic names as gramps or granny, which are frequently employed by small children with their older relatives. The fifth form of this kind of linguistic ageism is anonymity. Not using the name of an older person at all marks them as nonentities whose worth is negligible. Two additional examples of linguistic ageism that often take place in health care environments involve pronominal forms. In the first instance, a third person pronominal reference (he, she) is used in the presence of the person being spoken about as if they were unworthy of conversational inclusion (e.g., "he's having a bad day"). A second instance involves the use of the first-person plural pronoun (we) as a subordinating communicative act, such as in the expression "How are we doing today?" It is clear in this usage that there is no sense of solidarity with the older person.

FRANK NUESSEL

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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