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First-name impressions

Historical dramas hold little suspense for Miss Manners. She always knows what the first conversation between important characters will contain.

A young patriot approaches a jolly bespectacled man with scraggly hair. "I never thought I would meet the great Dr. Franklin," he says.

"Oh, please," is the modest reply. "It's Ben."

Or a courtier gives a dignified bow while maintaining eye contact projecting an attractively insolent gleam. "Your Majesty misleads her subjects," he says. "You are much more beautiful than your portraits."

She meets his gaze. "My friends call me Bess," she replies.

Or a student says, "I don't quite follow you there, professor Einstein."

"Nobody does," is the reply. "But my name is Al."

No matter what the period and no matter what the age, rank or nature of the personage portrayed, one of the first items of exposition will establish that the characters will call one another by their first names.

It is an etiquette issue handled by people who are ignorant of the history and practice of etiquette.

Far from meaning to portray their characters as rude, they mistakenly believe that they are illuminating such character traits as modesty, kindness and a democratic spirit. But prior to the mid-20th century, even the most modest, kind and democratic of people would have considered the use of first names by non-intimates to be condescending and insulting.

There was plenty of that rudeness going around. Women, African-Americans, servants and low-ranking employees were routinely addressed by their first names by people who expected the respect of titles and surnames in return. But no one would volunteer to be treated that way.

Nowadays, people have a hard time believing that formality is not rude under any circumstances. If they are involved in making historical dramas, they have at least discovered that it was once common for people to address one another formally. So they figure that nice people would have protested.

On the contrary. Nice people would have been particularly careful to maintain such formalities, because they symbolized respect. Attempting to rush others into an unwarranted display of intimacy would have been considered presumptuous and vulgar.

Such concepts as instant intimacy, deference to age as a slur and the ersatz friendship in professional situations had not yet come along. Granting the use of one's first name was an important, sometimes thrilling, sign of affection. But if the unauthorized dare to assume this privilege without permission, people took it as being as much of a slight as -- well, as people do now when telemarketers and doctors address them by their first names.

In any case, those scenes that purport to be historic betray the spirit of the times they purport to represent. Miss Manners has often had cause to lament that historic dramas that may have been stunningly researched in terms of costume and setting betray total innocence of the etiquette practiced at the time.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.

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