Illustration by Mr Seth Armstrong

EPISODE 33: PROPER ADDRESS REQUIRED?

A few weeks ago a couple were coming over for dinner. "What time will Harvey and Susan be here?" Nicholas asked. He knew these adults slightly, as he had gone to nursery school with their son, but they were hardly his close personal friends. So using their first names struck me as a little fresh - especially from an eight-year-old.

"Don't you mean, 'What time will Mr and Mrs Silver be here?'"

"No, Dad, they're more of a Harvey and Susan than a Mr and Mrs Silver." His reply implied some type of social judgment - one that I was curious to get to the bottom of. It appeared that Nicholas had developed his own app for deciding which adults merited the formal salutation of "Mr and Mrs" and which adults he deemed it OK to greet casually. Was the distinction based on familiarity, social rank or whether he frequently saw them stuffed into yoga trousers?

The whole what-to-call-adults conundrum is yet another example of how today's children are forced to interpret and improvise in a way that my generation did not. When I was growing up, the rule was ironclad: every single adult was greeted as Mr and Mrs. As a cub reporter I was taught: address anyone as Mr until he asks you to call him by his first name.

The whole what-to-call-adults conundrum is yet another example of how today's children are forced to interpret and improvise in a way that my generation did not

During the intervening years between Nicholas' and my childhoods, casual became analogous to cool and not just with manners. Up until about five years ago, power-lunching in a proper New York restaurant required a tie. This devolution never struck me as a good thing. Putting on a great-looking necktie is one of the happier ways to start a work day, and having a tie on means you're prepared for any fabulous, last-minute invitation that might magically appear in your inbox. I know I'm in the minority here, but I just don't see how tucking into some chicken hash at the 21 Club is enhanced by a glimpse of another fellow's chest hair.

If Nicholas at age eight still calls about 60% of the adults in his life by Mr and Mrs, my daughter and her fellow four-year-old queen bees are even greater diluters of formality. Recently, I made the mistake of coming home from the office to our apartment at lunchtime. When I walked into the kitchen, Alexandra was sitting there with three of her girlfriends debating whether Katy Perry or Snow White had more boyfriends. (For some reason I pictured Bashful and Grumpy closing down a bar with John Mayer.) "Good afternoon, ladies," I said, expecting a rousing and ego-enhancing chorus of "Hello, Mr Brodie". Instead one of Alexandra's friends pointed her thumb at me and asked, "Who's that guy?" Clearly, this breakdown in respect merited some investigation.

That evening, I sat Nicholas down for a chat. I tossed out the names of a couple of his friends and then as a kind of verbal Rorschach Test I asked what Nicholas would call his friends' parents.

"The Powells?" The Powells live on Park Avenue. They spend Christmas in Antigua and summer in Southampton. "What do you call Jeremy Powell's mum and dad?"

The heir didn't miss a beat. "Mr and Mrs Powell."

"Why?"

"Because they have a doorman, and they're sort of scary."

"What about The Bellingers?" I asked. The Bellingers live in a loft in the Meatpacking District. Their walls are dripping in contemporary art, and the whole family is dripping in Prada.

"I call them Fiona and James."

"Why?"

"Because their house is weird. And Fiona doesn't dress like the other mums. Is that OK?"

The party was in the East Village, but I knew it would be a proper dinner with a waiter and a bartender. Suit with no tie? Jeans and a cashmere sweater?

After a few more rounds of What Do You Call The So-and-Sos? Nicholas' mindset came into focus. Uptown and old school merited a "Mr and Mrs". A family dwelling below 14th Street and modern in their affect meant it was OK to call an adult by his or her first name.

A few weeks later, my wife and I were getting ready for a Saturday night dinner party. It was one of those dinners where no dress code was specified, a sartorial conundrum. The party was in the East Village, but I knew it would be a proper dinner with a waiter and a bartender. Suit with no tie? Jeans and a cashmere sweater? Thankfully, Nicholas knew the boy's parents, so I decided to try his app out.

"Nicholas," I called to him as I stood in front of my wardrobe in nothing but a towel. "What do you call Aiden's parents?"

He appeared in my dressing area and without missing a beat informed me, "Aiden's dad is Mr Healy, and you call his mum Liz."

"So what does that mean?" I asked pointing towards a rack of suits and drawers of shirts.

"Easy-peasy," he replied and pointed to a blazer, a pair of skinny corduroys, a red-and-white checked shirt and a navy tie in crocheted silk. As Nicholas dug out an old brown pair of Chelsea boots to finish off my outfit, I was willing to concede that there was an upside to being forced to read a social situation from an early age. I made a mental note to stop being such a young fogey and to keep an open mind the next time I'm forced to eat chicken hash while staring at some fellow's wall-to-wall carpeting.

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