Friday, February 17, 2012

Who is Mr. David?

Learning the naming conventions of other countries can be important if you want to avoid accidentally causing offence. Knowing that the family name is followed by the first name in some Asian countries is basic, for example, and it's easy to learn the correct titles for Mr, Mrs and Miss at the appropriate level of politeness in whatever country you're visiting. That's just basic courtesy, even if a total lack of language skills means you instantly switch to broken English and desperate hand signals to explain the number of nights you've booked at the hotel that's lost your reservation, forgetting that in many Asian countries the hand counting signs are also different.

But why do trained hospitality staff who otherwise speak excellent English and deal with Western people on a daily basis unfailingly call me 'Mister David?' Who is he?

I'm not actually going to write an angry blog about friendly people with stunningly superior language skills to mine using politeness incorrectly. I actually quite enjoy feeling like I'm being greeted by a dysfunctional mechanoid. But I'm not even sure it is a mistake - it would be such a basic error, occurring with alarming regularity in several different countries (Egypt and Thailand especially), that I can only assume it's deliberate. But why?

It might just be for convenience. Hostels and hotels usually borrow my passport or get me to fill in forms with my details, and as long as they don't have too many Davids staying, they might favour their chances of correctly writing this simple five-letter designation on receipts, rather than my more unwieldy surname. To be honest, if Lost actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje checked into my hotel, I'd probably just call him 'Mr. Eko.' I'm sure he'd be fine with that.

But I've heard of this happening with other people whose surnames are relatively straightforward to pronounce and contain the same number of syllables as their first names, so maybe this isn't the reason after all. A more pessimistic alternative is that maybe these staff are being trained to make this 'cute' mistake for some kind of novelty value, so white people don't feel threatened and can imagine their superiority over the sort of bumbling foreigners that appeared in those racist ITV sitcoms that came out before I was born and that I can scarcely believe are real (this one isn't). This is an insane and wacky theory, borne out of paranoia.

A less nutty theory is that maybe I'm just a fictional, one-dimensional character penned by the late Roger Hargreaves, my sole purpose being to personify a character trait or an emotion - in this case, 'David' - and having a brief adventure with a morally dubious ending, in which I probably meet a talking worm or something. I'd read that. (If I did have to reduce the complexities of my character to a one-dimensional archetype, I'd probably be Mr. Guilt - how about you?)

I have confusing reactions to politeness anyway, being a reasonably genial person with a fair amount of intolerance for rudeness but who also feels uncomfortable when someone serves me or otherwise shows deference, even if that's exactly what they're paid to do. Please don't treat me like I'm better than you. Even if I am, which let's face it, I am, obviously. But don't draw attention to it.

So what should we call you?

My real name is Dave, because that's the name I use for myself and this makes it real. But I wouldn't expect you to know that if your introduction to me is through the passport that calls me by my legal and official (though not real) name, David.

If someone greeted me at a hotel by saying 'Hi, Dave,' this would seem inappropriately familiar and I would have no choice but to report them to the authorities. But if they used my surname, that might sound a bit formal and over the top for someone who's just arrived at their budget establishment with a torn backpack and six weeks' beard growth, eyeing up the free coffee sachets. Maybe 'Mr. David' is the best compromise after all - respectful, courteous and just disorienting enough that I forget about post-colonial guilt for a second.

Though when the machines take over and replace all the puny human staff, I really must insist on being called Dave. When I sign into my bank account and other online services, I enjoy imagining that the 'Welcome back, Dave' message is spoken in a cool, HAL 9000 voice. If I logged into my account and was greeted with 'Hi, Mr. David!' this would probably be cause for concern.

Did I just write a blog based on a receipt? You'd tell me if I crossed insanity's threshold, wouldn't you?

Mr. David is very cross

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