What Do (and Should) We Call Our Brothers and Sisters?

March 11, 2004 | 20 comments
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Last night, at our weekly elder’s quorum presidency meeting, I was struck once again at a verbal habit of our secretary: he refers to just about everyone in the ward as “Sister (or “Brother”) [insert first name].” I’m “Brother Russell.” The elder’s quorum president is “Brother Craig.” The Relief Society president is “Sister Mel.” In 35 years of life in the church, I’ve never before met someone who regularly speaks this way to fellow ward members in casual conversation. I’m familiar with this locution primarily through its historical association with Brigham Young, particularly via the writings of Hugh Nibley and especially Eugene England’s wonderful (and unfortunately out of print) biography, Brother Brigham. I had kind of assumed that it was a 19th-century style that had died out, but this fellow is hardly the sort to adopt a historical affectation. Perhaps it’s a regional and/or class thing? (Our quorum secretary is from Springville, UT, was born and raised there, never had more than a high school education, moved to Arkansas about a year ago when Nestle opened up a new plant (he’s a line manager), and is a pretty solid blue-collar type.) Anyway, it intrigues me, and I wonder if anyone else out there speaks that way, or has any insight into which Mormons did or still do use the “Sister [first name]” form. It also makes we wonder about forms of address in general.

I’ve long had a hang up regarding names and titles. I’m by no means uniformally opposed to them on egalitarian or some other grounds–I think the Confucian claim that the proper “rectification of names” (or in other words, roles) is central to a just or virtuous society is absolutely correct. It’s just that, I have often, probably too often, wondered what the basis for conventional forms of address in the church really are, what they involve and what they accomplish. On my mission, I struggled a lot with referring to my fellow missionaries as “Elder” and “Sister.” (But then, I struggled with lots of things.) It seemed to me that missionary work shouldn’t be about the impersonal delivery of spiritual services, but about the construction of networks through which the Spirit could move. Consequently, I believed missionaries ought to be allowed to serve in one place for a long time, and ought to be friends with one another and with those they associate with. To me, the insistence on the title–especially between peers and companions–kept in place a small but definite obstacle to such intimacy. Thus I tended–sometimes unconciously, sometimes (I admit) to make a not-always-charitable point–to refer to my companions and others by their given names. (I didn’t report weekly statistics to “Elder Brackenbury,” I reported them to “Wade.”) This practice wasn’t perfectly translatable into Korean (where, as in most of East Asia, “friendship” still has a highly if implictly formalized component), but more often than not I would refer to my Korean peers and fellow ward members by their given names or nicknames, and they reciprocated. (“Fox” had some odd permutations in the Korean vernacular.)

Basically, that same feeling about the importance of intimate networks holds for my relationships to my fellow Saints today. When I’m teaching in elder’s quorum, I call on “Bill” and “Tom” and “Donnie,” not Brother Caldwell, Brother Northcut, or Brother Walker. Some people do the same as I, but not all. I’ve found that there is in particular some resistance to this principle across gender lines, but I don’t know if that has more to do with the lack (and semi-official discouragement) of close male-female friendships in the church, or would exist outside of that dynamic anyway.

Leave aside the question of addressing ecclesiastical non-peers for the moment–i.e., bishops, stake presidents, general authorites (though of course the “Brother Brigham” reference might imply those relationships should be open for questioning as well). Thinking just about our fellow rank-and-file Mormons: what do you call them? What should we call them? What purpose is served by traditional forms of address that can’t be served just as well through the use of given names? Maybe our elder’s quorum secretary has the right idea…

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20 Responses to What Do (and Should) We Call Our Brothers and Sisters?

  1. Gary Cooper on March 11, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Russell,

    It may be a regional thing. Here in Oklahoma, the tendency is for everyone to, “Brother or Sister (last name)”, as opposed to the first name your fellow uses. Only in the last year or so, and from younger members, have I seen people start to openly use first names in classes, etc.

  2. Gordon Smith on March 11, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    I only use brother or sister when I can’t remember someone’s first name. Which is often enough that I hope my tactic is not obvious. Of course, now I have just published it on the internet for all to see. Arrgh!

  3. lyle on March 11, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    great question.
    1. mayhap God’s desire for us to use the “thee/thou” form with him…which is the intimate, not the formal btw, is a good data point.
    2. This one if for Gordon: maybe it is good for us to think of each other, literally, as sisters and brothers? i tend to address strangers as “brother” or “sister” if I don’t know their name(s). some might think this odd…but I find it oddly comforting.
    3. I never learned the first names of most of my missionary comps. I kinda regret that now. Maybe it depends on the person addressing/being addressed? I.e. if they would rather be addressed by first name…do so; or vice versa. Some of my comps liked my adherence to the rule…others found me too “obedient.”

  4. Quinn on March 11, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    My freshman year at BYU (1994), one of our elders quorum instructors used the “Brother (First Name)” construction exclusively. He was one of four or five returned missionaries in the ward, and we all looked to him as something of a spiritual leader, so no one ever called him on it. At the same time, no one else ever picked it up.

    Even after two semesters, I couldn’t decide if I liked being called Brother Quinn. For some reason, it seemed to be an affectation on the part of this particular guy. He had been born and raised in the Church, and he surely realized that he was the only member of the ward who referred to people this way, which left two possibilities in my mind: either (1), he believed that first names were more intimate and familiar, yet he didn’t want to completely buck the formal tradition of calling people “Brother” and “Sister,” or (2), he was doing it to draw attention to himself, to make himself unique.

    I can’t ascribe motives to this individual, so I suppose I’ll never know why he spoke that way. I really grew to like him, and his lessons were excellent, so I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he called me Brother Quinn. All the same, I never got used to it, and I have yet to incorporate the pattern into my speaking habits.

  5. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    The real problem is that using first names isn’t really intimate anymore. It’s become less meaningful and so one might as well keep on brothering and sistering for all of me.

    Great connection the rectification of names: I’ll use that next time I try to explain to the parents of nursery/primary kids why I prefer they not call me Adam.

  6. lyle on March 11, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Quinn:

    (2), he was doing it to draw attention to himself, to make himself unique.

    …So…why only two options? what bout (3) he had an idea, which none of us knows about, maybe even a righteous one, and acted on it…w/o any desire to draw attention to himself and/or thinking that it would be more intimate/familiar.

    disclaiming intent knowledge; and then only providing two options tends to close the field of possible options rhetorically.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on March 11, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    Adam, I don’t agree that first names have necessarily lost their intimacy (though obviously with the rise of certain styles of marketing and service, where everyone from your waiter to the person at the checkout counter has their first name stitched to their shirt, has made it problematic). But I do agree with you about not wanting kids to treat you as a peer. I hope I made it clear that in my post, I was only talking about people whom I share a similar ecclesiastical/social/political “space” with. When my daughters occasionally call me “Russell”–which of course they hear Melissa call me all the time–it drives me batty. And I’ve cut students short who have addressed me as anything other than “Professor Fox.” (If I had graduate students that I worked with over a long period of time, I would certainly relent on that point; after a year or two, I asked my dissertation advisor if I could call him “Steve” (he chuckled at my traditionalism and said yes). But I’m not going to pretend such a relationship exists between me and your average sophomore.)

  8. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    I guess I have to agree with you on all points. First names still retain some intimacy, though the intimacy is being hollowed out.
    You are not an advocate for first names everywhere.

  9. clark on March 11, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Regarding first names and their use (and abuse). I was at Sam’s Club the other day and noticed that they take your card, place it on the register, and then talk to you using your first name. At first I thought this was just some woman doing it. But I notice *everyone* does this. For some reason it really bothers me when someone acts like they know me when they don’t. I don’t mind when a waiter does it *if* they engage in chit chat and “get to know you” first. At that point I figure they’ve earned the right.

    Anyone else bothered by this?

    BTW – regarding the use in the church. It does seems like in the early church everyone used first names much more. It was far more casual and intimate. I suppose in part that was because most members would actually see and greet the prophet on a regular basis. In a way I kind of miss that intimacy. I’m all for recognizing distinctions and offices. But I fear our growth has lost us a certain unity we once had.

  10. Charles on March 11, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    I recall an incident when someone I worked with in scouts came up to me in the hall at church and said “Hello Charles.” His son quickly corrected him, “Don’t you mean Brother Blank (last name changed to protect the innocent)?” His father then corrected him by telling him that Brother or Sister would be if he didn’t know me very well, a la Mr. or Mrs. Since he and I had been working together it was not inappropriate to call me by my first name. I think Brother/Sister is used mostly as an address title within the church and by using it isn’t so much out of intimacy but respect among aquantences.

  11. Renee on March 11, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    I am friends with a woman who is my mother’s age. Her husband used to be stake president. Even though it’s been over 7 years since he was released, people still will often call him “Prez.” and the ones who stopped refer to his has “Bro.” out of, I guess, respect. Even if they’ve known the family quite well for years. I’m not sure of the reasoning or phenomena or what.

    As a convert of nearly 10 years, I’m still pretty haphazard with my use of bro/sis. When I sub in Primary, I don’t say “I’m Sister so and so”, I say, “I’m Renee”.

  12. Quinn on March 11, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    Lyle: You’re right — the brother (there I go) in question may indeed have had another motive. I thought I made it clear that I not only “disclaimed intent knowledge” (as you put it), but also that the two options I listed were “in my mind” (as I put it). I apologize if my statement caused confusion.

    Russell (Professor Fox?): The issue of students addressing professors by their first names is an interesting one. My gut always tells me to use “Dr.” or “Professor” when addressing academic superiors, but I’ve run into more trouble doing just that than I have by occasionally going out on a limb and using a first name. On the first day of a class taught by Phil Snyder at BYU, Phil was writing something at the chalkboard when I began a question, “Dr. Snyder…?” He turned around and scanned the class. “Who said that?” he asked, noticeably perterbed. I fessed up, and Phil made it clear that we were never to call him anything other than Phil.

    This hasn’t changed the fact that my default mode is to use “Dr.” or “Professor,” but it seems that many people in academia prefer to be addressed by their first names. I’m in the midst of applying to PhD programs, and I’ve spent a lot of time emailing department heads and admissions committee chairs. Without exception, every one of them has signed their email responses using only their first names.

    Maybe Professor Fox can speak to the issue of how professors address each other. Is there a heirarchy within the academy that affords certain professors greater respect and thus makes it taboo to refer to them by their first names? Getting back to topic, I see the same thing within the Church. I will refer to members of my elders quorum by their first names, but I find myself addressing high priests using “Brother.” This may be a factor of age rather than position, but oddly, I find myself doing this even with younger high priests. Perhaps that says more about my upbringing in the Church than anything else.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on March 11, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    Quinn, you aren’t my student and this isn’t a classroom, so you can dispense with the title.

    Is there a hierarchy in academia? Sure; several in fact. But I’m not sure any one of them relate to what professors prefer to be referred to as. You might be able to break down things along age or seniority or regional or disciplinary lines, but I doubt that analysis would have much explanatory force. Basically, I think it’s just personal preference. I like to be called “Professor” (not “Doctor”). I also almost always wear a jacket and tie when I lecture, and I insist on a certain level of formality with my current students. Why? Maybe it’s just my shtick. (Seems to be working to: I’ve got a reputation as “the tie guy.” Some anonymous student even left me a gift last Christmas; a necktie, with the note “Thank you for always dressing like a professor.” I appreciated that.)

  14. Jan on March 11, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    I call anyone who may possibly be older than I am Brother or Sister Whatever until they ask me to use their first name. I do the same with Mr and Mrs, too. (The only exception to the Mr and Mrs rule is for people working under me. Then, age doesn’t matter and I call them all by their first names.) I use sir and ma’am for most everybody also. I think all this may possibly be a product of my Southern upbringing; most everyone I know who is from the South does this too.

    In primary, I would have been smacked on the hand for using a primary teacher’s first name.

  15. Jedd on March 11, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    In one of the latest Worldwide Leadership Training broadcasts, Elder Packer introduced President Hinckley as the next speaker. As President Hinckley arrived at the lectern, he said, “Thank you, Boyd!” Many of us in attendance were a bit startled by that familiar tone, but quite pleasantly so. I’d like to think–and it seems to be the case–that the General Authorities refer to one another by first names on occasion.

    Before that event, a member of the stake presidency who conducts monthly interviews with me (I’m our ward’s EQ pres.) always referred to me as “President.” In fact, I frequently saw him on Saturday afternoons at a local grocery store. Our exchange went something like, “President, how are you?” “Fine, President, and you?” I always wondered what bystanders thought when they heard our peculiar greeting (outside of an ex-U.S. president’s reunion, when would you ever hear such a thing?)

    In any case, after hearing the “Boyd” reference, this stake presidency member has started referring to me by my first name. All things considered, I like that approach better. I already lost my first name for 2 years on my mission, so I’ll take it when I can get it.

  16. William Morris on March 11, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    My default mode also is to call anyone 5-10 years or more older than me Brother or Sister LastName.

    However, in the Bay Area there’s much more of an emphasis on first names than there is elsewhere, I think (or at least than there is in Utah — I’m not well-traveled). This is especially true in the more liberal wards. The end result is that there’s this weird bifurcation where I call most (mainly talking about those in their 40s – 50s here — anyone who doesn’t still have kids at college or younger is Bro. or Sis.) other ward members by their first name when I’m speaking to them or their spouse, but refer to them as Brother or Sister LastName when speaking about them with another ward member.

    I’ve found that the same is true in Academia. It’s “Can I make a comment Claire?” — And then it’s “Do you have the notes from Prof. Kramsch’s lecture?”

    I liked using the Elder and Sister appellations on my mission. Perhaps it was due to the relative intimacy of serving in Romania where (at least for my first year and a half) we were small enough that we all knew each other. But using Elder or Sister helped build a sense of common purpose and close relationship — and I’m talking particularly here about using strictly “Elder” or “Sister” with the person you were talking with. I only used Elder or Sister + LastName when referring to them or when trying to get their attention.

    I think it would be great if we revived the Brother/Sister FirstName habit as a nice compromise. It’s a little Amish, but, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. ;-)

  17. brayden on March 11, 2004 at 5:38 pm

    I grew up as a close-friend of the man who would be my future seminary teacher. I had always called him by his first name and so I found it a little uncomfortable when he asked me to begin calling him Brother Jones during seminary classes. At first it was difficult but over time I got used to it. Our friendship evolved over time, such that once class was over he was good ole Tom and during class he was Brother Jones. We had a swivel-joint relationship.

    I suppose that using Brother-Sister-President-Bishop is very situational. We use them at time when we intend to show respect and/or a sense of formality. Incidentally, did anyone attend the world-wide leadership meeting about a year ago where President Monson called Elder Packer by his first name? It was kind of strange to see him do that in a church meeting like that, but seeing it conveyed two pieces of information to me: 1) Our general authorities do relate with each other on a first-name basis and therefore it is probably okay for us as members to use first names and 2) the level of formality of the meeting might predicate what title we should use. Just a theory but it might be worth something.

  18. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2004 at 5:53 pm

    I’m with Jan, not only because of upbringing but also from military experience. I can hardly bring myself to act palsy with someone in authority I’ve just met–Quinn’s professor would’ve driven me nuts or to the avoidance of names altogether. Despite its many advantages, the solvent culture brings along some curses too. One doesn’t know how to act. Gestures of intimacy may mean nothing because some do them not from love but from anti-formality. Formality itself cannot communicate either, because to some it has overtones of cold rigidity.

  19. Russell Arben Fox on March 11, 2004 at 7:20 pm

    I think some of this thread is moving in the direction of some issues which were brought up in a discussion about “honoring authority” started by Jim (here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000279.html ). I too am uncomfortable with the idea of publicly addressing authority figures–who have a particular role to play, whether or not that role obliges me to actually grant them some sort of moral respect–casually, especially one’s I’ve only just met. I still strongly believe, however, that among the body of the saints there should be no reason why intimate (and, yes, “casual,” first-name-basis) friendships shouldn’t abound.

  20. Bob Caswell on March 15, 2004 at 1:13 am

    I have to second what Clark said. With a name like Bob, it can drive me nuts when people try to become my friend quickly and call me by my first name just after seeing a credit card or a membership record, etc. “Hi, Robert” or even worse, “Hi Rob”. What is so hard about asking, “What do you go by?” It’s really not that awkward. What’s more awkward is when I have to say time and time again, “actually, I go by Bob”. With a name like Robert, a person has like a one in four chance of getting it right on the first try. Not to mention, Bob always seems to be the last name someone would guess.

    Also, I have to say that as a missionary, I would often go tracting and introduce myself as Bobby. Because Bobby is actually a name used in Bulgaria. Caswell is hard to pronounce, and Bob means beans! I’ve been back to Bulgaria a couple times, and I’m still Bobby.