A few years back, I helped organize some interfaith programming at Holden Village and friends from Hamline University’s Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service and Social Justice joined us for a week of learning and fellowship in the mountains.
I’d been to Holden several times previously and had been in the village already for a week when the Hamline folks arrived, so I gladly took on the role of host, tour guide and cruise director as everyone was settling in.
At one point, I was showing Rabbi Esther Adler some of my favorite corners of the village and introducing her to people along the way. I’d worked with Esther in the past and our working relationship was casual and friendly, but it occurred to me I wasn’t really certain how she’d like other people to address her. So I brought it up.
“How should I introduce you?” I asked. “Esther? Rabbi Adler? Rabbi Esther? Rabbi Esther Adler?” Protocol is not my strong suit. There were plenty of possibilities and I wanted to get it right. My friend replied quickly.
“Any of those are just fine…except…absolutely not Rabbi Esther.”
She was emphatic and I confessed that Rabbi Esther might have been my natural choice. I was curious about her strong dismissal, so I asked her to tell me more.
When she attended Rabbinical School and after her ordination, all of the men in similar roles were referred to as Rabbi Last Name, but my friend noticed she was often called Rabbi First Name. She chaffed at the difference because it showed a lack of respect. Rabbi Adler felt that it diminished her title and her status among her peers.
Of course, that wasn’t my intent and I wanted her to hear my reason for asking. I explained that when I was growing up, in my church we always called the pastors we liked and admired, Pastor First Name and we reserved the more formal title of Pastor Last Name for the ones we didn’t care for so much.
What I would have intended as a term of comradery and friendship, she would have heard as discourtesy and dishonor.
Our experiences had been completely different. Her experience was true for her. Mine was true for me.
But it was my goal as a host to make my friend feel welcome, respected and comfortable in the village. Imagine how I would have undermined that effort, and altered her experience, had I not asked that simple question. Once I knew her preference, it would have been foolish and rude of me not to honor it.
Intent vs. perception. In my intent to show familiarity and friendship, I might have accidentally left Rabbi Adler feeling diminished and disrespected.
I wonder how often that happens in our day-to-day experience. And I marvel at how easy it was to avoid it in this case.