Being on a First-Name Basis Can Make Everything Better

This story of a doctor’s entitled spouse illustrates how establishing a friendly connection can sometimes resolve a spiraling situation with an unreasonable customer.

An auto repair worker holding a clipboard talks with an angry customer at a repair shop.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Hearing our name when said in a friendly, non-sarcastic or negative tone of voice is one of the sweetest sounds, as it creates a chemical reaction inside our brain which then releases the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin, demonstrated by functional MRI studies,” observes Luis Vega, a psychology professor at Cal State Bakersfield, whose professional interests include methods of persuasion.

He points out, “Being on a first-name basis creates clan connections — a circle of trust — for harnessing the good, psychological benefits, such as seeing the other person in our tribe, giving us a sense of belonging, safe space and expediency, as in ‘I can trust you to look after my interests, to scratch your back as you scratch mine.’”

He adds, “It is why in North America, sales professionals are urged to establish a sincere first-name basis as soon as possible. And today, we are finding that many physicians are inviting their patients to call them by their first names, which has the benefit of reducing anxiety when visiting the doctor’s office. But never forget the power of a first name used in a manner to provoke a needed, urgent response.”

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And then there’s Mrs. Dr. Gee

In my town, when professionals meet — physicians, lawyers, CPAs, architects — it is common to use first names. It is extremely rare to find a physician who insists on using the honorific Dr.

But “Dr. Gee” was the exception. As I would learn, his wife was even more title-obsessed.

With the police close to being called, Mrs. Gee, who refused to pay for major automotive repairs on her car, wanted her keys so she could drive away, because, “I am the wife of Dr. Gee.” (The dealership was my client.)

I phoned Dr. Gee, whom I had met socially, and addressed him by his first name. He replied, “Counselor, address me as Dr. Gee, as I am a physician having spent more years at university and in training than you lawyers ever do. If my wife refuses to pay an outrageous bill for something that should be covered by warranty, I stand behind her.”

Continuing to use his first name, but in a far less calming tone of voice, I replied, “This car is eight years old and has been out of warranty for a long time. Neither you nor your wife purchased an extended warranty, and the dealership accomplished extensive repairs — many of them safety-related and which she signed for and agreed to pay upon completion. Your wife has stated that, as she is married to a brilliantly skilled physician, she should not have to pay for the repairs.”

It was clear that on the scale of people considering themselves entitled, Mrs. Gee, who insisted on being addressed as Mrs. Dr. Gee, was at the top of the list. The dealership put her on the phone with me, and I said, “Everyone has to pay for car repairs that aren’t under warranty, and no one owes you a thing because of your husband’s position.”

A few minutes later, speaking with Dr. Gee, again using his name but in an increasingly urgent tone, I said, “Perhaps your wife’s overblown sense of entitlement works elsewhere, but it is plain wrong, as wrong for you to operate on a patient, save their life and then have them refuse to pay for your professional services.”

Motivating Dr. Gee to preserve his own reputation

The key to a win-win outcome was in motivating Dr. Gee to understand that his reputation was minutes away from being tarnished by his wife’s behavior. “Now, this is not the first time that she has embarrassed you like this, refusing to pay for something she ordered. Right?”

“Yes, that’s true. But how can you know that, Mr. Beaver?”

“I’ve got a deal for you,” I said in a softened tone of voice. “You call me Dennis. I call you by your first name, and let’s talk about your life at home. You’ll see I am a good listener.”

I was now speaking with a man who admitted that he was so unhappy at home, trying to please a woman whose life was a whirlwind of never-ending dramas. “And there is nothing I can do that’s right! I am so afraid of the future, of what kinds of nightmares she will create next! Dennis, I am in a loveless, cold marriage, and I’m afraid.”

And I heard him sob. It was so unexpected.

“Doc, here’s what we are going to do. You have your office manager go to your bank and obtain cash — not a cashier’s check, because your wife could stop payment on it. Bring the cash to my office, and I will go pay the dealership, and Mrs. Gee will be given the keys to her car so she can drive off.”

And that is what we did. His office manager delivered an envelope filled with hundred-dollar bills, I drove to the dealership, was introduced to Mrs. Gee, paid her bill and was told her first name. But instead of thanking me for the help, she exclaimed, “How dare you call me by my first name? To you, I am Mrs. Dr. Gee, and don’t you ever forget it!”

The moral of the story circles back to what Professor Vega said. When I persisted in using Dr. Gee’s first name, he stopped being defensive and felt safe enough with me to tell me his troubles. That circle of trust allowed me to negotiate a way out of the problem Mrs. Gee had created. The car dealership got the money it was owed, and Mrs. Gee wasn’t arrested (this time).

Which goes to show that using someone’s first name in a respectful way can be a powerful tool while serving customers and in business relationships.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to And be sure to visit

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."