13 April 2015

Informality

Growing up in my East Yorkshire village there were certain social mores to which children were obliged to subscribe. After all, we were only kids and we needed to know our place. When we spoke of or to our adult neighbours and fellow villagers we never used their first names.

Next door to us lived a piano-playing widow called Mrs Varley. Mrs Austwick ran the little sweet shop on South Street. Mr and Mrs Ward were the licensees at "The Hare and Hounds" and Mr Peers was the village grocer. Mr Assert was the assertive school caretaker. There was a funny little man called Mr Grubham -  with a name like that he just had to be the street sweeper. To this day I have no idea what those people's first names were - apart from Mr Grubham who was called Joe.

Fast forward to 2015 and we have two little girls living next door to us and two little girls across the street. To them I am Neil and Shirley is Shirley. They probably don't even  know our surname. It just happened - symptomatic of our times and changing social habits. Of course the parents never asked how their daughters should address us. It's the modern culture we inhabit. Somewhere along the line something changed.

And when I was growing up, business organisations, banks and utility companies would never even think of using first names in their correspondence with customers. The very idea would have been outrageous. A degree of formality was important. It provided a suitable transactional distance and was an appropriate signal  of respect.

Nowadays, both in email communication and call centre talk, I am habitually addressed by my first name and usually this happens without my permission. On more than one occasion I have interrupted calls to ask the person at the other end not to use my first name. It is likely that I am the only informality protester they encounter. They probably skip to their call centre "comfort breaks" giggling about the dinosaur they have just stirred.

And as you may or may not know we have a general election coming up in Great Britain next month. I have received several election communications which begin with the appellation "Dear Neil..." or "Neil - this is the most important election for a generation". But all I can think is - Who said you could use my first name?

In shops and pubs I don't want to be "pal", "mate", "bro" or to be on the receiving end of  any other similar informal terms of address. If anything I still want to be "sir" - for that term helps to define our relationship. I am the customer and you are giving me a service. I am not your friend.

King Canute could not command the tide and I know that my feelings about manners and the growth of informal address are probably anachronistic. Some people's instincts are to embrace the new without question - be it in terms of technology, fashion, language or social habits. But that is not my instinct. In my world what is new is not necessarily better. It is simply something to be considered.

29 comments:

  1. I am with you YP ~ anachronistic or not. I hate ordering having to leave my first name when I order coffee or juice. I hate that my son chooses to use my first name instead of Mum when he us being rude. But I must say that I am taken back when an ex-student still calls me Miss when they serve me in the shops when I haven't even been their teacher. And I love the fact that I am still Auntie Carol to my adult niece and nephew.

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    1. Some teachers are a "Miss" but others - like me - are a "Hit"! Our children have never addressed us by our first names and I can understand why Brody irritates you when he does that. Send the young whippersnapper to Yorkshire and I'll give him an old-fashioned clout!

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  2. Sir I couldn't agree more about mores.

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    1. Is that what Oliver Twist meant when he said "More please!"? He wasn't referring to the gruel.

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    2. No he was referring to Arabs but was only young and couldn't spill.

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    3. Ha! Ha! It took me a while but I finally got it Adrian. You wag!

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  3. When my wife first came to Barnsley and was addressed as "duck" by a bus driver, it sure shocked her!

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    1. I bet it shocked her so much that she waddled off to the nearest pond! Was it the beak that first attracted you to her Brian or the webbed feet?

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  4. I don't care what they call me, I don't want political junk in my mail, my email, or on my phone. Ever.

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    1. Okay - if you don't care what they call you I am going to call you Fifi L'Amour! Hi Fifi!

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    2. I don't think my hair is curly enough for me to be a Fifi. Isn't that sort of a poodle name?

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    3. Yes - a French poodle!

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  5. What's in a name? To me first name surname? they are names. Manners can be observed no matter what the name is. As a former teacher, I insist that all former students use my first name.

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    1. What is in a name? Would you have been okay if they had used a sexual swear word as your name Red? I always insisted that my students never used my first name though in Thailand how you address people in authority is different. There I was always Mr Neil.

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  6. I totally agree with you. In the US everyone calls you by your first name, and I dislike it very much indeed. My first name is French and difficult to pronounce – so they try once, twice, three times and never can say it right – and I tell them so. So they easily call me by my last name. If not, it is always misspelled and that is a problem when I get my prescriptions and things like that. When I go to a fastfood restaurant and they ask for my name I usually use names like Madame de Gaulle or Madame Marie-Antoinette – they look at me funny and I say in my most pronounced French accent while staring at them – you do not like zees name? what eez wrong? And that stops them, but I know they giggle.

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    1. Difficult to pronounce French names? I am guessing Thérèse, Mathilde or Virginie... I like your fast food restaurant tactic!

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  7. Your post and the comments are very interesting. You'd like it here in Germany, where we are much more formal in our dealings with each other; unless you know someone really well, have grown up with them or they are family members, everyone past their teens is "Herr" or "Frau" to you, followed by their surname, and that is also how you are addressed in lettres, no matter whether they come from the council demanding property tax or from a company trying to sell you something you don't need.
    With all of my customers, I am on "Sie" terms, not on "Du" (the formal v. the informal "you"). My parents never were Siegrun and Wolfgang to me, they were and are Mutti or Mama and Papa.
    Like Brian mentioned in his comment, my first time in Barnsley, I was addressed as "duck" by a bus driver, too. Usually, when I am in Yorkshire for my annual holiday, people say "love". It felt odd at first but I am now used to it. With people more or less my age or younger, I feel comfortable using first names (for instance, the very kind and helpful lady at Ripon Tourist Information is Karen), but with people who are much older than I, or have positions of authority, I think I'd rather call them Mr. or Mrs. [surname].
    My upstairs neighbour is from Turkey. He can not pronounce "Riley", so he always calls me "Frau Meike". He is 64 and I call him Herr Tigli. I only know his first name (Idris) because it is on the mail box.

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    1. Yes Frau Duck, Germany's naming habits seem more to my taste... trouble is I don't speak German so I shall not become an economic migrant any time soon!

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  8. Instinctively I am very formal because I was brought up in 'that age' and 'that sort of background'. It was a fascinating era when one had to know exactly where one was in the order of things and one instinctively acted accordingly. I think that I adapted pretty quickly as the social order and general attitudes changed and ideas of mutual 'respect' altered. Then I went to live (albeit part time) in New Zealand and discovered how very different things are there and respect really didn't seem to be diminished by the informality. I think this is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking of posts about which I could write a very great deal (if I were not so mentally lazy).

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    1. I double dare you to write your own post about manners! There'll be lines to write if you don't and no flapjack at morning break!

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    2. I shall write such a post but it might me a while yet.

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  9. Sir,

    When I was a child (yes, I was once) absolutely no adult would have been addressed by their first name - unless you were a very cheeky kid and you soon got you comeuppance.

    When I finally gained my majority I felt that I was accepted as an adult when older people invited me to use their first names. It was an awkward process at first but I soon adapted to the idea.

    At all of nineteen years of age, I collected two small primary school children along the way to the nearby town where I worked and deposited them each morning outside their school. They had strict instructions from their mother to address me as Miss Soup and when I suggested a more informal manner of address she wouldn't hear of it.
    I felt a bit like Grandma Moses when they greeted me each morning.

    Ms Soup

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    1. Grandma Moses? The New York Times said of her/you:- "A tiny, lively woman with mischievous gray eyes and a quick wit, she could be sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild." Sounds familiar?

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  10. YP,again, you are right. There is something comforting and respectful about being addressed as Mr or Mrs, especially on a letter. So rude to use first names on correspondence if you don't know the person personally.

    That "mate" thing with young lads does my head in big time. One young lad I know who used to work in our local inconvenience store once called me "babe" and I said in my best scary Glasgow accent, "Look you, I'm more than old enough to be your mother so stop calling me babe." Pillock!

    We were the same as you and no other adults were called by their first names when we were growing up, apart from a mad young Uncle.

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    1. Babe Pillock? One of my favourite film stars! She was brilliant in "A Mad Young Uncle".

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  11. Now this is going to may you chuckle, Yorky. Back in the late 80s is used to live in Varley Street, Yorkeys Knob!!! lol

    Yorkeys Knob is one of the northern beach suburbs of Cairns. Carol knows it well....if you know what I mean....I shall stop now before I put my foot in it! :)

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  12. Yes, I know that Carol is very familiar with Yorkey's Knob. I understand that Yorkey's Knob has expanded over the years. It doesn't surprise me that you were attracted to Yorkey's Knob in the late 80's. Did you know that there is an area north of London called The Lee Valley? I have never been there but I would love to explore it - observing its rich insect life. (lol)

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  13. Hahahahahaha!

    I wasn't aware of that valley, Yorky. No crabs there.

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  14. When my children were young and in their teens I would ask their friends to call me Mrs. Sa..... or Miss Donna (a title in the south that is used for married or unmarried women.) Most respected my wishes and complied. And even tho those friends of my children are older now with children of their own, they still use the respectful term when speaking with me.

    I just think that adding a title to someone's name who is older and/or in a position of authority or trust adds a bit of respect and deference. I think that young people who have such respect then, in turn, have respect for themselves, for their parents and teachers, for persons in law enforcement and other authoritative figures.

    I really, really do think that the lack of respect for others is a part of the breakdown of our society and culture. Now, I know these thoughts don't sound like the liberal, humanist, hippy that I was and am and always will be, but there you go!

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