The collapse of formality

Examples of social decline, especially in the UK

The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 24 Feb 2012, 10:04

One of the indications (or consequences) of the decay in society may be seen in the way people address each other in business now.

I remember not long ago Dalrymple wrote of how a surly youth said to him words to the effect of "60p, mate" when he was purchasing something in a shop. The boy must have been about 16, Dalrymple in sixties. Dalrymple replied "I'd rather you didn't address me as 'mate'". This of course elicited a resentful glare.

In our parents' day it would have been unthinkable for a youth to address an adult in this manner, today it is commonplace. It is commonplace in business relations too. When I recently moved house, from the very beginning the estate agent addressed me as "Gavin", without having been invited to do so. Later she did not bother with any address at all. (Her e-mails, needless to say, also contained grammatical errors. She's the Assistant Manager at this large estate agent.)

In my own business correspondence I always begin with Mr -------, because I believe it is respectful and it is after all a business matter with money changing hands. In the (more frequent) case of women, since the age of feminism one can no longer say Mrs, so I use Ms. Sometimes the women will nonetheless reply with "Hi Gavin" and sign themselves "Katy" or whatever it might be. These will be people with whom I have never corresponded before and the matter in question might be a multi-thousand pound business proposal.

Since they want to be known as Katy, one is inclined to reply "Hi Katy" - and then the formality of this essentially business relationship is immediately destroyed, which I do not think is a good idea in the early days. But if one replies again "Dear Ms Smith" one appears somewhat icy.

I did take the latter option recently, and interestingly the Managing Director in question remained friendly and reverted to addressing me by by surname once again.

No doubt all of these people think they are being friendly, but I find it inappropriate. I wonder if the behaviour can to some degree attributed to the feminisation of the workplace.

Have other users experienced this too? Do they agree with me and what do you think is the best way to combat this trend?
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Rachel » 24 Feb 2012, 13:48

When I am stuck on this matter I address the person "Dear Katy Smith" with the full first and surname. It retains the formality without worrying about being icy. Yes it is a problem when it comes down to business and money.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 25 Feb 2012, 18:02

Gavin, the article you refer to was Common People from November 2010.

Six years ago, my grandmother was 83 and beginning to show early signs of dementia. She would get phoned up by consumer surveys, or even her own bank doing customer research, and the 20 year-old at the other end would address her by her first name. Given her age and frailty, my grandmother didn't protest to the person; she just lamented it afterwards with her children and grandchildren.

Clearly, it is a deliberate decision on the part of companies (usually huge companies) that first name terms should be used. Clearly a decision has been made at some point. The effect is nothing less than a social change: people are gradually getting used to the idea of being addressed by their first names, and accepting that if they object to it, it is actually they who are being rude, castigating a person who, after all, had meant no offence.

This is something I feel quite strongly about because it is insidious and deliberate. Companies know they are setting the tone: they could just as easily choose to address people formally, but they don't. If I were a conspiracy theorist I may believe this was a ploy to "cut their customers down to size". In fact I do believe that. If the default is informality (disrespect), then to request formality is to request an extra, something other people may not request, and therefore to appear selfish, difficult and vain.

It was the same when my grandmother went into hospital (NHS). The nurses, in between swearing in the corridors and hanging around the nurses' station, addressed all patients, however elderly and infirm, by their first names. It was a long-term stay in the hospital, during which the NHS managed to lose my grandmother's dressing gown which she'd had for 20 years, and her false teeth, leaving her literally toothless. I find it difficult to believe that these oversights were unconnected to the level of respect shown to her in conversation.

This is something TD has specifically written about:

Yet another step is that 'patients will be called by their preferred name' - which suggests that patients are currently humiliated by being called by their first names, or even by diminutives of their first names.

Patients should routinely be addressed formally until such time as they say 'Call me Bill' or 'Call me Betty'. The question 'How do you wish to be addressed, Mr Smith or Joe?' is not a neutral one: it intimidates people into an informality they don't want.


That's the crux of the matter. To even ask people how they "prefer" to be addressed is to implicitly say it's entirely subjective and cosmetic, that their preference is merely a preference, and that modes of address carry no moral weight. It certainly says that being addressed respectfully is just one of several options.

It's like saying to a person: "Do you mind me if I insult you? Or are you one of those people who thinks I should go out of my way not to insult you? Looking forward to your input."

Lack of formality breeds lack of respect, and lack of sincerity.

And this seems to happen when large organisations decide that their clients/customers should be addressed informally. I recall about 5 years ago it was suddenly fashionable for employees of O2 (with whom I had a phone contract) to ask "How are you today?" or even "And what kind of day are you having?" This sounded stilted and unnatural, yet one couldn't object to it without being the rude one in the exchange!

At my local Tesco, there's a male checkout assistant who always says, "have a fantastic day" or "have an excellent day". The others don't say this so I presume it is something he's come up with himself. But he doesn't realise how insincere it sounds. It would be much more sincere, and therefore polite, if he just said "have a nice day" or "have a good day".

I worked at a callcentre 7 years ago. During the training, we were specifically told "we use first names". It seemed significant that the woman telling us this struck me as quite socially inadequate, paranoid and deeply insecure. In the absence of morality, such people take their chance to dominate everyone else.

But we are told: 'Patients support "respect" campaign.' The evidence for this is that a woman called Betty W, aged 88 and not dignified by a title, said she found staff friendly, polite and respectful. Another patient said: 'The staff have always respected my privacy.'


It seems to me that talking about privacy in that way makes it seem like an optional extra - something that old-fashioned people may want, so it should be "offered" just in case. But really it's only difficult people who want privacy, so let them know subtly that they're a dying breed and should give up on the idea.

At my own workplace, there is an old man (in his 80s) who volunteers once a week. I don't even know his surname because he was introduced to me by his first name (let's call him Alexander). It's against my instincts to address him as Alexander but, at the same time, I know that if I asked him his surname, he probably wouldn't tell me. And if he did tell me, and I took to addressing him formally, I know that everyone else would wonder why I was doing it and probably I would be laughed at. In fact, I am positive that the teenagers who work at the shop would use it as a means of "besting" me, showing that they set the tone, not me - that may sound very insecure on my part, and maybe it is, but nonetheless I think it is the truth. So I have no real choice in the matter. All I can do is avoid calling Alexander anything at all.

I have a dream of starting a company wherein all staff members address each other as "Mr Smith" and "Mrs Smith" etc. But realistically I don't think it could be done. The staff would be perplexed at the rule, thinking it outdated and stuffy. Nobody would be accustomed to interacting that way; it would mean constant affectation. More's the pity, because I would really like working in a place like that (sans the affectation).
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 25 Feb 2012, 18:59

I agree we are bullied into this. Only a couple of days ago a call centre person started by saying "Gavin... You don't mind if I call you Gavin, do you?" with exactly the implications you describe. I have to confess on this occasion I gave in: after a bewildered pause, I said, "Um.., er, no". I should have said "This is a business call, so please use my surname" and not cared what she thought or said. I think where possible we have to make a stand.

I also agree this is a deliberate and devious move by these companies. If they act like our friends, they think people will trust them more. But they weren't asked to be friends. They're not our friends, we don't know them.

I am usually much bolder. When I am put through to India, as is often the case now, I say to them "I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying. Put someone else on" and I ask them where they are. Customer service is generally so appalling now it is just one big insult and I believe there is a large gap in the market for companies who really do provide anything above mediocre service and who actually treat their customers with respect. They make you become harsh. I often find myself saying also "You said you would call me back. You didn't. Why not?". Really there has been a collapse of the service sector in the UK along with other kinds of respect for strangers.

Here is a test for you: can you also name the Dalrymple article in which he said he would always favour employing (or being served by) a Pole rather than a British youngster? I too have found they are generally more polite and efficient. When I stay in hotels now they are 100% staffed by foreigners. This is no doubt at least in part because so many Brits are just not up to these (let's face it, relatively easy) jobs, and yet consider themselves above them.

I do run my own company. I use "Yours faithfully" and "Yours sincerely" appropriately (few earning more than me even seem to know how to do this) and as mentioned I use surnames or "Sir" or "Madam". Sometimes only "Sir" for tradition's sake. I also have no "Human Resources" department because I think this is a made up phrase. It's Personnel. It always was Personnel, there was nothing wrong with it so I keep it as Personnel now.

I think we do need to fight back where we can. Imply from the beginning that you expect formality and maybe we can get things back on track. I agree also, by the way, that it is particularly insulting for the elderly to be called by their first names. In a nursing home I know of in Florida this was not allowed.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 25 Feb 2012, 23:05

Here is a test for you: can you also name the Dalrymple article in which he said he would always favour employing (or being served by) a Pole rather than a British youngster?


He's actually said it in several articles now, but I think this was the first time:

If I knew only of two young applicants for a job that one was British and that the other was Polish, I would employ the Pole (2011)

Essays at the Social Affairs Unit don't seem to have titles so much as precis paragraphs.

Really there has been a collapse of the service sector in the UK along with other kinds of respect for strangers.


I wonder if that suggests the British simply aren't very good at service? If so, it was a huge mistake of Thatcher's to create "a service economy". I really think that the British want to be creators, builders and designers - anything else, they find demeaning.

National character aside, good service can only happen in a culture that has a clear moral code. In the absence of such a code, you've just got boors pretending to care. (Which is exactly what we've got, from hospitals to care homes to hotels.)

Your mention of Indian call centres reminded me of something which happened the other day. I got a phone call and a man with a thick Indian accent said: "Hello, my name is Brian." And I thought, "well there's your first lie!"
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Liviu » 02 Mar 2012, 22:05

The collapse of formality is a fact in Romania, too. I have been raised to always address a stranger with deference, using the plural second person pronoun (like “vous” in French). But now this rule is dead. The majority will address you by singular second person pronoun (like “tu” in French) by default. This is not the greatest problem (even if I believe that old style formality has a strong role in enforcing mutual respect and a deterrent for bad behavior). What is more annoying is that if you do address people in a civilized manner they will look down on you and treat you like the under dog. I have to make daily efforts to treat people like second class in order for me to be respected. It is still hard for me not to be polite, but it is what I have to do if I want to be treated seriously in my dealings with various people or institutions.

And there is more. There still are civilized, good educated people left that deserve to be treated politely. But how to identify them? Every now and then I make the mistake of talking informally to one man or woman that expected otherwise, and I am embarrassed by doing it. I believe that the lack of an established moral and social code, generally accepted, increases the potential for conflict and makes for a significant reduction in social capital.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 03 Mar 2012, 18:00

Liviu, I know just what you mean and I expect the decline is just the same in France too.

I also find myself addressing people less formally than I would like, in order to avoid ridicule or a violent response. One learns how to conform, and - among the general public - it is downwards. When stopped by underclass thugs on the street, I always adopt street parlance and reply "mate". On the two occasions when delinquents tried to mug me, both times they opened with "Alright mate. Got a light?". This is of course in order to get close to, and disarm, the potential victim (though for any experienced person it has the opposite effect). I reply now "Nah mate, I ain't". Incidentally I also usually maintain a confident gait when it is impossible to avoid pavement congregating thugs: never show fear to cowards, as it is an open invitation to assault.

Funny though, on very rare occasions, efforts to placate the underclass can backfire (though this by no means invalidates our prejudices as general rules, as TD has noted). For example, I had reason to address an obviously common individual not long ago, who had no social graces at all. In an attempt to find some common ground, I feigned an interest in football (which I consider to be a monumental waste of time and money, but which most thugs do follow).

"Weird about that Gary Speed" said I, with reference to the football person who apparently hanged himself a few months ago. "I'm not interested in the football. Couldn't give a f**k about it" came my interlocutor's blunt reply. You can't win them all!
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 29 May 2012, 21:18

Tony Blair's friend Richard Branson wants to banish the tie from corporate life.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Caleb » 30 May 2012, 02:06

I know in another thread a few people recently noticed the striking similarities in appearance, manner and speech between Branson and Blair. I didn't comment at the time, but I was surprised by this as I've noticed this for years.

Anyway, I think ties are an interesting issue because they're often quite indicative of other things. I went to a private school where we had to wear them. The little kids didn't wear ties, but starting from grade four (when I started at the school), we had to wear them. In some ways, I hated our strict school uniform rules while at school, though I also recognised even then how scruffy many of the other local government (and Catholic) school students looked. I was also surprised about the way English school children wear short ties. Actually, I was probably more surprised that they have to wear school uniforms at all, given the general attitude in education there.

In most white collar jobs since I was a student, I have always worn a tie, even if I didn't have to. The first two jobs I had in Taiwan, I didn't wear a tie. In the first case, we actually had company polo shirts (though we didn't have to wear them all the time). In the second case, we wore casual clothes, which I actually came to realise was part of a generally lax attitude there.

When I started at my latest job (I've been here for almost two years), I started wearing a tie again. I thought that there needed to be a more professional air. None of my colleagues wear ties, although interestingly, a few of my colleagues have started wearing nicer trousers and shirts this past semester (though most of my colleagues still wear casual clothes). I don't know whether I've had a subtle influence on them or not, but I've generally been trying to lift the atmosphere at my work by leading by example in terms of dress, discipline, etc. Likewise, unlike most foreigners working in education here, I do not refer to myself as Teacher First Name. My students call me Mr Surname (in Chinese, you would call a teacher teacher not Mr, but it sounds odd to me in English), and I expect them to acknowledge my presence if we are walking towards each other. They stand at the beginning and end of the lesson, etc. Some of the students actually complained when I first arrived because they said I was too formal (although their Taiwanese teachers are also referred to as Teacher Surname, and never by their first names, and the students also stand for them and acknowledge their presence outside the classroom). That's the whole point! Teachers should be formal. Mine were. We eventually found out the first names of most of our teachers later in school by looking in the year book, but we would never have called them by their first names, and indeed, we barely actually knew anything about them. There was a very definite and deliberate distance between them and us, and they led by example. I think uniform is just one manifestation of a particular attitude towards being in school, doing business, etc. My current students do look extremely scruffy generally. Whilst there is not much I can do about that in the main, I don't accept unbuttoned shirts, caps, etc.

Is it uncomfortable wearing a tie? Yes. I live below the Tropic of Cancer. My classroom at school seems to be the hottest room in the entire school on some days (and I only have fans). For about the past month to the end of September every year, it's super hot and humid. So what? When I was a student, by about December, walking home from school, it felt like my shoes were practically melting into the pavement. Yet it was all part of a general demeanour. My teachers wore suits (a suit jacket really would be too much in this climate). So why is Richard Branson complaining about it being uncomfortable? He lives and works in England!

Also, his point in that article that bank managers look too formal and intimidating is part of this whole general collapse in attitude. It's why people wear baseball caps inside (one of my real pet peeves). There's another foreign teacher who works in the same region as me who always wears a baseball cap inside a restaurant! Unless I'm having an extremely bad hair day and someone has come over unannounced in the morning and woken me up, I never even wear a hat inside my own house!

Of course, in a way, the customer is the customer. However, I also think that going to talk to a bank manager about a loan shouldn't be like turning up at your mate's house for a couple of beers. Maybe if there were more of my attitude generally, they wouldn't have handed out bad loans willy nilly over the past decade and we wouldn't be seeing financial turmoil across the Western world.

In a similar vein, last week, we had to go to a court to do some business. Even the court officials weren't wearing ties. Many of the people sitting around (presumably going to trial or arbitration) were wearing extremely casual clothes (including shorts!). Who goes to court not trying to look extremely well presented? Some people really have absolutely no clue, yet they've probably never really been expected to look well presented anywhere else. After we left, I joked to my wife that I was probably the only one in the entire city that day who was wearing a tie and I may not have been that far off.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Mike » 30 May 2012, 23:27

I must admit to going against the grain here. To my mind, proper conservatism has always been about sifting through the existing social conventions of a society to identify those which are genuinely worthy of preservation and those which only exist and persist due to historical accident, and I actually believe that the wearing of ties belongs to the latter group. The value of looking neat and respectable is certainly undervalued in the modern world, but I believe it is possible to do so without wearing a tie, which is a rather bizarre convention from a purely objective viewpoint. It is possible to argue, of course, that ties have become such an emblem of respectability that one is duty-bound to wear them in certain circumstances.

Having said that, the rest of that Richard Branson article is replete with the sort of modern business thinking that always puzzles me. For instance:

We also thought that the staff’s formal business attire was almost as solid a barrier to customer-friendly experiences as those counters were.


This sort of statement has never made any sense to me. As a customer, I would be far more concerned that the person dealing with me was polite, knowledgeable, efficient and, yes, friendly. The physical environment in which any contact took place would be of minor importance, and in fact some initial "separation" between customer and company representative, by means of a counter or the like, actually strikes me as appropriate. But perhaps I'm unusual in that sense.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Mike » 30 May 2012, 23:28

Caleb wrote:Of course, in a way, the customer is the customer. However, I also think that going to talk to a bank manager about a loan shouldn't be like turning up at your mate's house for a couple of beers. Maybe if there were more of my attitude generally, they wouldn't have handed out bad loans willy nilly over the past decade and we wouldn't be seeing financial turmoil across the Western world.


Definitely some truth to this, I think.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Damo » 31 May 2012, 14:50

I wonder would Richard Branson allow his air hostess and pilots dress down for the job?

I doubt it very much.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Liviu » 31 May 2012, 20:41

Caleb, I had much of the same experiences while being a teacher. I am now fully in favor of formal behavior in school. What the latest wave of pedagogy has completely forgotten is that education is based on hierarchy: the teachers (and adults in general) must be on top and children must listen. The educators are not children’s best friends; they are persons with authority that pass on culture to the (still) uneducated. Authority is essential in transmitting the fundamentals of culture, is essential in framing the minds of children; authority is supported by formal behavior and undermined by familiarity.

I believe (legitimate) authority and hierarchy are values that need to be reinstated, re-legitimized after the leftist tsunami.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Caleb » 01 Jun 2012, 00:21

Liviu: Indeed. Children don't respect an adult who is their friend. They may like them while things are going well, but the wind changes very quickly.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Andreas » 26 Sep 2012, 17:04

All the observations here, especially regarding use of first names, are equally true for the United States, or even more so. Respect and deference are still shown in at least one area of life, though. Most everyone still addresses their physician as “Dr. __” rather than as “Mary” or “Hugh.” Formality in addressing people probably still prevails in police matters and in courtrooms as well.

What I find most worrisome about this is not the discomfort we might feel, but the fact that this kind of informality is a sign or symptom of a gradual erosion of the boundary between private and public life. It is a parallel to the emotional incontinence Dalrymple writes about (among other places, in “Spoilt Rotten”). As Dalrymple demonstrates, people not only feel it is their right to express their momentary feelings at any time, to anyone, but there is coercion to do so in some circumstances. Likewise there is coercion to be informal.

Another form of informality which is common now, and which I find demeaning, is that American politicians and public figures no longer address public audiences as “ladies and gentlemen” but as “folks.” Susan Jacoby discusses this downward slippage, and how we are all “just folks” now in her book “The Age of American Unreason.”
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