The collapse of formality

Examples of social decline, especially in the UK

Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Heather » 29 May 2013, 01:40

I was recently traveling to visit relatives and on the way my family stopped for dinner at a nation-wide chain restaurant. Our waiter, about my age, mid-20s, greeted us with: "how we doin' today, boys and girls?" Unfortunately I'm very slow about thinking on my feet, or I'd have come up with a Dalrymple style of response. My shock must have showed, though, because by the end of the meal he was calling my husband "sir," but was obviously confused about how he should address me (is "ma'am" to stuffy? Is "miss" too young?).

However, this is how he continued to address other customers, and when an elderly lady gave him a friendly reprimand, he took it as an old woman's flirtation, and assured her that she was still girlish!

A few days later, in my hometown, my mom took my grandmother and my family out for lunch, and the waitress, again about my age, condescendingly called my 82 year old grandmother "honey." I won't even begin to describe everything my grandma's generation has seen in their long and dignified lives, only to be called "honey" or "sweetie" by the idiots of mine.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Grant » 29 May 2013, 09:07

Heather, I couldn't agree with you more. The asssumption made by the "server" that it was acceptable to address older citizens in such an off-hand manner is testimony to the disregard given to those who have blazed the trails and made our societies what they are. Those cultures which still revere wisdom wrought through experience appear to be in the best shape. To ignore or deprecate the experiences of those who have survived is a form of slow cultural suicide.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 29 May 2013, 09:10

I agree with both of you, but I found myself stumped when trying to justify this to a plucky 18 year-old. He said that age was not in itself a reason to be respected. He even said that older people had to "earn" his respect. I found that monstrously arrogant but I couldn't come up with a logical justification for respecting one's elders by default. It was quite annoying, actually.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 29 May 2013, 10:05

It is condescending to call older people "boys and girls" and entirely inappropriate from the position of "server". I'm sorry to hear it is sometimes as bad over there as it usually is here.

The problem, were you to object, is that in this self-righteous age the server would not apologise but would consider you "stuck up" and would go and say so to his or her colleagues. So it's hard to formulate a reply. Take it to the management, perhaps. As you leave, ask to see the manager. "That waiter was nice but I think you should speak to him about the way he addresses customers. It's informal to the point of rude, to be honest. I will tell my friends and we will see how he is if he is still here next time."

You can put this kind of thing on Trip Advisor too - we do. I think taking such action is a very good thing. We are almost always served by surly, rude, self-important but probably unskilled young women in every shop or cafe we visit now - and we mention that. We also avoid places because of it. Of course we also take great pleasure in mentioning the rare occasions when standards are good and people are friendly and professional, too - though this should actually be the default and not need mentioning, sadly it comes as a breath of fresh air and is almost never encountered from anyone under the age of thirty.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Grant » 01 Jun 2013, 08:12

Gavin,
You perform a sterling role in administering this excellent site but must be careful not to sound curmudgeonly in your general assessment of servers/waiters/assistants under thirty. Some employ respect, courtesy and efficient service, usually as a result of good training. Buying my wife a birthday present today I encountered one such assistant who was patient, polite, well-spoken and obviously under thirty.
Sometimes there is a reason to hope the future might be in the good hands of some. We've got to continue pointing out those instances where standards are not met but must be careful not to let blemishes mar our overall view.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 01 Jun 2013, 12:06

Thanks Grant. I just report it as I experience it here in the UK.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Nick » 03 Jun 2013, 11:38

In this society it's all about who you know, rather than who you are or what talents you have. Therefore, speaking informally to people assumes familiarity and therefore it means a higher status.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 03 Jun 2013, 12:50

That's an interesting point, Nick, and I think I agree with it. However I also think the rejection of formality is a proxy rejection of hierarchy and respect.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Nick » 03 Jun 2013, 14:28

I welcome the decline of hierarchy. Just look at the people who sit at the top of it, such as baroness Ashton. She got there by knowing people, not by talents.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Elliott » 03 Jun 2013, 16:17

We're talking about two different kinds of hierarchy. I too welcome to the collapse of the establishment as it now is - the EU, weak national politicians, the immense network of quangos, etc.

But I do not celebrate the decline of the early 20th century hierarchy - manners, quality, good and evil, class, politeness, etc.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Gavin » 03 Jun 2013, 16:40

You're never going to eliminate nepotism entirely, nor should you, I think. The trouble is since Blair numerous incompetent (or downright treacherous) people have been chosen (and even knighted).

I like the idea of "hierarchy", too. That is also, I think, inevitable.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Caleb » 04 Jun 2013, 04:07

Nick: I think you need to ask what formality and etiquette are all about though, and why there is hierarchy. Let me start from an extreme example so you will see what I'm getting at.

In feudal Japanese society, there were extremely rigid rules of etiquette and respect, and hierarchy and relationships were part of that. Why? Because you had a bunch of guys running around with swords in what was essentially a death cult (bushido). It was hyper-masculinity in perhaps its most advanced form. All of the social rituals and hierarchy existed precisely so that people would know exactly where they stood and didn't stand, and how to behave accordingly. This prevented widespread, random bloodshed.

All societies develop systems of etiquette to contain social friction that exists as a result of humans naturally being self-serving. People everywhere are always going to want respect and people everywhere are also going to push the envelope in order to extend their own circle of social influence, or gain a material advantage over others. Hierarchy is natural in social groups. Whether we would wish this aspect of social behaviour away or not is irrelevant. it's hardwired into the species (all species, actually). If not the aristocracy, the bureaucracy, and all that. I don't have links, but I've read that Britain is actually a more sclerotic place in terms of class and social mobility than when it actually had a traditional class system. It's just that no one calls someone in upper BBC management a baron or earl. That's what he is, in a sense, though.

Far from being stifling, formality can actually be liberating because it sets clear boundaries and people don't have to worry about finding themselves inadvertently involved in violence because they've crossed someone's invisible line. This is one of the things, to me, that really marks certain cultures (including that of the underclass) as dysfunctional. The lines are so arbitrary, and the violence so unpredictable. It's actually something I found really disconcerting about living in London. It was, in some strange way, like a giant favela or ghetto. I have actually been through some bad areas in other cities and countries and managed to avoid trouble, though it was silly to go into those places to begin with. Anyway though, what really struck me about living and working in London (this was a decade ago, so it's almost certainly much worse now) was that whereas in other places, such as America or Australia, you could learn where the good and bad areas were, and in the good areas, there was still a very high degree of formality and civility and a low potential for random violence, this wasn't the case in London. I always had the distinct feeling that the same person who gave me really bad service could just as easily jump the counter and beat my face in, or start trouble on a bus ride with someone else later. There's so much brimming masculinity in London that is barely held in check. I haven't ever really had that feeling anywhere else in the world except in places that were obviously screwed up. The fact that London shares similarities with Cairo, for instance, is not a good thing.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Nick » 06 Jun 2013, 14:20

I can't access my notes right now but one or two years ago there was a huge discussion on a forum about this, in which I participated. I can't really summarize it eruditely right now due to restraints. Let me summarize some of the points:

Hierarchy is connected to meritocracy. Best man on the best job and all that. The better you are at something, the higher your place in the hierarchy related to that thing. Basically capable, strong personalities lead us and the more easily distracted, less coherent follow.

However we have re-engineered society to the point it doesnt need brilliance anymore or any distinction. For example dont need gifted tracker to find fertile area like hunter gatherers or smart guy who invents mills to pump up water and do agriculture. Nowadays technology and the welfare state do that for us. So how can you really promote anyone in the hierarchy? Only through voting, basically; hierarchy becomes a popularity contest. One might argue that kings and queens descend of superior genetic makeup but a lot of noble houses had incestuous relationships in the past so the quality of their genes degenerated too.

Some guy was a box packer working at assembly line. Line crashed, called mechanic, watched him fix it. Next time it crashes, when the mechanic came the assembly line was running again because the guy fixed it himself. Then they fired the guy for not knowing his place in the hierarchy or overstepping his responsibility. Basically for being too smart and therefore threatening the hierarchy of the company. As I said, we no longer have a pure evolution because we have adapted the circumstances to suit human needs and eliminated predators; therefore we have no pure selection of merit. Basically if you're a numb guy to press a button to have a machine fold a box from dusk to dawn, you are perfectly suited for your job. Because we have changed our environments in such a way that they decide and condition us to interact with them. We set up Western civilization so to avoid risks and ensure stability, therefore making guys who tower beyond others in capability pretty much obsolete.

Of course I agree there is a hierarchy of consciousness and desire the flame of intelligence to burn in every citizen, but the society as it is is based on granting the wishes of the audience. If you sell 3209949 CD's or Rebecca Black, your company will thrive, you will have money, people will look up to you and follow your influence and guidance. If you instead try to sell them Beethoven and Mozart, you will have only 302 purchases, and people will ignore you. Then you will have neoliberals and libertarians roaming around saying that the free market ensures the most qualified get to the top, therefore arguing it justifies the hierarchy. Guy selling 309598 copies of Twilight --> becomes new überchef of the company. Guy selling 95 copies of Plato's Republic --> baah what a loser, you go open a stand on a market place to sell second hand books.

Thus, this all shows how hierarchy in the civilization of today just brings us closer to our doom. And then I dont speak about, for example, kids not accepting the authority of their teaches because I agree that is a big problem. I am really thinking about the bigger picture here, apologize that my post is a bit muddled and convoluted due to time constraint.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Caleb » 07 Jun 2013, 00:21

Nick: Broadly, I agree with you, but there are some interesting guys out there still. I've been reading about Peter Thiel recently. That guy is quite a character. He also has an interesting vision for the world. Amongst other things, he founded a right wing magazine at university to challenge PC, he studied philosophy (and is a serious classicist and advocate of classical thought and literature), and he maintains his rank as a chess master to this day. Look at all the crazy science fiction like projects he's involved with now. Last, but not least, he was a producer of the movie Thank You For Smoking, which I would recommend if you haven't seen it.
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Re: The collapse of formality

Postby Nick » 08 Jun 2013, 17:16

That Peter Thiel guy sounds like something to look into.

As a society, we have eliminated the circumstance of scarcity that justified the selective mechanisms a social hierarchy is based on in the first place.

As a result, selective mechanisms will be self-referential, meaning self-referential to society; Climbing up in the hierarchy will be one big popularity contest.
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