Thursday, December 17, 2009

at last--the politeness story


Hi there

Dec 17th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Life is getting friendlier but less interesting. Blame technology, globalisation and feminism

Illustration by Madamesange
Illustration by Madamesange

A PRIVATE visit to the castle of Vaduz in Liechtenstein is a treat for many reasons. One is to see a fine private art collection. Another is a chance to use an otherwise unusable German word. As the only German-speaking feudal country in the world, Liechtenstein is the last refuge of that language’s traditional forms of aristocratic address. The reigning prince, Hans Adam II, whose splendiferous full name in German is Johannes (Hans)-Adam II. Ferdinand Alois Josef Maria Marko d’Aviano Pius Fürst von und zu Liechtenstein, Herzog von Troppau und Jägerndorf, Graf zu Rietberg, is the only person in the world who can seriously be addressed as Durchlaucht (Serenity).

Like much foreign formality, it sounds odd in English. So does “Je vous prie de bien vouloir agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués” which is how you might end a business letter in French (it means, more or less, “I ask you kindly to accept, Sir, the assurance of my highest consideration”). In English a “yours sincerely” or even a simple “regards” would suffice; French-style floridity survives, just, only in the context of diplomatic correspondence. For the most part, and in most places, the era of “Serene Highnesses” and “Your Excellencies” is over. This is part of a big shift away from clear, detailed conventions about politeness of the past and towards a blurred but largely egalitarian world that prizes phoney friendliness over formality.

One of the main reasons is the spread of English. Compared with other languages, it is sadly limited in the range of possible forms of politeness it offers. A few thousand people have titles, either inherited or awarded for political reasons, such as the new European foreign minister, Lady (Catherine) Ashton. Members of the established church have handles such as “Your Grace” (for an archbishop) or “Very Reverend” (for a dean). But for the vast majority of commoners and lay people, English has since the middle ages had no formal honorific speech beyond sparse choices such as “Mr”, “Dr” or “Professor”.

Other cultures are far more elaborate. In former Habsburg countries visiting cards habitually bear titles such as JUDr. (Doctor of Law), Ing. (Engineer) or Dipl.-Kfm. (a degree in business). A visit to an Austrian cemetery offers a landscape engraved with even grander titles such as Dr. theol., k. k. Hofrat (“Doctor of Divinity, Imperial and Royal Court Counsellor”).

Nothing like that has ever really existed in English, which also offers no gradation of respect via conjugation or personal pronoun: with “thou” and “ye” gone since the 17th century, everyone is just “you”. English also has few of the diminutives that add subtlety to Slavic social interchange. In languages like Czech, the move from Jana to Janka and then Janicka signals a subtle increase in intimacy each time. In English, that may happen if you are called William (and your friends call you Bill and your close family Willy) but it is the exception, not the rule. Unlike, say, Japanese, English has no special verb forms for politeness, humility and respect. What it does have is useful social lubricants such as please (absent or rarely used in some other languages). That has long made it possible to have a polite conversation in English, without worrying too much about what you actually call the other person.

If you sign all your e-mails with “love and vibes”, how do you show true affection and intimacy?

And over the past 30 years, the narrow options in English have shrunk further. First names have become the standard form of address between English-speaking adults. They once signified a great deal but now mean almost nothing. Old films show how the system used to work. In “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951), two middle-class men are celebrating a seemingly perfect bullion robbery, during which they have addressed each other only by their surnames. In what would now be called a moment of male bonding the renegade bank clerk, Henry Holland (played by Alec Guinness), tenderly asks his co-conspirator, “May I call you Alfred?”

That surname code had governed social intercourse in the English-speaking world for centuries. Male social equals called each other by their surnames, sometimes (but certainly not always) moving on to first names when the moment warranted it. A touch of intimacy could be added with a prefix. When Winston Churchill returned to the government in September 1939, Franklin Roosevelt, for example, wrote him a personal note addressing him fondly as “My dear Churchill”. Inferiors could use “Mr” or an American-style “Sir” when addressing their betters.

Rules for women were slightly different, which was to prove important when social changes brought more women into the workplace: Miss or Mrs (but never Ms) was the rule between equals. First names were for close relatives, intimate friends and for when addressing subordinates. Occasionally (in girls’ schools for example) unadorned male-style surnames were used. “Madam”, usually contracted to “Ma’am” was for high superiors.

Such rules softened only slightly in subsequent years. In “Fawlty Towers”, a British television comedy series set in a mismanaged hotel in Torquay in south-west England, the proprietor (played by John Cleese) is called “Mr Fawlty” by tradesmen, strangers and his employees. He mostly uses “Mr” in return, though he calls his staff, such as the long-suffering housemaid, Polly, by their first names. Those who know him better, such as his longtime guest, Major Gowen (whose first name is never divulged), call him “Fawlty”. Only his termagant wife and her friends call him “Basil”.

Gordon Brown this year scandalised Americans by referring to their president as “Barack”

But shortly after “Fawlty Towers” finished its short run in 1975, that social code crumbled. Across professional and business life, lawyers, business people, army officers, academics, doctors and diplomats began using Christian names; the use of the surname among adults shrivelled (though old-fashioned schools retain it).

Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, already called her ministers mostly by their Christian names except in cabinet meetings, where formal titles were used (as in “Yes, Prime Minister”). But under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, all pretence of formality has gone. Mr Brown, on a trip to Washington this year, scandalised Americans by referring to the president as “Barack”, rather than the “Mr President” that convention dictates. Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were on “Ronnie” and “Margaret” terms—but only during their most private chats.

The use of surnames now even looks demeaning. George Bush liked using them—but when in July 2006 he was caught addressing the British prime minister as “Yo Blair” many thought it epitomised Britain’s servile role in the transatlantic relationship. That started decades earlier. Dick Allen, a former White House adviser, remembers President Richard Nixon’s habit of using unadorned surnames, sometimes with belittling intent. Reagan usually called his staff by their first names in their presence.

Illustration by Madamesange
Illustration by Madamesange

The intimate use of the surname has almost disappeared. Over a year, your correspondent found only one example of an adult relationship where surnames are still used unaffectedly. A septuagenarian pensioner living in the epitome of English respectability, Tunbridge Wells, Michael Larsen, has a friend who since school has addressed him as “Larsen”. It is not that unusual in Tunbridge Wells, he says, though on his daily trip to Starbucks the youthful staff call him “Michael”. “I find it rather refreshing,” he says.

One reason, at least in the English-speaking world, is feminism. The arrival of significant numbers of women in previously mostly male institutions created a problem for the old code of mutual surname use. “I refused to address a man as ‘Dear Bloggins’, as I hadn’t been to public [ie, private] school with him. And I would have been offended at being addressed as ‘Gunn’,” recalls Janet Gunn, a Sovietologist who joined Britain’s Foreign Office in 1970. At a time of wider social change, few wanted more formality rather than less. So the rules soon changed to first names all round, though ambassadors, at least in public, may be called “Your Excellency” by other diplomats and “Sir” or, particularly if female, “Ambassador” by their own staff.

This shift, the biggest in the English politeness code since “thee” and “thou” fell into disuse, has accelerated. “Mrs” and “Miss”, once important (if unfair) social distinctions, have given way to a ubiquitous “Ms”, even for the most wifely of women. And even these vestigial titles, along with “Mr” are vanishing too, shed within minutes of the first meeting. That trend is particularly pronounced in Britain and the English-speaking Commonwealth. America is a bit more formal, and countries such as India even more so. But when English and foreign politeness codes overlap, it is usually the English one that wins.

Businesses from countries where formality is still strong have to adjust to that. “When we go on a road show to meet investors in New York and London, we are on first name terms while we speak English. But as soon as we are speaking German again, it is Dr Schmidt and Herr Braun,” says the public relations chief for one of Germany’s best-known firms.

But even outside English, the shift towards informality seems inexorable. The use of the informal forms of speech such as tu (French), ty (Slavic languages) and du (German and Swedish) grew sharply in continental Europe after the social upheavals of the late 1960s. Stuffiness in social interaction was a symbol of the despised elder generation’s cultural hegemony. The collapse of authoritarian regimes gave the process another heave.Usted (a third-person form of address in Spain) went out of fashion among all but the elderly after the end of the Franco regime. Third-party forms are on the retreat elsewhere too. In Poland, where the use of Pan [Sir] and Pani [Madam] was once a sign of resistance to communist-era efforts to strip the language of its feudal past, things are changing too. The plural form now sounds unfriendly, says Mateusz Cygnarowski, a translator. Even the singular form is now often modified with the use of a first name—which older Poles find disconcertingly chummy in the mouths of strangers.

The counter-culture was one stimulus. Another was convenience. The Swedish reform, for example, binned a three-tier system in which du signalled intimacy and ni meant distance while a polite third-person form, using the equivalents of “Sir” and “Madam”, often coupled with job titles, was used for politeness and in public.

The first big change in that came in 1967 when Bror Rexed, the head of a state medical agency, issued a formal decree that he wished to be addressed with his first name and du, and expected the rest of his staff to do likewise. In 1969 the Swedish Social Democrat prime minister, Olof Palme, instructed reporters to use du when asking him questions. Though some nostalgic Swedes have tried to revive the ni form, for example in advertisements stressing ultra-courteous customer service, du and its equivalents are now all but universal across the Nordic countries, to the lingering dismay of the well brought-up. The third-person form survives only in rare cases, such as in addressing royalty and in public sessions of the Swedish parliament.

Formal address forms do still survive strongly elsewhere in Europe, sometimes to a surprising extent. In posh families in France, children are still expected to address their parents as vous. Martin Dewhirst, a British scholar, uses the informal ty when speaking Russian to his Lithuanian-Ukrainian daughter-in-law. But even after ten years, she still uses the formal vy to him and his (Russian) wife. “We suspect that this is because she has been well brought up in Kyiv,” he says, referring to the Ukrainian capital.

America, like the Indian subcontinent, remains a bastion of formal politeness in the English-speaking world, especially in public encounters. India has developed formulations such as “Good Sir”. Even unmodified, “Sir” and “Ma’am” are useful ways of addressing strangers in public, where the British code now allows only a feeble “Excuse me!” or a rude “Hey you”. In countries such as Japan and China, the use of first names is restricted to the very closest family members—spouses and parents. Foreigners hoping to cement their relationship with Japanese or Chinese counterparts by shifting to first-name terms are often unaware of the consternation—akin to public nose-blowing—they are causing.

Another powerful force for change is technology. Being formal in a snail-mail letter is only a minor extra inconvenience on top of finding pen, paper and envelope, writing it, and then folding, stuffing, addressing, stamping and posting the missive. But in an e-mail that takes only seconds to write, formality is a burden. E-mail’s immediacy also erodes the sense of personal distance. In the early days of e-mail, business letters were sent as attachments, properly formatted and even with the senders’ signature scanned and positioned at the end. Modern e-mails are much simpler. The opening salutation, with the unsatisfactory choice of “Dear Mr” or “Dear Joe Smith” may give way to an anodyne “Greetings”, “Hello” or even the dreaded “Hi there”.

Hand-held devices such as mobile phones and BlackBerrys have accelerated the effect. Typing a formal salutation or sign-off with one’s thumbs strains even the starchiest correspondent. Nowadays in English-language instant messaging, the opening salvo of politeness, however mandatory in other languages and cultures, can be omitted all together; the first line of the missive appears in the subject line, while the signoffs can be as brief as “brgds”, followed by a single initial. An automated message at the end of the e-mail, apologising for terseness and blaming the tiny keyboard, signals to the reader that no offence is intended.

Illustration by Madamesange
Illustration by Madamesange

Although technology has compressed the spectrum of formality, it has not abolished it altogether. Using initials to sign an e-mail avoids the suggestion of excessive intimacy that comes with a first name, or the deliberate distance signalled by a full one. In French, Bien à vous is short and polite. In German, Gruss does the trick. In Polish, e-mails can start with Witam (literally “Welcome”) and end with Pozdrawiam (literally: “I greet”). Emoticons (facial expressions made up of punctuation marks) allow writers to convey feelings concisely ]:)

Though English is flattening politeness in speech, in some other respects the traffic is the other way. Handshaking is now a commonplace greeting; in England 50 years ago it was unusual at social gatherings and restricted even in the workplace. So is the reluctance (once entrenched among the English upper classes) to give presents at social occasions. Bringing a bottle of wine used to imply that your host’s cellar was empty; flowers were a slur on the hostess’s gardening skills. Now it is all but de rigueur not to arrive empty-handed. Hats and gloves are out. Kissing is all over the place, twice in Paris, thrice in Polish, four times in the south of France. But in Poland hand-kissing, once a flamboyant and ubiquitous way of greeting ladies, is declining. It is, says Pawel Dobrowolski, a Warsaw-based commentator, now usually deemed to be “a provincial attempt at appearing to be cultured”.

All this is grist to the mill of those who study politeness, formality and other branches of sociolinguistics and sociopragmatics. “Politeness studies” is a growing academic discipline; a summer school at Lancaster University in northern England this summer even developed a sub-branch, “Rudeness studies”. A “Journal of Politeness Research” was founded in 2005. Its most-downloaded article is by Miranda Stewart, a scholar based in Scotland. It is called “Protecting speaker’s face in impolite exchanges: The negotiation of face-wants in workplace interaction”.

Students of politeness explore many aspects of social behaviour: how status relates to language, the use of calculated rudeness in broadcast media interviews and the use of the intimate/formal forms of address (called the T-V divide after the French forms tuand vous). One of the big discoveries in the subject’s early days, says Ms Stewart, was that left-wing people, regardless of culture, tend to prefer intimate forms of address; more conservative speakers like formality. These days, the most contentious issue is the idea that politeness studies has been too Eurocentric. Chinese and other east Asian scholars argue vigorously (but politely) that the discipline is too heavily based on individualistic western concepts and takes too little account of collective norms.

At least to outsiders, the biggest question is what politeness actually is, and how it relates to other vital but slippery concepts such as deference, friendliness and formality. From one point of view, politeness is about being nice: easing social interaction by taking account of other people’s needs. Academics call this the “Grand Strategy of Politeness” (GSP). Geoffrey Leech of Lancaster University describes it thus: “the performance of polite speech acts such as requests, offers, compliments, apologies, thanks, and responses to these.” According to the GSP “a speaker communicates meanings which place (a) a high value on what relates to the other person (typically the addressee), and (b) a low value on what relates to the speaker”.

But plenty of so-called polite behaviour in real life is anything but. Being polite does not stop you being freezingly rude, or warmheartedly friendly. Similarly, politeness does not necessarily equate with formality, though it is hard to imagine someone being exceedingly polite but also utterly informal.

So what seems to be happening is that formal politeness, at least in spoken and written exchanges, is on the decline, thanks to globalisation (meaning the rise of flat, nuance-less English as a means of international communication), to social changes and to technology. Replacing it is a kind of neutral friendliness, where human encounters take place devoid of the signifiers of emotional and status differences that past generations found so essential.

That may lubricate business meetings. But it makes life outside the workplace less interesting. If you use first names everywhere at work, how do you signify to a colleague that you want to be a real friend? If you sign all e-mails “love and vibes”, how do you show intimacy? Much of the world has an answer to that, at least in their own languages and cultures. English-speakers may have triumphed on one front, but they are struggling on another.

No comments: