names should indicate that people know each other well
there is little to be said for the present-day familiarity in the
much-too-frequent use of first names. A century ago, it was not
unheard of for a wife to speak always of her husband as Mr.
Jones and even to call him Mr. Jones herself
Etiquette, Emily Post, 1960
My, my, my; how
far we have strayed.
Walk into any
auto dealership these days, let your first name slip out, and before
you know it a chummy salesman is tailing you all over the showroom,
first-naming you right and left as if hes been your bosom pal
it gonna take to get you behind the wheel of this snazzy little number,
Rob? hell say, maybe even putting his hand on my shoulder
to remind me what good buddies we are. (Imagine his reaction if I
said, Feel free to call me Sir, orif
you preferMr. Woutat. Well, well, well,
hed say to himself, arent we the gold-plated, stuffed-shirt
snob. Whatever you like, your holiness.)
And in restaurants:
Hi, there, my name is Jason and Ill be your waitperson
this evening. (An acquaintance of mine responds to waitpersons
like Jason by popping out of his chair and shaking hands. Im
happy to meet you, Jason, he says. Im Bob Martin.
This is my wife Marian, and these are our friends Tommy and Terri
only a moment, the waitperson slips back into his familiar routine:
Would you guys like to start with a beverage?
Maybe the reader
can direct me to a restaurant where waiters do not address customers
as you guys. I am unable to find one these days. Are
you guys ready to order yet? Would you guys like some
more bread? Are you guys doing all right? Have
you guys saved some room for dessert?
The problem, says a friend of mine, is that I go to the kinds of places
where a neon sign says EAT, where ketchup bottles are
part of the centerpiece and the food-stained menu includes grilled
cheese sandwiches and pigs in a blanket.
but recently at a waterside restaurant in Seattle where there was
nothing on the menu under $26, Jasons counterpart asked, Would
you guys like to see the wine list?
At the Outback
Steakhousesits company policy for the waiter
to actually sit right down at the table with you. Its
a make-you-feel-comfortable kind of thing, the company spokeswoman
Here in America
where we have a talent for taking things to extremesLas
Vegas comes to mind here, as well as the Academy Awards, the Super
Bowl, the Miss America Pageant, and everything about Donald Trumpwe
seem to believe that nothing succeeds like excess, including excess
be all for today, Sweetie? said a clerk at the hardware store.
just call me Sweetie? I asked.
she said, snapping her gum.
And in a coffee
shop: Whatll it be, Hon? the clerk asked. In one
two-minute transaction, she also managed to get in one Dearie
and a couple of Luvs.
I have a half-baked
theory about this chummy, egalitarian familiarity of oursthat
it might be partially explained by a fact of our language. English,
unlike many other languages, has only one singular, second person
pronounyouand we use it with everyone from street
people to presidents, from young people to old.
German, on the
other hand, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian,
Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Turkish, Lithuanian, and Suquamish,
to cite just a few examples, have both formal and informal versions
of you, which means those languages allow a neat little linguistic
distinction that, alas, is not so easily available to us English speakers.
(Although the Japanese have an informal word for you, they
dont use it; they consider it rude to address someone so directly.)
If a German,
say, were presumptuously addressed by either a stranger or a child
in the equivalent of the informal you, hed be as shocked
as if he had just been asked about his income or his sex life. The
formal pronoun, the one that weve lost, helps cushion him against
these kinds of discourtesies; it reminds all speakers of that language
that there are, after all, proprieties.
Not since the
Middle Ages has English permitted this nice little distinction. When
the lower and middle classes rose to positions of economic influence,
and class lines blurred, the grammatical distinction gradually disappeared,
and now we cozily address everybodywhether pauper or
Popeinformally, on the shakey premise that a desire for
familiarity will be shared and reciprocated. The problem is that not
all of us are keen on this counterfeit palsy-walsy-ness.
So where does
the reader stand on this matter of Americans aggressive familiarity?
Even if you, like Dr. Johnson, believe that politeness is fictitious
benevolence, you must agree with essayist Brendan Gill that at the
least, Custom requires an exchange of piffling politenesses.
the auto parts store, Hey there, Big Guy, whatll it be?