Has etiquette become far too familiar?

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Let’s be clear. Nine times out of ten, “y’all right, mate” is just a colloquial, non-committal greeting you generically say to an acquaintance you pass on the Spine. Of course, there’s usually some awkward eye contact that you’re never sure how long to hold for, and then the worry about when to begin the exchange or when to avoid the situation entirely. But unless it’s an actual friend who you will physically stop walking for in order to converse with, the chances are you don’t really care how they are, they’re not your mate, and the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.

This and the like have become fairly standard sayings; it’s a harmless acknowledgment of someone you know, a social norm if you will. However, Stuart G. Millar, writing for The Guardian’s Comment is Free section, recently argued that this familiarised culture we live in could lead to inappropriate conversations and lack of politeness and formal boundaries. Do you really want your gynaecologist to call you “love”? Should you really address the scary headmaster as “mate”? It’s certainly true that such terms have become the norm and could be transgressing older, more established social codes.

Now, I may be rather biased because I came from a grammar school, but for me the normal social code was the kind where the teachers wore robes and we stood up whenever the head teacher came into the classroom. To demonstrate forms of cultural norm, this exercise was attempted in one of my seminars recently, the result being that my entirely international classmates thought this particular etiquette was the epitome of bizarre. To be fair, five years later it does seem bizarre standing up when your lecturer, who you address by their first name and talk about your assignment over coffee with, comes into the room.

However, for many this was the norm of one’s schools days. Even if you didn’t stand up for your teachers you called them Mr, maybe answered “yes Sir/ Ma’am”. It’s essentially the same as not swearing at your lecturer or giving that annoying waitress a polite smile when she gets your order wrong again, just in a different situation with different social codes. It’s simply what you do, especially if you’re British. We are a country known for our over-politeness and awkwardness in social encounters. I genuinely worry about running into a mild acquaintance on the bus nowadays. Do we sit there making uncomfortable small talk when we both actually want to listen to our iPods or do we pretend we haven’t seen each other and spend the journey craning our neck to look out the window to avoid the inevitable eye contact?

However, social awkwardness aside, is formality becoming a thing of the past? Should it become a thing of the past because it’s outdated? This may be marginally hypocritical, but it ever so slightly annoys me when people I don’t know call me “love”. In fact, I find it rather patronizing. Yet when the sweet little man at the coffee shop serves me, I will almost definitely say “thanks mate” without much thought. When they engage you in mindless conversation, you want to affirm that 50 second bond between you and the barista. It just happens to be the way things are in this country. Whilst there are some people who may use colloquialisms such as “love” and “duck” purely to patronize, the majority are harmless and are just engaging in friendly social norms.

As well as the “loves” and “huns” of the world, however, there is also the other end of the spectrum with people who carry on using “sirs” and “madams.” Stuart G Millar also discusses whether such salutations are becoming obsolete, even pretentious. Coming from a grammar school, I certainly found it very strange calling the lecturers by their first name when I came to university. Wearing jeans to an exam was practically a novelty! Regardless, over time it became normal, just like seven years of “yes sir” at school became normal.

The way we address and talk to people is and must be situation-dependant. Both ends of the conversational spectrum are necessary; they are merely examples of social situations that we may deal with on a daily basis. As long as we as individuals and as a society don’t stray too far from the social conventions, as far as I’m concerned the “sirs”, “loves”, and “babes” can stay firmly and appropriately in place.

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