Sunday, February 22, 2015

"The Tyranny of Informality"

I was delighted to read Michael Strain’s article about “the tyranny of informality.” Not only did Strain articulate the question with great intelligence and verve, but now I know that I am not alone in being appalled by this cultural habit.

You might know that certain people—like George Clooney—become seriously torqued when anyone refers to President Obama as just plain Obama. Surely, Clooney would fly into high dudgeon if he heard someone refer to our dear president as Barack.

For his part Strain was shocked to see President Barack Obama violating protocol by referring to the Chancellor of Germany as: Angela. You heard that right, Obama went before the cameras, standing next to Chancellor Merkel and kept calling her Angela… as though they were buddies, and as though they did not bear august titles and serious responsibilities.

Truth be told, he was insulting her to her face.

And you were wondering why our relations with other countries are not so good.

One is not surprised that Obama would descend to this level. After all, Obama has long trafficked in down home idioms, the better to make it appear that he is one of the people. Of course, he isn't just plain folks. He's the president. Thus, his locutions signal his arrogance.

Strain described the scene at the news conference:

[Obama’s] opening paragraph alone is littered with informality. “Angela, of course, has been here many times.” “Well into her third term, Angela is now one of Germany’s longest-serving chancellors.” “As we all saw in Rio, Angela is one of her team’s biggest fans.” (After a barrage of unseemly familiarity, the chancellor’s first sentence was “Thank you, President, dear Barack.” I would like to think that she decided it polite to respond in kind, but couldn’t stop herself from including two terms of respect before uttering the president’s first name. The name “Barack” never returns in the transcript. Even still, she erred.)

“Angela” is one of the most powerful and important heads of government in the world today. And she was a guest, not only of the president but of the United States. Even if the president and the chancellor are on a first-name basis in private, she ought to be given respect by being accorded some distance through formality. Using her first name in public is beneath her station — and yes, station is the right word.

Ah yes, there’s that word: RESPECT. The chancellor of Germany deserves respect. And that means, using the proper terms of respect. If you feel it but don’t say it, you are not showing it. And if you don’t show it, your feelings are a sham.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama has made a habit of disrespect. He seems to be opposed to the rules of propriety and decorum.

If the culture has coarsened during the past six years, one reason might be that our president disdains good manners. 

It didn’t start with Obama. It has culminated in Obama. In today’s America, fewer and fewer people respect authority. They do not respect the authority of teachers. They do not respect the authority of law enforcement officers. They do not respect the authority of those who are older and wiser than they are.

Of course, it is also fair to say that some of those who hold positions of high authority, beginning with the president, do not seem comfortable exercising it. Their demeanor does not command respect.

They, as most of us, live in a youth cult.We worship youth and disdain the wisdom that comes with age and experience.

This implies that after we inevitably outgrow our youth, it’s all downhill from there. The young cult is a prescription for depression.

It also means that many people don’t know how to take advice. They would rather make their own mistakes than to accept the guidance of someone who is older and wiser.

“The tyranny of informality,” Strain argues, is rude. It is fake; it invites us all to live in an “egalitarian fiction.” It causes us to take leave of reality.

In his words;

Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals.

Titles, he continues, confer authority. They are granted by institutions and thus designate the individual as having been elevated to his position by something other than his own will. Thus titles inspire respect.

Individuals who bear titles will be respected, until proven wrong. Individuals who do not bear titles will be doubted until they prove their worth.

Surely, it is not always the case, but we do better when we have guidelines, especially those that have been established by tradition.

Authors whose works have become part of the canon of the great books of our civilization deserve and should be treated with respect.

Strain explains that respect resides in titles:

It’s easier to take moral instruction from “Father Suwalsky” than it is from “Dave.” “Father Suwalsky” has institutional authority reflected in an institutional title. It’s easier to accept knowledge from “Dr. Bean” than it is from “Jessica” — “Dr. Bean” has authority over knowledge. I’d find it a lot easier to undergo cancer treatment from “Dr. Hymes” than from “Ken.” It’s much easier to interact with people decades older than you if you address them in a way that recognizes their lived experience and wisdom.

The “tyranny of informality” also fouls personal relationships. If everyone is on a first-name basis, Strain notes, your language no longer defines your intimacy.

If every relationship begins on a first-name basis, then I am robbed of the ability to signal to someone that he has become a friend or close colleague by inviting him to address me by my first name. If the guy who comes to fix my cable calls me “Michael,” then what is left for my friends to call me? And isn’t it a little easier for the cable guy to give substandard service to “Tom” than to “Mr. Creal?”

Friendship is earned. Trust is earned. Even intimacy is earned.

When you treat all people the same way, you are conferring friendship to those who have not earned it. You are conferring trust to those who have not earned it.

This means that you are devaluing friendship. In some way it means that you are treating all people as equals, that is, as having the same relationship with you. This is consonant with the current mania about seeing all people primarily as human beings, as members of the species, as possessing a type of group membership that does not require good behavior and that does not punish bad behavior.

You belong to the human species no matter what you do.

The upshot is simple: defining human beings outside of all group membership makes of them an amoral species, people you would not want to hang around with.


Recruiting Animal said...

I'm the polar opposite of you on this topic.

One of the most disgusting things in the world to me is when a boss calls her employee by his first name but he has to address her by her surname as Miss, Ms or Mrs X.

Why? You're saying she has to degrade him in order to maintain her authority.

I recently went to a psychiatric hospital with a relative. When I came in the doctor said "Can I call you Animal?". I said, "What do you want me to call you?" He said, "Doctor Balchain." I said, "Call me Mister Animal." He was taken aback. The guy was much younger than me so he wasn't asking me to respect his age -- as if that's worthy of special treatment. And I knew he was a doctor. It wasn't a secret; we were in a hospital. But he want to lord it over me.

Now, I can't say that this was a wise move on my part because I needed help from this egotist who needed to shore up his self-respect with the subordination of others. But I don't think he would have been helpful anyways. Too full of himself. Why listen to the family? This was true of all of the doctors I met there.

People use their titles and their positional authority to hide the fact that they are merely human and exert godly power over others. In a democratic culture, there's no reason to let them play that game.

Sam L. said...

Some do, Mr. Animal. But formality is the way to start, as I see it.

Chris Mallory said...

Respect is earned by actions. A title does not entitle anyone to any respect. The president is not our leader, he is our employee. Barack or Obama or "Hey you" would all be proper ways to refer to him. Other than God there is no authority worthy of respect. PERIOD.

Ares Olympus said...

I'll at least agree you should only call people (to their face) what they've been asked to be called, and title are a way to show respect.

And definitely don't call her Chancellor Mutti unless you've earned the right. I certainly wouldn't dare.

p.s. This a very nice summary, Mr. Schneiderman.
I began my career looking for why. As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist I tried to help people discover why they thought and felt and behaved as they did. I imagined that discovering why would effect lasting change.

After a time, I shifted my focus from why to how. I redefined myself as an executive coach and relationship coach and began working with my clients on how they could function more effectively in the world, how they could conduct themselves more ethically, and how they could learn to work and relate well to other people.

Life coaching is about what Peter Drucker called self-management. In my practice we move from self-management to relationship management.

Specialties: negotiation, conflict resolution and conflict avoidance, developing soft skills

Dennis said...

One gets from other people what one gives to other people. Respect is no different. Obama shows little respect for people so it naturally follows that Obama gets less and lees respect from others.
If one starts out giving respect to people when they first meet then, in most cases, that will follow through in that relationship. This is rather simple stuff if one generally likes people.

David Foster said...

Within American culture, it is totally appropriate to call people by their first names, regardless of their positions.

But German is not America, and first-name basis means something different there than it does here. (Also, there is a distinction between the formal "sie" and the informal "du", where English-speakers would say "you".

Obama advertised himself as understanding other cultures. He's not providing much evidence of this.

Sam L. said...

I recall reading a story about someone giving Dean Acheson a tour and calling him Dean throughout, who was then appalled that he had done so under the misapprehension that Dean was a title.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree, as David says, that in today's America it has become increasingly appropriate to call people by their first names.

I still believe that it's wrong to do so and I always advise people to do as Strain says, to use a formal title until instructed otherwise.

By being overly familiar you risk offending someone. By being overly formal, you do not.