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Formality vs Informality

I don’t think I’m a particularly formal person. I do, however, think that a certain social distance in human interactions creates a sense of mutual respect. Not everyone you meet in any social context is going to be your friend and it seems facile to assume otherwise. If the man delivering a parcel to my doorstep wants to call me ‘mate’ that’s fine by me. If he wants to call me Mr Dukes, that’s fine too. Context is everything. If, on the other hand, I am attending a hospital appointment I should like the default position to be address by surname, at least initially. If the nurse/doctor wishes to ask me if it’s ok for them to call me by my first name I am sure to accord them that privilege. What matters is the implied understanding that to do so represents a concession on the patient’s part. As a patient, one is all to likely to experience medical interventions that require a rather dramatic intrusion on one’s privacy. As a patient, one necessarily needs to submit to such indignities but the medical profession should accept that these surrenders of privacy and personal dignity require to be handled with delicacy. To begin from a position of matey familiarity seems to me to be wrong.

The same is true, although to a lesser extent, in shops. Buying things in a shop is essentially is a transaction in which the customer requires to be wooed by the shop owner in order to be induced to part with their money. I think most commercial operations understand this. Customers ought to be shown respect lest they take their business elsewhere. On this basis, being addressed as ‘mate’ or ‘pal’ by teenage shop assistants strikes me as the height of presumption. Unless my need for whatever they’re selling is very great I shall certainly be heading out of their shop with my hackles thoroughly raised. ‘Sir’ works very well for me under those circumstances.

Likewise, for those afflicted by social awkwardness, the present Covid etiquette is something of a godsend. No more, upon encountering an acquaintance, do we need to consider the level of engagement required of us ie. handshake, hug or high-five. Holding out a hand towards someone approaching to embrace you and having to drop it hurriedly (or vice versa) was always a minor social discomfort. I am not at all appreciative for many aspects of Covid restrictions, but enforced physical non-contact when greeting acquaintances is one that I have been able to accept more readily than others.

Of course, it may simply be that I am a social fossil from a bygone age. Naturally, my experiences are of life in the UK. I would be very interested to hear how ‘formality’ is getting on in other parts of the world.

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