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The anthropology of greetings

The way we address each other is more than a matter of whim: it underpins the structure of the societies we live in. CHRISTOPHER HURST explores some of its subtleties.

THE review, printed in The Hindu of March 2, of a book called Latin Forms of Address is the trigger for the ramble which follows. It will be a self-indulgent ramble, because the subject (forms of address — not Latin ones) is for me an inexhaustible source of enjoyment and interest. It is not surprising that it concerned the ancient Romans, because it is a basic preoccupation of all civilised people and doubtless of many people the urban-civilised would consider barbarous because they live in swamps and forests — perhaps the optimum word is "organised". Lack of concern with it occurs in societies like ours, where we all observe, and suffer from, its lack in individuals.

Take first the differential use of the second-person pronoun. For myself I am glad that in English we do not have the problem of (say) the French, the Germans and the Italians of deciding whether to address a person as "you" or "thou", with its attendant pitfalls, especially the risk of a rebuff through using the singular form when the other party regards it as over-familiar and therefore vulgar. Social intercourse is difficult enough without that. When speaking those languages the best we can do is follow the example of our interlocutors.

But I regret that we do not have the equivalent of addressing a person, whether total stranger or distant acquaintance, as (to take French only) "Monsieur", "Madame" or "Mademoiselle". When asking a stranger the way or the time, it saves the pain of saying "Er, um, excuse me" before proceeding with the question. How much more satisfying to start "Pardon, Madame" or "Pardon, Mademoiselle" — and there is the additional satisfaction that the latter may be welcomed by a pretty woman in her thirties, even if you think she is married, whereas if you use the former to a lady with every appearance of being an old spinster, you may have made her happy. It is also pleasant occasionally to interject one of these appellations into a conversation, whereas repeating the name of your interlocutor in full has all sorts of overtones; it can be a tedious conversational embellishment, or it can be used to give a veneer of politeness to otherwise aggressive language — just think of a lawyer examining a witness in court. It can be argued that even as a conversational embellishment it contains a touch of aggression, because if the other party fails to reciprocate s/he may appear churlish and feel at a disadvantage.

English gives "sir" and "madam" a potency which the equivalents do not possess in other languages. Today it would be regarded as eccentric and almost suspect to use these appellations except to a person set far above oneself in some hierarchy or other — or, in a young person, to a much older person; another exception that leaps to mind is a public meeting where the chairperson wants to address a member of the audience — a direct look accompanied by "you, sir" is better than pointing and saying "that gentleman with the yellow tie". Males have all called teachers at school and senior officers in the armed forces "sir" without thinking about it. A Scottish friend of mine who served with distinction as a junior officer in World War II recalls that he encouraged his men to call him by his first name, but — with saving instinct — they were unable to do it. Half a century ago it was far from unusual for a young man of the middle class and above to address his father's friends, and most specifically the father of a girl he was interested in, as "sir" (after marriage, reaching agreement on the regular mode of address for one's parents-in-law could be an agonising problem). Now the norm is the first name.

The German, Italian and (most markedly) Spanish practice of addressing people formally in the third person — the second person plural being used strictly as a plural, unlike in French — is indicative of a deep human instinct: not to address another person, in formal speech, too directly for fear of offending against some deep taboo. In English anyone addressing, say, the Queen as "Your majesty" or a high court judge as "Your lordship" is in effect using the third person; you cannot say "Your majesty are..." but only "Your majesty is..." An ordinary citizen answering a question from the Queen will probably not have the presence of mind to say "Your majesty" but, if the dialogue should lead that way, will come out with "you". On the one occasion I was addressed by her, in a crowded book trade gathering, she asked me a question which called for a reciprocal question in the second person, and this obliged me, again by some deep instinct, to say "you, ma'am" — the unadorned "you" would have been over-familiar. This appears to be the continental practice vindicating itself. Here there is an additional factor: many people like to hear themselves using formal modes of address and/or titles when addressing their social or hierarchical superiors. Is this a sign that we yearn for social conventions?

The use of personal names in speech has many other dimensions. I am too young (at 73) to remember when it was routine for "gentlemen" to address their social equals, even when they knew each other well, except by their surnames. The practice survived longer than elsewhere among barristers, but as far as I know is now extinct everywhere. A survival in my time was its use in private schools — at my school it was unthinkable to use first names even among close friends, except when one was virtually grown-up in the last year or two of secondary school (whatever social gloss one puts on that term). Nicknames were possible (people who insist on being called by a nickname are usually erecting a barrier, saying "don't come too near"), but first names (then routinely referred to as "Christian names") were used only within the family or among childhood friends. My first job in the early 1950s was in a City finance house, where even the youngest of us addressed each other formally. Undoubtedly the human animal in his/her social interactions feels safer when a certain degree of formality is observed. Women have always been more sensible about this; since the "surname only" option was obviously not available, first names were commonly used, but only among social equals. The prefixes "Mrs" and "Miss" are used less and less; in former times one could be acquainted with a "lady" for a long time without getting to know her first name. Related to this is the question of how people refer to their spouses before a social inferior (and vice versa): would it be "Mr. Smith", "my husband" or "John"? It exercises people's minds to this day.

We cannot end this gallop round a subject of almost infinite complexity without touching on the epistolary aspects. I am obviously most familiar with what is customary between men. We can look at various endings: "Yours faithfully" (standard business), "Yours respectfully" (used in the old days by servants when writing to their masters), "Yours truly" (used by masters when writing to their servants), "Yours very truly", "Yours sincerely" (the all-purpose form which can never be totally inappropriate but can be offensive when used to a friend), "Yours very sincerely", "Yours" (also all-purpose, but can be resented if you expect "Yours ever"), "Yours ever" (between real friends and esteemed members of the same profession), "With kind(est) regards", "Regards", "With best wishes", "All the best", "Best", "Yours affectionately" (from and to elderly uncles and aunts), "With love", "Much love", "Love", "I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant" (when writing to the commanding officer of the regiment in which we had just been commissioned, we were instructed, in 1948, that this was the invariable form). All of these, and others, carry or once carried their own particular flavour. At the beginning of the letter we can scratch our heads over "Sir", "Dear Sir". "Dear Sir or Madam", "Dear Mr. Brown", "Dear Brown", "Dear Charlie", "Dearest Charlie", "Darling Charlie" and so on over the top. Adding "My" before "Dear" etc. adds another twist: in America it is said to be more formal than plain "Dear", but that is not the case with us. The subtleties and nuances associated with all these modes of address would fill a sizeable volume.

The computer has already affected the conventions of letter-writing. A few years ago I witnessed a computer consultant, setting up a letter template for a friend of mine, whom he asked how he liked to sign off. The reply, after some hesitation, was "'Best wishes, Yours sincerely', I suppose." This was solemnly tapped in and thereafter all his letters had to end with those words. I thought this a social and emotional strait-jacket which would take a lot of the fun out of life.

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