The Case For Formal Titles?

44099I just started reading a fantastic book called No Nice Girl Swears. It was written in 1933 as a modern etiquette guide for young ladies, by a fabulous debutante Alice-Leone Moats, who managed to trick George Putnam into having her ghostwrite her own book. It’s a crazy story, and you should pick it up, but in the 1983 reprint, Moats walks through a few of the changes that had taken place over the last fifty years. She recognizes some parts sound “positively archaic,” but that others stand as good guidelines.

One thing she does stand by, though, are formal modes of address, “principally because the instant use of Christian names does away with the shadings so important in relationships. It is a leap into intimacy which I would often prefer not to make: I don’t lead a sheltered life and I meet many characters with whom I don’t care to be on terms of intimacy.”

We have spoken before about the issues surrounding formal modes of address, specifically gendered salutations. But it’s true, most people introduce themselves by their first or full names, and do not insist on being called Ms. Lastname by all but close friends and family. I would probably feel incredibly uncomfortable if I introduced myself as Jaya and someone continued to call me Ms. Saxena. However, I’m starting to see what Moats is getting at here.

Have you ever had an experience where someone thought they were closer friends with you than they were? Or you thought someone was a close friend and they weren’t? It’s a really easy thing to happen. For me, it usually is because we have lots of mutual friends, and we see each other at parties and are friendly and chatty with each other, and then suddenly one of us is calling the other to make plans when the other really didn’t see the relationship that way. Of course, meeting through mutual friends and slowly hanging out otherwise is how lots of great friendships happen, but only when both people are into that friendship.

Anyway, there are lots of reasons why this happens, but what Moats argues here is that the form of address helps reflect the level of intimacy. If I’m at a party and someone I’m very fond of asks “may I call you Jaya?” or if I ask her to call me Jaya and she agrees, there is the mutual understanding that this is a closer relationship. However, if I ask her to call me Jaya and she continues with “Ms. Saxena,” I understand that she prefers to keep our relationship cordial but at a distance.

I spoke to my husband about this the other night, and how I think the concept of having these removed relationships is a great idea, and he disagreed, saying that it just comes off as passive aggressive. I wouldn’t call it that, but yes, it is an indirect way to make your point clear. And really, that’s what a lot of etiquette is: a way to make things explicit without the awkwardness that it could entail. Most people do not want to have long, protracted conversations about the state of all of their relationships. Maybe we should, but we don’t. I don’t want to tell every friendly acquaintance exactly where in my hierarchy of friends they stand, I just want it to be understood that not everyone is the closest person to me.

This is making me sound like an unfriendly hag. I love friends! I love turning new friends into better friends into the best friends. But I do think there is a cultural assumption now that everyone has to be friends, and I wish we’d get away from that. There are people I see in larger social circles that I absolutely get along with, with whom I have engaging and fun conversations, who I don’t consider friends. That’s okay! That’s a fine sort of relationship to have. There are many other ways to put up boundaries in a relationship without having an explicit “I see you’re trying to be friends with me so let me stop you and just make this awkward for everyone” conversation. You can decline invitations, or not extend them. You can not initiate conversation, or not seek them out at any social gathering.

At this point, formal address conventions are not coming back. Even my bosses insist I call them by their first names. Plus, I’m sure this worked much better in theory than in practice even when it was more common–it’s not like awkward interactions only started when we dropped honorifics. But what are your thoughts? Is there something else we could do to make this clear? Should we just have really weird, direct conversations about this?

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