"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Too Much Intimacy–Please Call Me Mister

Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post (2.19.13) is sick and tired of the faux intimacy in American culture today.  We blow air kisses, hug and thump, discard Mr. or Ms. in favor of Dickie, Marge, or Colette; close every family phone call with a breezy “I love you”, extend love to audiences, friends, and even passing acquaintances; and have lost any sense of formality – and, as Mr. Cohen implies, dignity.

I have spent a lot of time in cultures which insist on a distinction between formal and informal language. In France not that long ago secretaries in the typing pool would call each other Mme. Boulanger or Mme. Lafarge until the day they dropped, would vousvoyer each other without error or slippage.  It was as unconscionable for them to tutoyer even if they met on the street, at the boucherie on a Saturday, or on the Metro.  It simply was not done. It was a means of keeping work and personal life separate, domains which seldom crossed in France as they always have in America

It also had to do with a valuation of friendship.  You had to earn the tu.  I became friends with a French woman who was a confidante of my sister-in-law in Paris.  I saw her every time I came through Paris, went out to lunch and dinner with her, and even visited her and her aunt in their country home in Normandy.  No matter how many times I slipped in a tu, hoping to get a familiar reply, I was rebuffed.  It was not time. In her opinion we were not yet good enough friends.  My American informality bridled at this Gallic reticence and formality, but I soon learned that it as way of acknowledging the price of friendship and intimacy, understanding its value, and suggesting its permanence.  You did not withdraw the tu once you had conferred it.

This distinction was even more pronounced when there was difference in social rank. As an international consultant of some reputation, I was always addressed as vous by my Rwandan colleague.  Jean-Baptiste had been educated in France, spoke as elegant a French as I have heard anywhere, was a very particular and proper person, and a respectful and respected professional.  At the same time over the course of the many months we had spent together over beers, discussing children, country, and life in general, he never switched to the more familiar form of address.  As with Danielle, my French friend, I tried many times without success to encourage the tu form; but he never took the bait, and for as long as I have known him, we have retained our formality.  I think of him as a friend, but I am not sure what he thinks.  The formality of language has challenged us to always refine our relationship, and let it take whatever course it must, whether or not friendship is at the end of the journey.

In most of West Africa, particularly among Africans who have not had the formal French education that Jean-Baptiste had, the tu form was immediate.  Even if I began the conversation using vous, the reply was always the informal tu.  This had less to do with the common assumption of friendship or camaraderie as it does in the United States, but because of simplicity.  Tu was part of a lingua franca – correct and proper French, but simplified to eliminate all the pesky endings of yet another verb form.  At the same time, there was an ease of communication in West Africa, people were on a more equal footing and the foreigner was just an interloper, regardless of breeding or education.  For both reasons, I felt more at ease and more at home in West Africa.

The same is true in Latin America. The Usted form is rarely used among social equals, although it is retained for situations where class is an issue.  I, for example, will always use the formal Usted when speaking to Latino painters, maids, and landscapers in Washington, although in El Salvador or Honduras their employers would certainly use tu with them.

In all these cases, language helps define relationships; and the formality provides a value context within which to negotiate.  Our Salvadoran nanny used the Usted form of the verb throughout her ten years with us; and given my very American democratic roots, I followed suit.  Even though over time we became more than employer-employee, and she became indeed ‘part of the family’, the language formality continued to this day, many years later.  Our relationship was far more than contractual, but in her mind, I would never be her friend.

I used to correct telephone customer representatives when they called me Ronald.  I became more and more pissy as this continued to happen. “Do I know you?”, I would snap, hear the scratchy silence at the other end of the line, and know that Miss Whatever had absolutely no clue as to what I was talking about.  By the time the era of the Indian call center had arrived, and ‘Bill’ and ‘Mary’ introduced themselves to me and asked how they might be able to help, I had given up.  Bill, Mary, and Ron it would be.

My father and I started to shake hands when I was about eight or so – my initiative not his; and I am sure that much of my appreciation for formality must be conditioned by personal preference – but it seemed right for both of us. The firm handshake and ‘look-‘em-in-the-eyes’ directness was the only way for men to greet each other in those days, and one did not shake a woman’s hand unless she extended hers first.  Hugging and kissing for anyone of my generation has come hard indeed.  Such displays of intimacy were reserved for real emotion and expressions of love, both within the family and with close friends; but no further.

Hugging and kissing, no matter how casual, does still require some thought and negotiation. You don’t hug your boss, although after a long trip mine always wrapped her arms around me and said, “Welcome back!”.  Of course she returned quickly to form and asked when my trip report would be on her desk, but never mind.  She had given me a warm welcome. Hugs between male and female colleagues have to be carefully considered. Watch out if you are an older man hugging a younger woman; although it is OK if you are over 60 and are presumed impotent anyway.

I have one friend of my age who has gone completely soft and feely, and insists on giving me a bear hug whenever we meet for coffee.  We still fumble and try to figure out which way to turn our heads; we are careful not to squeeze or get too gay, and all in all it is an uncomfortable ritual which I would just as soon drop.  I don’t have this problem with any of my other male friends who have been brought up in the same formal, old-fashioned way and have stuck to their guns.

I am teaching a course for adults on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.  It is called Famous Couples from Literature – But Was It Love? and despite the twinky title insisted on by the head of the program who said I needed something catchy to get this older, mostly female audience, I did explore the nature of love and challenge my students to derive their own definition of the term based on what they read in the plays. Of course there was no agreement on whether Cleopatra loved Antony or whether Maggie the Cat loved Brick; but whatever their conclusions and however one might define love, we all agreed that it reflected need, despair, redemption, legitimacy, and rarely romance.  In other words, love was a serious thing.

I agree with Richard Cohen in his criticism of indiscriminate hugging and kissing and wish people would leave me alone:

I want to be called mister. I want to shake hands. I don’t want to be hugged. I want to kiss only certain women — some on one cheek, some on two — and very few men. I want degrees of intimacy, gradations, so I know where I stand and so, for that matter, will you.

He closes by asking us to forgive him for being ‘an old geezer’, which he very well might be; but he has hit on a social practice, now a norm, which devalues the very emotion it means to celebrate.

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