Dick Allen, a former White House adviser, remembers President Richard Nixon's habit of using unadorned surnames, sometimes with belittling intent. Reagan usually called his staff by their first names in their presence. The intimate use of the surname has almost disappeared. Over a year, your correspondent found only one example of an adult relationship where surnames are still used unaffectedly.
One reason, at least in the English-speaking world, is feminism. The arrival of significant numbers of women in previously mostly male institutions created a problem for the old code of mutual surname use.
At a time of wider social change, few wanted more formality rather than less. That trend is particularly pronounced in Britain and the English-speaking Commonwealth. America is a bit more formal, and countries such as India even more so. But when English and foreign politeness codes overlap, it is usually the English one that wins. Businesses from countries where formality is still strong have to adjust to that. But even outside English, the shift towards informality seems inexorable. The use of the informal forms of speech such as tu French , ty Slavic languages and du German and Swedish grew sharply in continental Europe after the social upheavals of the late s.
Stuffiness in social interaction was a symbol of the despised elder generation's cultural hegemony. The collapse of authoritarian regimes gave the process another heave. Usted a third-person form of address in Spain went out of fashion among all but the elderly after the end of the Franco regime. Third-party forms are on the retreat elsewhere too. In Poland, where the use of Pan [Sir] and Pani [Madam] was once a sign of resistance to communist-era efforts to strip the language of its feudal past, things are changing too. The plural form now sounds unfriendly, says Mateusz Cygnarowski, a translator.
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Even the singular form is now often modified with the use of a first name—which older Poles find disconcertingly chummy in the mouths of strangers. The counter-culture was one stimulus. Another was convenience.
The first big change in that came in when Bror Rexed, the head of a state medical agency, issued a formal decree that he wished to be addressed with his first name and du , and expected the rest of his staff to do likewise. In the Swedish Social Democrat prime minister, Olof Palme, instructed reporters to use du when asking him questions.
Though some nostalgic Swedes have tried to revive the ni form, for example in advertisements stressing ultra-courteous customer service, du and its equivalents are now all but universal across the Nordic countries, to the lingering dismay of the well brought-up. The third-person form survives only in rare cases, such as in addressing royalty and in public sessions of the Swedish parliament. Formal address forms do still survive strongly elsewhere in Europe, sometimes to a surprising extent.
In posh families in France, children are still expected to address their parents as vous. Martin Dewhirst, a British scholar, uses the informal ty when speaking Russian to his Lithuanian-Ukrainian daughter-in-law.
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But even after ten years, she still uses the formal vy to him and his Russian wife. America, like the Indian subcontinent, remains a bastion of formal politeness in the English-speaking world, especially in public encounters. In countries such as Japan and China, the use of first names is restricted to the very closest family members—spouses and parents. Foreigners hoping to cement their relationship with Japanese or Chinese counterparts by shifting to first-name terms are often unaware of the consternation—akin to public nose-blowing—they are causing.
Another powerful force for change is technology.
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Being formal in a snail-mail letter is only a minor extra inconvenience on top of finding pen, paper and envelope, writing it, and then folding, stuffing, addressing, stamping and posting the missive. But in an e-mail that takes only seconds to write, formality is a burden. E-mail's immediacy also erodes the sense of personal distance. In the early days of e-mail, business letters were sent as attachments, properly formatted and even with the senders' signature scanned and positioned at the end. Modern e-mails are much simpler. Hand-held devices such as mobile phones and BlackBerrys have accelerated the effect.
Typing a formal salutation or sign-off with one's thumbs strains even the starchiest correspondent. An automated message at the end of the e-mail, apologising for terseness and blaming the tiny keyboard, signals to the reader that no offence is intended. Although technology has compressed the spectrum of formality, it has not abolished it altogether. Using initials to sign an e-mail avoids the suggestion of excessive intimacy that comes with a first name, or the deliberate distance signalled by a full one. In German, Gruss does the trick.
Emoticons facial expressions made up of punctuation marks allow writers to convey feelings concisely ]:. Though English is flattening politeness in speech, in some other respects the traffic is the other way. Handshaking is now a commonplace greeting; in England 50 years ago it was unusual at social gatherings and restricted even in the workplace. So is the reluctance once entrenched among the English upper classes to give presents at social occasions. Bringing a bottle of wine used to imply that your host's cellar was empty; flowers were a slur on the hostess's gardening skills.
Now it is all but de rigueur not to arrive empty-handed. Hats and gloves are out. Kissing is all over the place, twice in Paris, thrice in Polish, four times in the south of France. But in Poland hand-kissing, once a flamboyant and ubiquitous way of greeting ladies, is declining. All this is grist to the mill of those who study politeness, formality and other branches of sociolinguistics and sociopragmatics. Its most-downloaded article is by Miranda Stewart, a scholar based in Scotland. One of the big discoveries in the subject's early days, says Ms Stewart, was that left-wing people, regardless of culture, tend to prefer intimate forms of address; more conservative speakers like formality.
These days, the most contentious issue is the idea that politeness studies has been too Eurocentric. Chinese and other east Asian scholars argue vigorously but politely that the discipline is too heavily based on individualistic western concepts and takes too little account of collective norms. At least to outsiders, the biggest question is what politeness actually is, and how it relates to other vital but slippery concepts such as deference, friendliness and formality.
From one point of view, politeness is about being nice: easing social interaction by taking account of other people's needs. But plenty of so-called polite behaviour in real life is anything but. Being polite does not stop you being freezingly rude, or warmheartedly friendly.
You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image. Same-sex couples are seen after getting married during a media call at the town hall after the German parliament approved marriage equality in a historic vote. Photo: Reuters. Same-sex couples married in Germany for the first time on Sunday local time , with several dozen couples tying the knot at civil registry offices that opened specially to mark the coming into force of a law passed by parliament in June.
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Among them were Karl Kreile 59 and Bodo Mende 60 who became Germany's first married gay couple, exchanging vows at the town hall in the Berlin borough of Schoeneberg on Sunday after 38 years together. They then signed the marriage certificate. Later, guests feasted on a rainbow-coloured wedding cake decorated with the slogan "Marriage for all". Speaking after the ceremony, Mende called for Germany and the European Union to do more to promote gay rights across Europe. Especially in more conservative regions of eastern Europe, acceptance of gay rights is still minimal. Earlier, he had described the campaign to achieve equal marriage in Germany as "25 years of hard struggle".
Germany's parliament approved marriage equality in June after Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to make the vote a matter of conscience, freeing her Social Democrat coalition partners and many of her conservative lawmakers to vote for it.