The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 3, 2009

The New (N)etiquette

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 2:41 am

Subbing for William Safire (damn, I wanted that gig!), Jack Rosenthal observes in today’s “On Language” column that

Thank you and you’re welcome were once as connected as horse and buggy, but the buggy’s disappearing. A casual survey of acquaintances finds the most frequent response to thanks is now no problem. When National Public Radio hosts thank correspondents for their reports, other responses include sure, sure thing, my pleasure, any time, no sweat and you bet!

Wondering why, Rosenthal muses that the familiarity and formality of “You’re welcome” may make it seem insincere.  I’ll come back to that thought.

But first I want to observe that the same thing has happened to starting a letter with “Dear”:  it’s disappeared.  It always was a little odd that we started business letters that way — addressed to people who weren’t remotely “dear” to us unless they were costing us a lot of money.  The Germans started business letters “Sehr geehrter Herr ________” — very honored Mr. So-and-So.  That Americans used “Dear” was less a tribute to our bold frontier informality than to the salutation’s having lost all literal meaning.

I’ll tell you, though — when I write an e-mail to a publisher’s PR department to request a review copy of a book so I can fact check the review, and I get back the inevitable “Hi Annie” — it strikes me weirdly.  I usually address those first e-mails to total strangers to “Ms.” or “Mr. So-and-So;” once we’ve corresponded and become friendly colleagues, it’s a whole different story (just as Germans switch from the formal Sie to the familiar Du, and figuring out when to do so is still, in this age of e-mail, somewhat fraught, as I recently read to my surprise — I wish I could re-find that link for you).  The ice breaks easily in America, and that’s fine (probably because it’s thin ice), but maybe it’s a side effect of global warming that there’s no longer any rime of formality to break.

Business letters, at least business e-mails (which now comprise what percent of business communication? anyone?), now begin “Hi Annie.”  “Hi Dave.”  It’s like casual Friday 24/7.  (Or an AA meeting.)  We meet in our verbal T-shirts.

Back to the subject of formality and sincerity:  there is the argument about whether self-expression in wedding vows is a good idea, whether those sculpted in new-age Play-Doh will hold up as well as the traditional, graven-in-stone ones.  And then there is the odd observation of people’s tendency to revert to formality in moments of high emotion.  “I’m sorry for your loss” comes to mind. (I think all those of us who had never even heard that gravely formal, formulaic expression of condolence gratefully picked it up from TV cops.  I’m pretty sure I learned it from Andy Sipowicz.)

I was very struck by that at the climax of the very postmodern, bloggy Althouse-Meade romance when Meade exclaimed antiquely:

Althouse said yes!

I am the happiest man in the world.

Formality, in other words, can be a refuge for sincerity as well as a merciful slipcover for insincerity.  I’ll never forget after J’s mother died in Romania — for which we had gotten there in time to hold her hands and later wash her body —  there was a sort of receiving line of neighbors beside her coffin, each of whom walked up, pumped my hand, and said mechanically, “Mein Beileid.”  (Literally, “my condolence.”)  Just one person in that line took my hand and looked me in the eye and filled those exact same words with such warmth and feeling that I burst into tears.

He was the town drunk.  (Though just then sober.)


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