For many, the word “formality” probably conjures up images of high-society gatherings, stiffness, or rigidity. To me it means doing the right thing at the right time, and one of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines formality as “an established form or procedure that is required or conventional.”1
An everyday need to display formality occurs when a person addresses another. When someone’s title is unknown, the well-mannered woman will always address him or her as “Sir” or “Madam” or “Ma’am.” If someone’s title is known, such as “Doctor” or “Reverend,” she will use it unless asked not to. A judge ought to be referred to as “Your Honor” or “Judge (Last Name).”2 When speaking with an unacquainted man who may feign all kinds of umbrage at being referred to as “Sir,” she need not feel obligated to refer to him by his first name even if he insists. Better to smile briefly, brush it off, and move on to the business at hand (I am thinking of several different occasions when I waited tables as a young woman). Using proper titles is as much for the woman’s benefit as it is for those she addresses, and she ought not feel forced to cozy up to men who insist on being referred to improperly by their first names. (Besides, who expects a waitress to remember her diners’ names?)
Even though the practice of formal address may appear to be falling out of use, proper manners do not allow for any other titles and especially not for endearments. I am astonished by how common it is in my region for a person to be referred to as “Sweetheart”; for a mother to be referred to as “Mom” (one of my personal least favorites!); and for “Mister” and “Miss” or “Miz” to be used instead of “Sir” and “Ma’am.” “Hon,” “Dear,” and “Sweetie” are equally informal and will not be heard in the vocabulary of a well-bred woman addressing others formally. Of course, within her own private circle she may use terms of endearment, particularly for spouses or small children, but care should be taken not to overdo the use of pet names, which may sound or eventually become insincere.
This reminds me of the tendency in American society to be unique, special, or different, and most certainly to go against the flow. I suppose society is going through an anti-establishment age, or at least part of it is (see this article for an in-depth discussion of generational trademarks, as well as to see which generation you fit into!). I have encountered many people who “own” their manners and etiquette faux pas,3 claiming it is what makes them unique and special. However, I believe that one should cultivate and display other ways of being different and noteworthy rather than making others uncomfortable by breaking standard etiquette rules. A hallmark of good breeding is treating others with the utmost respect, love, and kindness. Even something as common as addressing another person should be done in the standard way, out of respect to him and as a sign of good manners.