Tag Archive | formal address

The difference between being friendly and being familiar

                One of the guidelines of behavior I attempt to maintain is a working application of the difference between being friendly and being familiar (or being friends).  On the surface it sounds complicated, but I have found that doing so has helped me to become more professional in the process of everyday transactions.  This is important to me because although you may always be familiar with those close to you, you needn’t be familiar with just anyone, such as grocery cashiers, salesman, and people who queue with you.  However, you can always be friendly no matter what;  the key is to know how far to go without crossing the boundary of acting like friends when you are really just strangers or acquaintances. 

                With my family and friends, I already know what the boundaries and comfort levels are of the various relationships.  Therefore, the purpose of this post is to give my basic guidelines for being friendly to those not close to me without my being familiar.  The first thing I do is make a pleasant face upon making eye contact with any person.  Not only does this put my best face forward and enhance my image, it is also courteous to others who did nothing to deserve a scowl or glare.  I don’t necessarily initiate a smile at everyone, depending on the feeling I get at the moment.  The reason is that I don’t want to appear too glib or naive or to be encouraging unwanted attention.  I also don’t think it’s realistic to walk around with a 24/7 pasted on smile, and when I try that, it looks fake.  I do try to return all smiles I’m given.  The technicalities of facial expressions vary amongst us all, and I don’t expect anyone to follow my preferences exactly.  This is just the way that has been right for me.

                The second way I distinguish between friendliness and familiarity is in greeting.  I am not the type that waves for no reason at strangers while driving.  I wave to thank and that’s it.  I have lived in areas where waving at every random pickup truck that passed on the dirt road was the thing to do, and I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just a level of familiarity with strangers that I don’t feel obligated to maintain.  I don’t greet people in person for no reason.  I don’t go up to random cute children, polished women, or handsome men and gush all over them.  I feel like they didn’t come to the gift shop or the cafe to be greeted by me, another customer.  You can tell by my tone that nothing like that has ever happened to me and my family before.  🙂  I always try to return a greeting when spoken to me–that’s basic courtesy.  I always greet (and try to be the first to greet) people I have chosen to interact with, such as those I am on hand to do business with, or someone whose assistance I need.  I try not to start any conversation with someone without an appropriate greeting first (such as, “Excuse me, ma’am, could you tell me where the peanut butter is?” instead of “Where is the peanut butter? “).

                Besides greeting, interactions with strangers also involve addressing them.  My preference here is for “ma’am” and “sir” for anyone who looks above 18 or so.  I cannot abide being referred to as “miss,” “miz,” “hun,” “sweetheart,” “mom,” or “hey you” and thus do not call others by these epitaphs.   Again, your mileage may vary, but I feel the pitfall of familiarity is avoided completely by using the formal “ma’am” and “sir.” 

                After greeting and addressing someone a conversation usually follows.  Sometimes the conversation is crucial to the interaction, such as discussing options for a major household purchase, and other times it occurs to pass the time, such as while the groceries are scanned.  This is the time that many people, mostly inadvertently I’m sure, cross the boundary between being friendly and being familiar.  I never feel obligated to share personal information such as names, ages, school enrollment, addresses, occupations, etc.  This is my preference;  I’m not paranoid that the person interrogating my children on their school’s name and grade level is going to stalk them.  I just think that as a whole society needs to go back to minding its own business, and the details of my life simply do not have to be shared with anyone who pleases.  Last Friday night, I made a late grocery run and encountered a chatty cashier at the evening’s end.  He asked me if I had any plans for the weekend.  I replied that I have plans most days.  He said, “Aren’t you going to tell me what they are?”  I replied that no, I don’t share personal details with grocery cashiers;  I prefer that they just do their job and that they not attempt to make friends with me.

                This is probably sounding really cold going up on the internet.  But I really would be happy if customers and service providers alike would just focus on accomplishing their intended purpose without adding unnecessary familiarity to the process.  The way my personality is (woman? introvert? who knows), any sort of personal interaction requires an emotional effort from me, and I prefer to reserve that effort for my actual friends and people I care about.  I also easily get flustered so keeping things professional definitely makes life easier for me.  And even though I think being friendly is a good idea, I would rather someone be a bit gruff and taciturn than that they go on and on grilling me about my life.  I’m just trying to buy the food, people!

Formality when addressing others

               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.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Definition of “formality,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/formality.
2. wikiHow, How to Address a Judge in Court, http://www.wikihow.com/Address-a-Judge-in-Court.
3. Social blunder