Reserved Or Stuffy?

I was on the train all morning today – coming home after a long Easter weekend spent with my parents up in Canterbury.

The journey gave me some time for a bit of writing and rough editing but my eye was also caught by a story that’s appeared in a number of the newspapers today. (Like this version from The Telegraph.)

Apparently, a survey of British attitudes has shown that many people get really irritated by complete strangers – particularly those trying to sell us something – using our first names as if we’re old friends. One example that appears to really get up the nose of many is when baristas at Starbucks write our first names on the cups.

So I was wondering, is it really just us Brits being all stuffy or do other people also value a spot of old world courtesy – giving strangers a bit of respect by calling them Mr or Mrs or Ms or… whatever?

Personally, I think ‘British reserve’ is a bit of a stereotype. Yes, there’s truth in it but it’s not universal nor are we the only ones who like to be treated with respect.

A couple of years ago my wife and I were on a trip across the States and we visited Eastland, Texas, to give a talk at the local primary school. One of the pupils was our host’s daughter and she was the sweetest, politest little girl you could imagine. Whenever she spoke to Carolyn it was ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’ – said in a wonderful Southern accent!


It’s not Eastland but it is Texas! Carolyn delighted to be Chez Ewing in Dallas.

Now I can’t imagine many British schoolchildren being quite so polite. I’m also one of those dinosaurs that hold doors open for others (men as well as women). I don’t even really think about it – I was brought up to believe in manners.

I know the survey has already been done but I’d be interested to know what others think. Particularly thoughts from around the world and across the ages! Or are there other things that get your goat?

I wonder also – whether we like it or not – how much attitudes are changing. Are these kind of changes and the loss of formality inevitable, particularly when our personal data is so much more readily available?

And – as a writer – how much do these changes in patterns affect our writing? If you’re writing a book set in the 18th century then obviously, to be historically accurate, the author needs to know how people addressed each other in the day and place involved. What about other eras? Technology changes have been radical but how different will the dialogue be for a novel set in the 1980s as one set now?

So many questions! Now that I’ve posed them I need to get back to work – writing dialogue for the next book involving characters ranging in age from five to seventy-five. Another challenge yet again.

Nothing to do with manners but this was something from the US that we don't have here - drive (or ride ) thru ATMs!

Nothing to do with manners but this was something from the US that we don’t have here – drive (or ride ) thru ATMs!


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One response to “Reserved Or Stuffy?”

  1. Jessica says :

    I hate being called Ms. or ma’am! I’m in my mid-20s and that just makes me feel like I look older than I actually am! I would much rather be called by my first name. I don’t think I’ve ever even used “ma’am” or “sir” out loud except in jest with a friend. I usually call people I don’t know by Mr. or Mrs. unless they say otherwise, which it seems they usually do around here.
    As far as my writing goes, most of my characters are in their 20s or early 30s as well, so they tend to go by first names too. Depending on the setting (maybe a fancy restaurant or a job interview), the formality will come back, but it usually doesn’t take long for everyone to start calling each other by nicknames or first names.
    I thought it was funny how you mentioned that people are upset being called by their first names by the people at Starbucks! I never would have thought of that as a source of frustration. I would think if it bothers them so much, they should just give the baristas their name as “Mr. Kent” or “Mrs. Kent” instead of their first names…
    Interesting questions, thanks for posing them 🙂

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