Culture

Society

It’s a sir thing— Global

Preface

While we've all been busy getting chummy in the email sphere, when meeting people face-to-face things seem to be getting more formal. Monocle's editor muses on the changing world of manners.

Henry Hitchings, Manners, Salutations

25 January 2013

Dear Sir, thank you for paying attention. Did you like how I just addressed you, woo-ed you in to my world, went for the formal, the super polite? (Patience, I’ll come to Madam in a moment). I have noticed more deference in the world of late and I have also spotted my personal Sir-ometer on the rise. I use it when greeting the taxi driver, thanking the waiter (even if they are half my age).

It’s not that I have OD-ed on Downton Abbey or become some new fogey; it’s just that it feels kind of right. What else would I call the taxi driver? I used to try the fake chumminess of “mate” in my student years but I doubt that they thought I was a Cockney. And the talking down versions feel very awkward – you can just about get away with “driver” if you are dowager.

It’s a problem knowing what to call people.

This week the writer and theatre critic Henry Hitchings came in to see me at Midori House for an interview that will run this Sunday on the Monocle Weekly. Henry, or Mr Hitchings, came to talk about his book "Sorry: The English and their Manners", which is a history of how manners have evolved rather than some silly modern etiquette guide (in short he’ll tell you about the history of the fork rather than how to hold one).

I asked Henry about the surfeit of Sirs and he put it all down to a shortened contemporary list of acceptable salutations. In Britain, for example, local authorities and health bodies have taken it upon themselves to instruct staff never to call people “love” or “darling” or anything vaguely warm-hearted and caring because it demeans, apparently (ie one or two people who would take offence whatever you called them have kicked off). So strip away these endearments and your options suddenly look limited. “Sir” is once again fit for purpose.

“Sir” is even robust when transferred to the digital age. I often get emails from nice regular people that start, “Dear Sir”. Somehow it works, and is even friendlier than plain old “Mr”. Of course, first names are the happy norm in email-ville but the odd thing is that you then sometimes feel unsure rushing to use first names when you meet the same person face-to-face. I just met a CEO a couple of decades older then even me and neither first name or Mr felt right. So I went for Sir again.

Meanwhile, “Madam” has had a slight dusting off but has not enjoyed the full Sir revival. I hear people using it in restaurants and shops, but where Sir can be used successfully by say both waiter and customer (“Sir, can I have my bill”; “Certainly Sir”), Madam is a one-way street. It’s a way of showing deference. Call a shop assistant Madam at your peril. And in an email it just makes you sound haughty and slightly offended.

Henry Hitchings’s fine book kind of says that manners adapt for the times, but how Sir became a modern way to address both CEO and taxi driver in London 2013 is still a bit of a mystery.

Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle

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