The mister-ious case of disappearing formality

We're being sucked into a world of superficially friendly exchanges

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The Independent Online

I don’t want to labour the point, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to fall out with the boss, but I feel I should return to my subject of the other day – the inappropriate familiarity of strangers – and tackle the point made by Mr Hatfield in his column yesterday. Judging from the feedback I have received, it’s certainly struck a chord with the i nation, many of whom are exercised by being addressed in an overly chummy manner by a cold caller.

Stefano – I believe we are on first-name terms – takes issue with one reader who, emboldened by my rather misanthropic tone, complains about a salesperson answering the phone with: “Hello, my name is Kerry”.

I, like Stefano, have no problem with this. If Kerry chooses to over-share in that mannered Transatlantic way, that’s up to her. Just don’t expect me to reciprocate. And I don’t think we should be taken in by her greeting, believing it to be a sign of amity. It’s part of her training, as much as if she was asking you if you wanted small, medium or large fries. What’s more, I think there is a form of tyranny at work here: if you are put off by this confected friendliness, you’re regarded as a miserable old sod. “Have we got nothing worse to moan about than people being pleasant to us?” asks Stefano. Well, yes, actually. There’s the weather, the bankers, the Daily Mail and Paolo Di Canio to start with. Nevertheless, the mores of modern communication seem to matter to people, and correspondent Pat Brandwood picked up yesterday on the fact that “hello” has been replaced by “how are you?”.

The stock answer – “I’m fine” – is often not accurate, but a truthful response is not sought, or appropriate. At this point, I should mention another Americansim which has entered our vernacular. The response to “how are you?” has often mutated into: “I’m good.”

On hearing this reply, a friend of mine said tartly: “I was enquiring after your welfare, not your moral state”. (Yes, I agree. Makes him sound like an arse.) But no matter how punctilious we may be in our everyday conversations, it’s all too easy to let standards lapse.

I find myself saying “how are you doing?” as a greeting (at least it’s a near relation of Nancy Mitford’s preferred “how do you do?”) and a friend of mine, Tim, texted me yesterday with his own confession. “My favourite kneejerk response to this new age of faux intimacy,” he wrote, “is when I hear my voice signing off with a cheery ‘lots of love’ to the cold caller from the Halifax. ‘Did I just say that?’ I gasp. Until the next time...”

Bit by bit, call by call, first name by first name, we’re all being sucked into this world of superficial exchanges, where formality is the exclusive province of oldsters and miserablists. Stand up for propriety! But in the meantime, have a nice weekend. And, yes, I really do mean that.