Oh, dear! The rules of behaviour have been reversed

The more familiarly a stranger addresses you, the less friendly he or she can seem
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The Independent Online
The topic of Englishness has such a fascination for social analysts that one can be sure that every few months a new survey into how we talk, interact or behave in bed will emerge.

The topic of Englishness has such a fascination for social analysts that one can be sure that every few months a new survey into how we talk, interact or behave in bed will emerge. In this season's book about the subject, Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, Kate Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre has concluded that we are a rather closed sort of people, sub-clinically autistic and agoraphobic and, when under pressure, likely to use irony and sarcasm. Oh, she thinks she's so clever.

Apart from the most obvious reason for our wariness - that around every corner is another bloody sociologist watching how we behave - there may be another explanation as to why, as Kate Fox argues, we have problems in communicating openly and without a veneer of self-protective humour. The whole business of how to address strangers in 21st-century Britain has become fraught with difficulty.

The word "darling", for example, now carries such a dangerous load of subtext that those of us who use it every day are in danger of becoming social pariahs. I prefer not to analyse why I can happily address any female friends as "darling" (except oddly, the person who is my darling) and even, when in mellow mood and among media luvvies, can darling a man without blushing. It is true that an open exchange of endearments among men - hugging, falling on each other's shoulders, sometimes we're that close to holding hands like Frenchmen - is largely a metropolitan development but I have discovered that, in the country, there is a place for open affection, too.

When I buy vegetables at the local market, I am invariably the darling, poppet, my sweet or my love to the woman behind the stall. Formidable as she is, with broad potato-lugging shoulders and a voice that could shell peas from five paces, I have never felt denigrated, ridiculed, or sexually harassed by the way she talks to me.

Now, if the vegetable lady went to work for the English National Opera - which I admit is a bit of a stretch - she would soon be in trouble. Something creepily described as "a re-education document" has been circulated to employees, informing them that henceforth not only will suggestive remarks, lewd conduct and gender-related insults be banned in the workplace, but that "the use of affectionate names such as 'darling' will also constitute sexual harassment". To show that they are reasonable people, the ENO re-educators have graciously agreed that their kill-your-darlings edict will not apply to old-timers and that "existing staff who call each other 'darling' can continue to do so".

At first it all seems absurd. If those who work in opera are not allowed to darling one another, what hope is there for the rest of us? Surely the new rule is nothing less than a prim, technocratic denial of one of the basic tenets of the luvvie lifestyle. Yet maybe the ENO is on to something. Set a pack of sociologists on to my vegetable-seller and they would quickly conclude that, because every one of her customers is a poppet or a love, she is not expressing any particular affection. Indeed, if I addressed her as "my darling", she would doubtless suspect me of taking the mickey or even, daringly, coming on to her.

Similarly, if a friend who was 20 years younger than me, took to calling me "darling", I would be faintly affronted by the lack of respect. An unrecognised, ill-lit boundary would have been crossed with the result that something not that far away from the denigration, ridicule and harassment which so concerns the ENO would be going on.

But if that apparently innocent term of endearment can express a hidden social agenda, where does that leave the new use of Christian names? First-name familiarity is no longer something to be earned by friendship. It is immediate and obligatory. Its alternative, the use of surnames, is deemed starchy and old-fashioned. Now that everyone is everyone's friend, references to celebrities, whether in newspaper profiles or in pub conversations, are invariably by their first names. The social form that applies on TV games shows - the host is Cat or Dale, the member of the public Gary or Sue - is part of everyday life.

These rules of English behaviour are so hidden that an odd reversal has taken place: the more familiarly a stranger addresses you, the less friendly he or she can seem. When someone you've never met calls on the telephone and moves into pally mode, it is a sure sign that you are a sales target.

The cosier the approach of call centre operatives, particularly those who work for banks, the further one is from a helpful business relationship. The fake intimacy on offer is to distract you from the fact that you are not closer to the firm with whom you are dealing, but further away. Christian names, instant chumminess, blur the distinction between the personal and the professional in a way that, without fail, disempowers the customer.

So the message for Kate and her study of Englishness is simple. Don't knock our sub-clinical autism. It is our way of dealing with the modern world.

terblacker@aol.com

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