Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Smiling Assault

I think that I have mentioned before how much I hate formality – dressing up, sitting up straight, etc. But that doesn’t change the fact that it occurred to me, the other day, that a renewal of good, old-fashioned formality might just be the thing that can save our world from the groupthink, individual-suffocating vortex it is swirling down into.
We need to function in groups, right? It is, at times, essential for survival. So, we move into cities; we make organizations; we form “teams” and “think-tanks” and “committees” and “task-forces” for stuff.  We can all see the usefulness of working in a group. If we don’t see it, we at least have to admit that we are generally forced to, regardless of our perspectives.
The problem begins when individuals of the group begin to melt into each other. I think formality might be at least part of the remedy for this.
My wife, Karen, is a nurse. I used to joke about the fact that she referred to the doctors she worked with by their first names.  I used to ask her, “What happened to ‘yes, doctor; right away, doctor’” – the good old days when nurses called doctors “doctor” and the doctors called nurses “nurse”?
As a guy who is still a little uncomfortable with being called “Mr. Matarazzo,” even though I hear it a thousand times a day, my immediate reaction to informality between doctors and nurses  is: Good. Cut out the bull – we’re all equal. Formality, schmormality.
But formality keeps people distanced from one another, socially (or professionally), when they are forced together by geography or circumstance. This distance can be a good insurance against us all becoming symbiotic parts of a massive social organism, the way I see it. It helps us to maintain a perspective of individuality. It gives us a metaphorical “personal  space.” “Distance,” after all, can equal “space.”
Think about it: There was a time when, in “polite” spheres, a man would never take the liberty of calling a young woman by her first name – not until certain social obligations were fulfilled; certain permissions granted, either literally or figuratively. There are reasons why we teachers don’t let our students call us by our first names. It is efficient formality. It also helps people to define themselves and their place in a community.
Of course, we don’t want it to turn things into a caste system; we don’t want anyone to lose rights or opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The idea of one's “place” in a community is a dangerous concept…
But I’m just talking about a certain level of formality: polite formality; strangers referring to each other as Mr. or Miss or Mrs. or Ms. So-and-so; co-workers using each other’s titles not as a statement of inferiority or superiority but as a sign of respect for achievement; men watching their language around women and vice-versa; people tipping their proverbial hats and saying, “Good afternoon, Sir (or Ma’am). “
This kind of formality gives us all room in which to breathe in a crowded society. I don’t want strangers referring to me as Chris, when it comes down to it. I’m really quick to call a stranger a friend – to say “call me Chris” but I am still taken aback when, say, a parent of one of our students emails me and calls me “Chris” in the email. It feels a little like a smiling assault.
Formality equals personal space. Paradoxically, the constraints of formality can bring us freedom. We’re not all friends; we’re not all professional equals. Formality can bring us from a state of being constantly barraged with interaction into a place in which we can decide to open doors, on our own time; at our own discretion.
In short, if you want to come into my house, please knock. I'll do the same for you.

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