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To Sir, with Respect

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Today, I had an interesting experience of civility and respectfulness.  I exchanged e-mail notes with someone that I have never met but whose blog I follow and that I e-mail on occasion.  In his reply, he called me "sir."

I was bemused by that, and I replied, saying

"It is so strange for someone to call me 'sir.'  It is right up there with being called 'Mr. Hamilton.'  I suppose having been raised in the Pacific Northwest has something to do with it."

My correspondent elaborated on his practice,

"[A business] partner was from the South.  I picked up the Sir thing from him. I like the respect of it."

I've been thinking about that all day.  For someone to speak to me formally is distancing for me.  Yet I can understand the respectfulness of it.  So the informality that appeals to me is doubtless how I approach others as well.  And it might be seen as not very respectful.

This runs so deep that when I was studying Italian I never learned the protocol for agreeing to informal speech.  I rarely use formal speech and it remains awkward for me.  The terms for recognizing someone as enough of an acquaintance to engage in informal speech escapes me.  ("Puoi darmi del tu!"  I just looked it up.  There's a way to request permission to be informal with another, but I can't find it just now.  Figures.)

In this little mini-episode there is a collision of cultural views.  I understand that showing of respect is important, and that there are those who will feel disrespected when not addressed with formality.  My speculation is that being recognized is more important to me than being respected.*  It would be very useful for me to be more attentive to respectfulness and civility in my interactions, and to be accepting of formality when it is offered to me.

This reminded me of the importance that formality and ceremony have in serious undertakings, whether in a court room, in government, and in formal proceedings such as the just-concluded Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva.  It was striking for many attendees that everyone wore business suits.   Doug Mahugh spent enough days in his suit to want to burn it at the conclusion. 

It was also striking for many attendees and even more kibitzers that the deliberations were carried out in private and the further deliberations within the National Bodies may also be rather private, as each body will determine for itself.  This is a very different way of operating if you compare with my favorite standards-promulgating organization, the IETF, where all technical work is by public discussion lists and all drafts are published on the Internet.

I think we all need to understand that the cultural and deliberative contexts are simply different.  I probably don't have to emphasize that I favor very open processes which are generous in their welcoming of contributions and being accountable for their arrival at consensus.  At the same time, I think it is important to accept that we are dealing with institutions that have succeeded with their formality and respectful processes. 

I suspect that there will be a gradual shift away from rigid formality and private conduct, just as young people in Europe (as here) may no longer be so formal and respectful in their use of conversational conventions.  We must remember that every shift in culture and ways of achieving agreements bring with them new problems.  That's cause enough for some humility and respect.

Most of all, it is useful to avoid assuming that our way is the only way and the right way.  There is no "the right way."

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat.
-- Robert Heinlein

I'm lounging around suffering with the head cold that clobbered me yesterday.  Instead of making focused effort, I am resting and catching up on some correspondence.  It is all light activity as I tend to my health.  That's where I found room to consider this topic in my inconclusive way.

* I have gone to great lengths to cultivate the pseudonym, Orcmid.  It is playful for me.  I have friends who refer to me as Orcmid in blog posts of theirs.  I comment on blogs as Orcmid.  The strange part is that I am pleased the most when the blog's author refers to me as Dennis, even though I don't.  That's what I mean by recognition.

[update 2008-03-04T17:04Z Apparently the captcha on this Blogger, FTP-hosted blog is not coming up properly.  Gareth Horton was unsuccessful at posting a comment so he sent me an e-mail with what he wanted to say.  It turns out that Gareth and I are both drive-by commenters, it being easier to comment off-hand than to make a post of our own or to use more-direct direct communication.  I have reduced some of the friction for me now that I use NewsGator Inbox as part of Outlook, so I am in my e-mail when I look at those blogs that feed full content.  Here's Gareth's delightful comment.]

Comment: 2008-03-04T13:13Z

For the consideration of the Esteemed Mr. Hamilton, Esq.

I too came across this when learning German and later, when living in Germany.  When I was at University there back in 1991, it was certainly still in use for the student-lecturer relationship, as well as in larger business organizations.

I don't know how that might have changed since then, but my fellow students of that era are now the 'incumbents', so I would imagine some softening.

This article may be interesting for you.



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