12 March 2014

On showing my age... or On phoney [pun] intimacy ...and an invariant rule.

Ring... (Recorded message. "We are connecting you. Your call may be recorded." —that calls for a deconstruction all of its own...)
Estate Agent: Hello, this is W.... P.... Estate Agents. My name is Dave. How may I help you?

Me: You are selling [...] I'd like to arrange a viewing.

EA: I think that property is already under offer, but can I take your details, to get back to you? [...] Your name?

Me: Atherton A-T-H-E-R-T-O-N

EA: First name?

Me: James

EA: OK, Can I have your postcode please, James?

Me: No!  (Hangs up)

Wife: What was all that about?
Oliver Kamm has a column in the Times (OK, of London) on Saturdays, titled "The Pedant". Frankly it has become somewhat formulaic recently, although it is still entertaining on occasion. It follows a standard pattern;
  • a quotation from the paper which may contain a grammatical solecism
  • a discussion of what the issue is in grammatical/stylistic terms
  • usually an assertion that English is based on conventions rather than absolute grammatical rules
  • evidence that Shakespeare/Milton etc. broke the "rule" in question long ago
  • so...
 (Come to think of it, there are echoes of the Kolb cycle here.)

So, in the spirit of Kamm, what is worthy of attention in the exchange above? (Since the column is in print, the question has to be rhetorical, and he answers it...) And my wife asked it, too.

He used my first name. Without asking. After less than 30 seconds "acquaintance".

Hey! Lighten up! That's OK. After all, he introduced himself with his first name... Yes, he did. Implicitly he volunteered his first name, although he was, I'm sure, following a script. (I've changed the name.)

But he elicited mine as part of an information-recording process with no implied permission to use it. Had he asked, "May I call you James?" as occasional unwanted callers from my bank ask, I would have had the opportunity to say No, and to get even more pompous and self-important than I am already and insist on being called "Dr" Atherton (as I have done, and as I am now addressed, no doubt thanks to tags "pompous" and "old git" on their system). I'd still rather the bank didn't call me at all, but it is one small step...

Actually, it's not just me. Roger Brown (Brown and Gilman, 1960) articulated the rules underpinning what he called a "universal norm", in terms of the appropriate use of First Name (FN) or Title and Last Name (TLN) forms of address, which also apply to the use of "intimate" and "formal" pronouns (not applicable in English nowadays, but "tu" and "vous" in French, „du" and „Sie" in German).

(Brown, 1965: 93)

The original account is not easily accessible, so I'm quoting an edited version after the jump:

A Universal Norm and Its Interpretation
In one respect the forms of address in all the languages we have studied operate in identical fashion. There is an invariant, a universal norm in our materials. [...] So there is the possibility that the pattern to be described will fall short of linguistic universality; but we think it will not. 
Not many cultural universals are known; probably the incest tabu, the tabu on cohabitation between all members of the nuclear family except husband and wife, is the most famous and has been the most dis­cussed. When all cultures, many of them historically independent, arrive at an identical norm that norm inspires great interest because it would seem to be required by something in ultimate human nature or by some re­quirement in all forms of human social life. [...] 
The invariant norm for forms of address first caught our attention in the following version: the linguistic form that is used to an inferior in a dyad of unequal status is, in dyads of equal status, used mutually by intimates; the form used to a superior in a dyad of unequal status is, in dyads of equal status, used mutually by strangers. Figure 2-6a [above] provides some examples. The pronoun T, the FN, [...] are or were, all used to inferiors and also between intimates. The pronoun V, the TLN, [...] are, or were, all used to superiors and also between strangers. [...] 
Considering just two address forms and the status and solidarity norms, there is one formal or logically possible alternative to the scheme we have invariably found. The form used to inferiors might also be used between strangers and the form used to superiors might also be used between'inti­mates [...]. This is an abstract linkage between the norms of status and solidarity which we have never found. Why should the linkage always take the form it does take? 
A curious fact about the contemporary use of T and V provides a clue to the explanation of the invariant pattern. While the non-reciprocal norm for pronouns has generally been abandoned in Europe, inequality of status continues to affect one aspect of usage. Most dyads begin with the Mutual V and, with time, may advance to the intimacy of Mutual T. For many people the shift from V to T is an important rite of passage. The Germans even have a little informal ceremony they call the Bruder-schaft. One waits for a congenial mood, a mellow occasion, perhaps over a glass of wine, and says: "Why don't we say du to one another?" The new usage is, of course, to be reciprocal. However, there is one necessarily non-reciprocal aspect of the business—someone must make the suggestion. 
When there is a clear difference of status between the two the right to initiate the change unequivocally belongs to the superior—to the elder, the richer, the more distinguished of the two. The gate to linguistic solidarity is kept by the person of higher status.
The norms of English address also make a pattern in time. Members of a dyad must, with time, either increase their total amount of contact or else dissolve as a dyad. Since the Mutual TLN represents less contact than the Mutual FN, if Mutual TLN occurs at all in a dyad, it must occur at an earlier time than the Mutual FN. The place of the non-reciprocal pattern in time is between the other two and it may be understood as a step from Mutual TLN in the direction of Mutual FN—a step which, like the suggestion of the Bruderschaft, is taken first by the superior. Many dyads will linger for a very long time—possibly the life of the dyad—in the non-reciprocal pattern. Under these circumstances the pat­tern gives enduring expression to an inequality of status. 
Consider a familiar sort of example. A prospective graduate student arrives at a university to meet some of the faculty of the psychology de­partment and is interviewed by the chairman. Probably the two will initially exchange TLN. In the course of the day or, if not, shortly after the student enrolls, the chairman will begin to use the FN. He seems to extend the hand of friendship, but the student knows that it behooves him not to grasp it too quickly. The student will continue with the TLN for several years (four is probably the mode) and in this period the non-reciprocality of speech will express the inequality of status. If the chair­man is neither very elderly nor very august the student will eventually feel able to reciprocate the FN and the dyad will advance to Mutual FN. Probably the interval of time that must be passed in non-reciprocality increases with the status gap. As we have seen, however, the appropriate time for the transition may not be perfectly clear and so there may be, for the person of lower status, a period of uncertainty in which terms of address will be avoided.
from Brown R (1965) Social Psychology London; Collier-Macmillan pp 92-94

(Reference to Japanese usage has been edited out. Brown does not note that French even has a verb for "addressing someone as 'tu'"—tutoyer.)

Reference; Brown R and Gilman A (1960) "The pronouns of power and solidarity" in T A Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language Cambridge, Mass.; Technology Press, 1960.


  1. Anonymous11:44 am

    As a fellow pompous (and French) old git, I get similarly aggravated when addressed by my first name by perfect strangers. I am then tempted to say to them: "nous n'avons pas gardé les vaches ensemble", a French retort referring to the absence of a long-standing relationship between us, that would warrant this familiarity. Its literal meaning is: "we never tended cows together", but its flavour gets lost in translation. Can you think of something similar in English?


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.