Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, with whom I usually disagree, occasionally comes up with some rather incisive observations concerning our popular culture.
“Performers on the stage shout they love us. Politicians love us. Acquaintances love us. The people who actually love us still love us, but how would we know? Never mind condemning recreational sex. How about recreational love? …
“Mister, missis, miss and all the rest are gone. We are pals with everyone and they are pals with us — never mind that they have called to say our electricity will be turned off for nonpayment of a bill we never got. I am Richard and they are Jim or some other made-up name. We lack all formality, all distance. This is a parody of democracy. …
“Languages other than English distinguish between the formal and the informal — the French vous and tu, for instance. To call a vous a tu can be an insult. But in America, we are all one big tu, a kumbaya-ish mass of insincere sincerity. Distinctions are not recognized. The relative stranger and the old friend are greeted the same. But they are not the same. One has earned my friendship, my trust, my love. The other I may never see again — and, too often, that’s all right with me.”
Actually, English does have a formal/familiar distinction in the second person pronouns. The “thou” and “thee” used respectively as subject and object, today only seen in the King James Bible and period literature, were the familiar form, in common use up through the 18th Century. I understand that religious sects like the Quakers, and some country folk in the north of England still use these forms. Cohen mentions the faux pas in France regarding the misuse of tu rather than vous. Even more socially inept would be using the du instead of Sie to anyone other than a family member or close, long time friend in Germany. Children may always be addressed as du, making a double insult when addressing a teenager. It seems that the thou fell into disuse partly because of its increasing use for condescension or insult, by implying that the addressee wasn’t entitled to the respect of being addressed as you.
Cohen has a point. Over-familiarity can be insulting, even in our brave new world. I eschew using first names in business letter salutations, unless I know the addressee well, and never in correspondence that I copy to a client. There are also many people I know well, and even like very much, that I would never hug. Faux intimacy degrades the real thing.
For Richard Cohen’s complete column, please see: Cohen column