Sunday, July 29, 2012

Society Fraying and Addressing an Elder

I got an email yesterday with a question relating to Manners and Etiquette. I have gotten several of these since I added the Southern Manners and Etiquette page to my website ( I will share it with you and include my response. I would be interested in knowing if you agree with my response or if you have a different perspective.

 The gentleman wrote: 

I write a weekly column for and next week I'll publish regarding an exchange I had last night and was hoping to get your opinion.

My wife and I raise our four daughters in New Orleans, and we were seating ourselves on the sidewalk tables of a restaurant yesterday when a woman about 20 years my senior (I'm 38) passed us and said hello, and I offered up a hello in return, however I offended her.  Here's how.  Let's say her name is Jane Doe.  Well, I said, "Hello, Ms. Doe."  She stopped and protested albeit playfully.  Then I offered "Hello, Ms. Jane?"  Which she still stood dumbfounded.  So hastily and finally I said "Hey Jane!"  To which she seemed ok with but - - - 
Jane is a peer in the real estate world, but she is also old enough to be my mother.  I also want to set a respectful example to my daughters.

So who's right?  My original actions?  Or was she right to be offended?

 My response:

She was not right to be offended. Your address to her was your example to your daughters as to how they should address her. Making you feel uncomfortable in an innocent exchange in front of your daughters was improper on her part. It is credited to Jonathan Swift to have said, "Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse. Whoever makes the fewest people uneasy is the best bred in the room." 

She could have smiled and said, "Call me Jane, dear." Still, your daughters, being well-bred southern girls would know to call her Mrs. Doe unless there is a close relationship there and they have been given permission by their parents to address her as "Ms. Jane." Simply being a professional peer would not warrant that address. (My opinion -- Sharman Ramsey)

This exchange started me thinking about why this  advice seemed to me to be correct. I have been concerned about the fraying of civility and courtesy in our society for quite awhile. Does blue jeans Friday show respect to clients who come into a professional office? My mother felt that the nursing profession lost respect when they began dressing like the lab techs and nurses aids. I went to see my granddaughter perform at an elementary school and my husband and I were startled to find teachers and students wearing pajamas. Speech and dress are both part of our outward demeanor -- how we present ourselves to the world. Dressing appropriately for the situation is the mark of a professional.

So, back to where the fabric begins to fray. Perhaps it does begin with simple address. The formal address indicates respect for a younger person for an older person. The problem is that in our society, no one wants to admit to being older. It's quite obvious, you know. We walk slower, have more aches and pains, have to dye our hair and bleach our teeth and age spots. But, let me let you in on a little secret. We still look older. 

Perhaps it is time to recall words like dignified, striking, charming, honorable, and good to be our goal rather than sexy which has now become the goal for everything from cars, to pole dancers, to little girls dressing up for pageants. We have lost our way in this world with what is important. I am delighted that this young father is aware of how his words and behavior model the words and behavior of his daughters. 

I think it is a good thing that his daughters learn to respect their elders.  I applaud this father's efforts.

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