Friday, October 27, 2006

Who Wants to be a Grownup

Earlier this week, Callimachus wrote briefly about the dumbing down of language and erosion of informality in our culture. Then yesterday on NPR, I heard an interesting commentary on the “wine and cheese liberal” slander that is often leveled against Democrats. And that got me thinking: is our culture forgetting how to be classy or even proper?

I have always had a liking for the formal and the sophisticated. Perhaps I am a born snob but more likely I learned the importance of propriety from my grandmother who, at 91, is still the most delightfully proper woman you’ll ever meet, even though she grew up on a cattle ranch in West Texas. To her and to many in her generation, life has levels. How we dress and act while doing housework is not the same as how we dress or act at dinner. Situation dictates manners.

A lot of people would argue that our increasingly informal society provides us with a broader freedom. That may be true in a general sense, but what are we losing in the process? Informality is, after all, the natural province of children who have not the self-restraint or understanding to act properly. When a grown man wears a ball-cap out to a restaurant or curses repeatedly at a dinner party, is he exercising freedom or is he merely being childish?

Society needs grownups. We need maturity. Formal modes of communication, proper dress and decorum, even an appreciation (or at least not a condemnation) of adult foods and drinks like cheese and wine provide our culture with necessary levels. It is not elitist to buy into such distinctions. It is merely mature.

But America seemingly confuses what is grownup for what is elite. A taste for wine, even inexpensive wine, is seen as snobbery. Formal rhetoric, no matter how commonplace it once was, is seen as aloof. A suit and tie is still acceptable, but in far fewer situations than it once was. Sure, if one only drank wine, only spoke formally and only dressed well they’d be rightfully labeled as out-of-touch. But just because someone can do all of the above doesn’t mean they don’t also appreciate a can of Bud, a crass joke and torn jeans.

Somehow I feel that our abandonment of the proper ties into the decline of our political rhetoric and leadership—not just among the politicians but also in the media. Civility has been replaced by a cursory politeness that easily devolves into disrespect. Earnestness has been replaced by stubbornness. Sophisticated ideas have been replaced by inflexible ideology and vapid catch-phrases.

This is not across-the-board. There are politicians and media members comfortable with mature debate just as there are still communities where proper manners are appreciated rather than distrusted. But, on the whole, our society seems to be slowly losing our ability to interact at levels higher than the informal. I only hope that we don’t altogether forget how to be grownups.


Anonymous Dustin said...

Personally I see nothing grown-up about hyper-formality. Sure I can and do act/dress/speak the part when necessary, but it's usually only for such things as business transactions and/or dealing with members of the previous generations who get offended at the very idea of informality.

Maybe it's because I'm a 21 year old member of the "Gen Y" but I honestly do see excessive formality as being 'aloof'. In my eyes being formal is simply masking, hiding your emotions and humanity behind the visage of the 'proper'. There is nothing inherently 'grown up' about the behaviors we think of as formal or with stratifying our behavior. The act in a mature fashion means we do, and act, in accordance with what is both least offensive and most beneficial as a long-term strategy.

If that means the Windsor-knot goes the way of the dodo so be it, I could never tie the think anyway. All things have their time, place, and lifespan, even modes of social interaction. If the 60's and 70's had any effect it was to break the stranglehold of 'formality' on American life. I, for one, welcome the change.

BTW: Anyone that doesn't like wine doesn't know what they're missing :)

12:38 PM  
Blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

As someone who participated in a 1968 student protest that successfully got a high school dress code revoked, I can sympathize with a lot of what Dustin says; but how myopic the protesters seem at this distance! I can't help seeing the uniform of shorts and baseball caps as literally childish, not the kind of clothing a self-respecting, other-respecting adult would wear. There's an erasing of context here: grown men wearing the same outfit in a good restaurant that they would wear playing frisbee in the park. And laziness, physical and mental: it's just too hard to tie a tie and change into better pants. I'm guilty of this too: I wear jeans and a tee shirt almost every day because I work at home and can get away with it. But I do change to go out. And these days, just wearing a nice shirt and slacks makes me feel more grown up than most of the guys around me.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Dustin, interesting you use the phrase "hyper formality." Because I think it was the "hyper" side of things that Richard remembers people protesting. There was too much rigidness in American society before the 60s/70s ... the main problem was of course class and race rigidness but some of that was conveyed by and held in place through formality. Propriety had/has a significant class element and so when we broke down or at least loosened up the class barriers, we tore down a lot of the good manners too.

I just feel we've gone too far. It's not "fake" to be proper. It's not hiding emotions to be formal. It's merely acting on a level that requires more subtlety and civility. We seem to be losing the ability to act on that level, to be sophisticated in our dealings with one another. If it's not in-your-face we feel it's not honest. I think that's incorrect. I think we too often mistake what is just plain childishness for freedom and authenticity. In the process, we're rejecting the need to act mature.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Walrus said...

Formality can also be a form of honour. A couple of feminine examples to go with the mostly masculine ones you cited.

I'll never forget the deep hurt of a friend of mine when her aunt came to her wedding in the dress she normally wore to do housework. The message was unmistakeable: I refuse to honour your wedding. (This family had a quirkish aversion to marriage, btw, and they didn't appreciate her non-conformity.)

Or the look on my mother-in-law's face when she walked into the dining room and discovered I'd put out candles and crystal, table cloth and fine china for her and my father-in-law. She felt honoured and I didn't have to say a word. It was much more effective than words.

9:17 PM  
Anonymous Bonnie said...

Civility, courtesy, modesty, selflessness, consideration and patience are all the things that seem to have been foregone in the pursuit of freedom. Freedom to be rude, disrespectful, slovenly, and discourteous is the order of our new day. I see it everywhere from road rage to loud cell phone conversations to bare body parts exposed to the point I have to look at my feet. Call it formality or something else, but it is what allows us to live so closly in a crowded society.

10:01 PM  

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