• TL Zempel

Too Casual?

My new favorite morning pastime is watching the Today Show, particularly Hoda and Craig. So here's a shout-out to them. I'm seeing lots of interesting stories on the three hours of Today that I watch nearly every day. Today is a case in point, although it wasn't a story as much as it was a conversation. And it didn't involve Craig; it involved Hoda and Sheinelle, and some nice-looking male guest host, who posed the question,

Are We as a Society Getting Too Casual?

I was in the middle of my exercise routine and had to stop so I could pay more attention. That's how riveting it was. Because I do have strong opinions about this. Actually, one opinion. Yes, we are way too casual, and the effects of that are a loss of respect for each other and our societal institutions.

Here are my observations over the last two decades:

1. Children no longer address adults as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. When my daughter was very young, I noticed that she would come home from playing with a friend and talk about the parents as Mary or John, rather than Mrs. Green or Mr. Smith. I wish I had had the chutzpa to nip that trend immediately and inform my daughter that we use last names for adults. I didn't, because I didn't want to be the fuddy-duddy parent. I also didn't share my opinion with the parent, because I was raised that you don't embarrass people, and informing a fellow-adult that they should be addressed by their last name would probably have done that. So I just went with the new status quo, even while not liking it.

The only exceptions were school teachers, so when my daughter was discussing a slumber party she had attended, she might say something like, "Mrs. Harrell made S'mores for us last night, and then Sheila showed us how to make balloon animals." Mrs. Harrell happened to be one of my teaching colleagues whose daughter was the same age as mine. But Sheila was just the parent of one of the other girls in the class. I cannot believe that I was the only one noticing a disconnect here. The only difference between the two women was that one was a paralegal and the other an educator. But both deserved the respect from 9-years-olds that using their last name would have established.

When I was growing up, all adults were called by their last name, and I still refer to the neighbors who lived next to us in Ohio 45 years ago as Mr. and Mrs. Ehret. And I'm in my fifties!

2. Are people too casual in the workplace? Yes, they are. I began noticing around 15 years ago that on casual Friday, many of my colleagues (teachers) would come to school dressed as if they were planning to clean out their garage rather than work in a professional place of business. They'd show up in hoodies, tennis shoes, and dirty jeans. I was appalled. So I never participated in casual Friday. Many times, I specifically wore my nicest outfit on that day in defiance of the trend.

In a conversation once, I told a colleague that I strongly feel that how we dress indicates how seriously we take what we are doing and how much respect we think we deserve. The only colleague I saw who consistently dressed as if he felt the same way was my male colleague next door who wore a shirt and tie every day. I have to say that his attire engendered more respect from me than the attire of the lady down the hall who always wore capris and flip flops.

3. Everyone being on a first-name basis. In my opinion, you are on a first name basis when you are invited to be. When I am at a professional office as a patient/client, I have not extended that invitation. I should be addressed as Ms. Zempel until and unless I request otherwise. What I am noticing, however, particularly in doctors' and dentists' offices, is a trend of using first names only for patients. So I will see a 20-something hygienist or nursing aide calling a 60-year-old lady back to the patient rooms by leaning out and saying, "Martha?" generally to the waiting room. That just bothers me. This person who is in a service industry (and significantly younger than the patient) should be saying, "Mrs. Green?"

Last week, I had an appointment with a new doctor, so I had to fill out the new patient forms. I noticed a question that I don't see very often: What do you like to be called? I thought about it for a moment, and then wrote down "Ms. Zempel". Part of why I did that was to see if the personnel actually read those forms, and part of it is that I do want to be called Ms. Zempel in professional settings. That's just how I am. If you are not one of my close friends, then you don't know me well enough to call me TerryLynn, or worse, the shortened version "Terry" that people think is perfectly okay to use. Imagine my surprise and, frankly, delight when the nursing tech opened the door the the inner sanctum and lightly called out, "Ms. Zempel?"

So why do I feel strongly about this issue of being extremely casual with each other and with our jobs? Because societies are based on rules of etiquette, and when some rules get tossed, others can get tossed as well. And it's not just that they can get tossed. They do get tossed, in the slippery slope inevitability of 'if this rule no longer has merit, why should other rules continue to do so?'

Dispensing with niceties in society weakens that society. When we adjust how we address each other, we also affect how we think of and treat each other. Rules of decorum exist for the express purpose of helping us know how to approach a situation and each other. If every situation involves jeans and a t-shirt, and calling people John or Mary, how do we know what qualifies as special or serious?

It seems that there are only three occasions or venues where anyone still acknowledges formality: weddings, funerals, and courtrooms. I am frankly amazed that people still know how to behave in these settings.

More examples of the slippery-slope nature of our current over-casualized society:

  • Failing to remove a hat at the dinner table. An off-shoot is men eating out while wearing flip-flops and baseball caps. I suppose a fast food restaurant could be the exception, but really, the only place that it's absolutely appropriate for a man to wear flip-flops is the beach. Women can get away with flip flops (when sandals are appropriate) because they have the option of choosing fancy models.

  • Wearing sunglasses during a conversation. This is rude because a big part of communication is reading each other's eyes. I always remove my sunglasses when I begin a conversation with someone, and if I am facing the sun, I adjust my stance.

  • Not rising to greet a newcomer, whether it's at a restaurant or in one's own living room. When someone else enters the party, it is a show of respect and welcome to rise and greet that person.

  • Responding "not a problem" when someone thanks you for something. What happened to "You're welcome", or "It was my pleasure"? When a waiter tells me it's not a problem after I have thanked him for refilling my water glass, I am tempted to sarcastically reply, "Gosh, that's a relief, since it is your job."

But that would be rude, and rudeness, thankfully, is still unacceptable in our society.