Formality in F&SF

All civilizations have at least two sets of rules. The two most basic sets of rules are laws and custom, and the most obvious subset of custom is manners. With the recent revival/ renaissance of Jane Austen and various spin-offs, there are a number of writers who focus on manners and social etiquette, generally in such sub-genres as steampunk or Regency-style fantasies.

But all cultures, in all times and places, have unspoken codes of manners, and they’re not restricted to just attire, although at times, cultures have gone so far as to legally define and restrict what people could wear, based on their wealth and social position, through sumptuary laws, which carried significant penalties.

As one of the older practicing and producing writers, I grew up in household where manners and custom were drilled into me. Of course, they had to be, because I was, to put it politely, socially oblivious. The majority of human beings have innate social senses. Mine were largely absent. That made little difference to my parents. I was drilled in every possible social grace and situation by my mother, while my father made certain I was more than adequate in sports, particularly those of social value, while both emphasized the importance of achievement in education. For the time, place, and setting in which I grew up, this was the norm.

What tends to get overlooked by a number of younger writers is that such an upbringing is not an aberration in human cultures, and for the majority of human history, those who have ruled and shaped society have had an upbringing that emphasized what was required to succeed. Those who were well-off but not of the elite also did their best to instill such education and manners in hopes that their offspring would have the background and manners to rise economically and socially.

At present, in the United States, the iron requirements of formality required prior to roughly the 1960s have been relaxed, or battered into scattered remnants of a once-uniform code of elite conduct, just as the former elites have been disparaged and often minimized.

This situation is not usual for cultures. More social rigidity is the norm, just as the studies of Thomas Piketty have shown that, historically, high levels of income inequality have also been the norm. Whether less rigid standards of manners and social behavior are the result of higher technology remains to be seen, but writers should consider [more carefully than many do, and no, I’m not naming names] whether the manners and social conduct of their characters match the actual culture that they’re depicting. The shepherd boy who attains power will never fit [and this almost never happens, except in fiction], except through brute power. His children might, if his wife/consort is from the elite and is in charge of their upbringing.

Also, contrary to what some believe, manners don’t reflect weakness, but are a way of displaying and reinforcing power. The decline of formal manners in the United States reflects the decline of old elite structure, and the often enforced casualness of new up-and-comers is meant as a symbol of a new elite, one problem of which is that an apparent lack of manners too easily suggests a lack of control… and a certain level of chaos and uncertainty.

In any case, any culture will have a form of mannered behavior that reinforces whatever elite governs, something that writers should consider.

7 thoughts on “Formality in F&SF”

  1. John Prigent says:

    It often seems that the modern rule is ‘the higher the status, the worse the behaviour’.

    1. Daze says:

      With P45 at the peak of that

  2. Sam says:

    Wasn’t King David the slayer of Goliath a Shepherd boy?

    Of course that was probably a work of fiction but it has been engrained in our collective consciousness for thousands of years.

    1. The outsider of lowly birth who becomes the wise ruler is a persistent myth, and people believe it today, even when it’s not true, for example, Bill Gates. His birth wasn’t lowly, and while he was an outsider in the “geek” sense of not being a part of the in-group, he had quite a set of advantages, even if he dropped out of college.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    This isn’t just the US. German has historically had formal and informal versions of the pronoun “you”. The informal would have been permitted referring to God, a spouse, one’s own children, any young children, reasonably close relatives, and by eventual discussion and agreement between very close friends. 100 years ago, children might be expected to use the formal even with their parents, until the child reached a certain age, and certainly with every other adult. 50 years ago, the informal was the norm for relatives. Within the last 25-30 years, the formal pronoun has nearly vanished among people under perhaps 30 years old (perhaps except when dealing professionally with older strangers), leaving the informal applied to nearly all – and especially online, which still seems odd to my limited learning and experience under the older rules.

    So I suspect this has been going on in most western societies, and those influenced by them, to some degree. I wouldn’t hazard a guess to what degree youths of the 60’s becoming adults, extensive media, online social networking, travel, and other influences have caused this. While I think it a bit much of a conspiracy theory, I wouldn’t even rule out that there are those who quietly seek to eliminate traditional structures, with both their constraints and their benefits – and with little regard for those benefits, to replace them with something where they think they’d attain greater power and influence. Something that makes a pretense of being classless, egalitarian, collective, when in reality, few arrangements for groups too large for each to know all the members personally and hold every other accountable, are truly even close to as classless or egalitarian as they advertise themselves to be.

  4. John Prigent says:

    Ditto for most English-speakers. Thee, Thou and Ye have vanished except in some religious and ceremonial usage.

  5. On the decline of formality: I hear fathers now calling their son ‘mate’. My dad never called me mate, though he would affectionately call me son, on occasion. My friend had to call his father ‘sir’ until he was about ten. I’m 57 in the UK. I think the media has an influence here. Everybody on television seems to spend all their time shouting and being rude. I’m thinking of Eastenders particularly. I don’t watch it but I have seen bits of it now and then.

    Currently reading ‘Assassin’s Price’ which I’ll review shortly for SFcrowsnest

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