Dear Sir or Madam

Our refusal to address others as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ stems from our ideological revulsion against hierarchy 

Counterpoints Language Modern Life

What’s in a word? Quite a lot, I suspect.

Travellers to Francophone and Hispanophone countries will have noticed a superiority of everyday social interactions to those observable in our own country. They retain a slightly formulaic ceremoniousness that is now entirely lacking from our own culture, and that comes (at least to me) as a great relief. If there’s one thing that ought to be avoided in casual, everyday encounters, it’s saying the first thing that comes into your head.

I attribute the superiority in part to their continued use of the terms Monsieur and Madame and Señor and Señora. It is not affectation, but a deeply ingrained habit. You don’t go into a shop in France without saying “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame“.

The other day, I was crossing the street in Paris reading a book, as is my slightly hazardous wont, when a man on a bicycle nearly ran me down. “Attention, monsieur! Attention, monsieur!” he cried, not forgetting his manners even in his irritation. I shouted an appropriate apology after him, rather gratified and reassured by the whole episode. 

Goodness knows what an English cyclist would have shouted in the circumstance: almost certainly something unprintable in a respectable journal.

For some reason we in England can no longer use Sir and Madam in an unstilted way. The last time I called an adult Sir was in addressing a coroner while explaining how a patient came to hang himself. As for Madam, I used it only when angry, for example after a woman launched into me with reflections upon my character when I had inadvertently and unknowingly stood in her way for a few moments. “You have a tongue in your head, Madam, have you not, and could have asked me to move?” In my mouth, then, Madam is a term of abuse.

Why can we not use Sir and Madam? It obviously has something to do with our ideological revulsion against any taint of hierarchy. So in large parts of the country, I am most commonly addressed by spotty young men as “mate”. This aggressively levelling and proletarianising mode of address has spread very rapidly. The trouble is that objecting to it (which I have on occasion done) sounds pompous and priggish, in the same way that objecting to obscenity always appears prudish and narrow-minded. There seems to be a Gresham’s Law of etiquette: the coarse drives out the refined. The Bolsheviks knew this very well, and welcomed it.

I should like to start a society for the restoration of Sir and Madam in everyday speech. Unfortunately, all the causes I espouse are lost.