What rules govern how characters address each other? Is it appropriate to call new in-laws "Mom and Dad" or hail them like pals? How about your doctor? (Remember when Annie Hall, to Woody Allen's stunned disbelief, referred to her psychiatrist as "Donnie"?) Why doesn't Jerry say "Cosmo" to Kramer the way he says "George" to Costanza? The question transcends entertainment and enters public protocol when men born James and William occupy the White House as plain ol' Jimmy and Bill: is this a measure of democracy or just more false intimacy?
A recent piece on the BBC radio service got me thinking about these questions. A German chain of retail stores had been acquired by Swedes, who–wanting to establish an informal corporate culture patterned after the American model–directed all employees to address each other in the informal Du locution instead of the more traditional Sie. My German friends tell me that is no small change. Du is reserved for children, household pets, or life-long intimates and certainly not used for impersonal professional interactions. "To throw around Du in a formal business setting, " explains German Studies professor Bernd Widdig of MIT, "is an embarrassing faux pas, like being seriously underdressed for a festive occasion." According the BBC report, twenty-somethings regardless of the context Du each other as a matter of course these days; indeed, they invoke Sie as a kind of reverse insult. But one middle manager in the Swedish company found the new directive so upsetting he had a nervous breakdown, was unable to continue working, and sued the company.
In the same way the German electorate showed its readiness for a new era in voting out Helmut Kohl, so has the youth culture repudiated many of the old order's traditional distinctions of social form. A salient characteristic of popular culture has always been its capacity to unwittingly outflank the ruling class. With so much energy surging up from below, icon-breaking becomes a form of primal expression as much as an anti-establishment statement: the form it takes is often of less consequence than the act itself. (Take the sagging pants that currently constitute teenage chic; the origin of this look turns out to be prisons, where inmates are prohibited from wearing belts. How many trendy kids in affluent white suburbs know that they're mimicking ex-cons?)
What's notable about the German situation, however, is that the forces for cultural change seem to be coming simultaneously from below and above. The kids are using language to fuse their generation into a singular blob (as a prelude to either a Green millennium or grunge apocalypse); the Swedish owners seek to eliminate declensions that preserve what they regard as arbitrary distinctions that limit productivity. The net effect is a pincer-like pressure on the conservative German burghers, "sick to their stomach," in my friend Bernd's phrase, at all this touchy-feely linguistic proximity.
Accentuating their distress is the foreign source of the shift from Sie, seen as yet another alien mutation derived from American popular culture. In this the Germans are not alone. "America is not just interested in exporting its films," says the head of the Cannes Film Festival Giles Jacob. "It is interested in exporting its way of life." Jacob likens the movies to a Trojan horse filled with subliminal advertising. The idea of an organized conspiracy, besides being quintessentially French, seems ridiculous if you've ever spent time with anybody in the entertainment industry. Grand geopolitical design is pretty far down on their list of priorities–well after box-office gross, global distribution, and points of profit. Still, the notion of a cultural Trojan horse points to genuine concern behind the walls of established national cultures, and a fear that like fast food and Disneyworld, a new approach to personal relationships–symbolized by the all-inclusive Du–may be on its way in.
So how does our popular culture portray the protocol of interaction with another person in public? For an answer, I monitored an evening of television. Not just any evening but Thursday on NBC, last year's top network's top night, albeit now without "Seinfeld". I tuned in during the debut week of the new season ("Friends," "Frasier" and two highly promoted new shows), when new characters are introduced and on their best behavior. (The factor that most influences a show's popularity is its characters' likability, something researchers actually measure with an index known as the "Q score.")
The first thing I noticed is that it's virtually impossible to tell from the way characters greet each other whether they have known each other for years or are introducing themselves for the first time. Affable hellos are followed by a self-disparaging joke and the unspoken suggestion that they are henceforth buddies for life. Neither personal temperament nor social background need to be felt out; there's no reason for caution–all share the foundations for friendship. People become pals on first meeting, sweethearts recognize each other at first sight. The bias here is invariably toward trust.
Take "Jesse," a new show slotted between the vastly popular "Friends" and "Frasier"–"hammocked" between hits, as they say in the trade. The show's premise barely merits mention: young, sexy single mother (she waits tables at a bar in a low-cut Bavarian costume) lives in Buffalo with her son, brother, and father, all named John. The pilot episode is all about introductions as a handsome and exotic South American hunk moves in next door. The plot reveals nothing about this man: what does he do for a living? why is he in Buffalo (of all places!)? how does he treat women? No matter. What we do know is that he's determined to move into Jesse's life despite her protests that she's "not ready for a relationship." By show's end they're involved romantically with the approval of the Johns. See how easy love can be!
This same faith was equally on display in the season openers for "Frasier" and "Veronica's Closet," whose main characters learn, in the course of recovering from the loss of their glitzy jobs, not to construct their being upon the expectations of role but upon the universality of human sincerity ("the best things in life are free").
Such a universe of "good people" can be read as an idealized fantasy of a simpler era, a time when one person was the equal of another by virtue of personal integrity. In this idyllic but primitive world, social constructs are so underdeveloped that people need call each other only by their first names–even Carpenter and Farmer and Smith haven't yet come into being. There's no need for last names because, as "Jesse" makes plain, there's not much call to distinguish one John from another in a world without property, law, or privilege.
Thus does American popular culture repudiate precisely what is prized elsewhere: the triumph of civilization over instinct. And that is all packed into the issue of names. A last name coupled with a Monsieur or Madame, Herr und Frau, is invested with an ethnicity, a past, a status. The first name in America, in contrast, is a badge of universal fellowship (except when preceded by "Mister" or "Miz" in the South by youth to their elders or by old-line African American domestics to their white employers). When the Red Sox qualified for the playoffs, the ace pitcher (think serf) invited the team CEO (think lord of the manor) to join the festivities by asking "anybody have a little champagne for Mister Harrington?" Using the last name connotes deference or dominance; using the first name the kind of equality Tom Wolfe once called "nostalgie de la bue," the primal ooze of creation.
Wolfe's new novel, A Man in Full, speaks to this matter of address. In one scene, Croker (a real-estate baron going bankrupt) is being dressed down by Peepgass (his banker, to whom he owes half a billion dollars): "Peepgass had no intention of referring to Croker by name. Or, if he had to, he wouldn't call him Charlie. He'd call him Mister Croker as coldly as he could, by way of letting him know that things have changed, that he was no longer a star customer, a priceless pal and an Atlanta business giant; he was just another shithead."
So pity the poor German businessman and, by extension, all the others whose societies are being hard-wired by American popular culture. Their world is being turned inside-out. The manners they learned as children are suddenly not just obsolete but even counter-productive. To Sie another used to be honorable, a sign of embracing one's position within a social hierarchy and expecting others to show you the same respect. Now things are not so clear. The irony is that what was once the height of politesse may eventually be construed as fighting words.