This all started some years back in the call center of some airline when an agent answered the phone and said, “Hello, this is Debbie.” Not Miss Smith or Mrs. Smith. Debbie. What was I to say? Could I say, “Hi, Debbie, this is Mr. Cohen.” Nosiree. Informal must be met by informal. “Hi, Debbie,” I found myself saying, “This is . . . , “ I paused. Should I say Richie? How about Dickie? I stuck to just a shred of formality: “Richard.” What made it worse was the suspicion that “Debbie” was not Debbie at all, that it was her nom de phone. But I was, then and forever more, Richard.
Mister, missis, miss and all the rest are gone. We are pals with everyone and they are pals with us — never mind that they have called to say our electricity will be turned off for nonpayment of a bill we never got. I am Richard and they are Jim or some other made-up name. We lack all formality, all distance. This is a parody of democracy.
Languages other than English distinguish between the formal and the informal — the French vous and tu, for instance. To call a vous a tu can be an insult. But in America, we are all one big tu, a kumbaya-ish mass of insincere sincerity. Distinctions are not recognized. The relative stranger and the old friend are greeted the same. But they are not the same. One has earned my friendship, my trust, my love. The other I may never see again — and, too often, that’s all right with me.
Even the handshake is gone. Now you get hugged and have to hug in return. People I have just met for dinner hug me when it’s over. I liked the handshake. It was manly: Be firm, look the other guy in the eye. This is what I was taught as a kid, and I was taught, further, that you could take a man’s measure by his handshake. Strong meant strong. Weak meant weak. Eye contact meant honesty, integrity. Now someone you hardly know and who has not bathed since the day before yesterday comes up and hugs you, calls you Rich, says he loves you: I love you, man. My gag reflex is triggered.
I fear for the kiss. I come from a kissing culture — I kissed my father and he kissed me and I kiss my son and so it will always be, yea verily yea — and I also kiss my Italian male friends, for this is their culture, and they kiss me. But that’s it! I am drawing the line. I do not want others to kiss me, which is starting to happen. Neither do I want to kiss female acquaintances on the lips, which is also starting to happen. I say good-bye and they pucker up. No! This is reserved for love and by love I mean real love, not the silly xoxo stuff that clutters the Internet with false, saccharine intimacy and emotion. And what is :)? Please, someone, help me.
I want to be called mister. I want to shake hands. I don’t want to be hugged. I want to kiss only certain women — some on one cheek, some on two — and very few men. I want degrees of intimacy, gradations, so I know where I stand and so, for that matter, will you. I recognize that I may come across as a crusty old geezer, but I just had to get this all off my chest. Thanks for bearing with me.
I love you all.
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