Outside of your family, adults were divided into two categories: there were those addressed as “auntie” or “uncle,” many of whom were not family members but were given the titles as a sign of their close friendship with your parents; and there were those addressed as “Mr” or “Mrs” or by their professional title, such as “Doctor” or “Major.” (The one exception to the formality of professional titles was a retired brigadier general in Long Sutton who was referred to as “Brig,” perhaps when you have attained such a rank, you can afford a little informality).
That was it, there was never a thought that we might Christian names. There were two lovely ladies who lived on our road, next door neighbours and the closest of friends, and yet I never ever heard them address each other as anything other than “Mrs Brooks” and “Mrs Cullen.” There seemed a profound respect for each other in the way they spoke to each other, a statement of great regard in their politeness. It was only recently that I discovered Mrs Brooks’ Christian name. Even had I known it in adult life, it would never have occurred to me to say anything other than “Mrs Brooks.”
Perhaps we were excessively formal, perhaps we put up with prejudice, mistreatment and discrimination in the name of respect, but in a search for equality we threw out politeness and courtesy. It is striking to see how other societies still preserve traditions that demonstrate respect.
In France, conversation with adults is governed by clear rules of respect. Children may address each other as “tu,” but to address an adult as “tu” rather than “vous” is a breach of etiquette, a lack of respect. Similarly, in Germany, “du” may be used in a family, but others are addressed as “Sie.”
Further afield, the courtesy is even more marked. Visiting Rwanda and Burundi a number of times, there was a deep culture of respect for those who were older. People address each other with a great formality and no-one would speak without being invited to do so and without speaking of their respect for those with whom they are meeting.
Politeness doesn’t mean a return to a deferential society where some people regarded themselves as superior and expected others to look up to them, it means showing everyone proper respect because you see everyone as having dignity, no matter who they are and no matter what their background may be. Courtesy and respect are radical ideas.