I Love the Old-Fashioned Things*

I spent a couple of days at a conference last week. The conference itself was interesting, with plenty of ‘food for thought.’ Just as interesting (at least to me) was the way people interacted. As you’ll know, one of the customs people have at conferences is to exchange business cards. Business cards and other, related, calling cards have been in use in some form or another for hundreds of years. And even with the less formal nature of today’s business interactions, and with today’s technology, they’re still a popular formality.

The exchange of business cards isn’t the only formal ritual custom people keep. And that’s not surprising. There’s a certain comfort and security that can be associated with them. For example, a funeral ritual can help the bereaved go through the process of letting go of a loved one, no matter how casual those left behind are in the rest of their lives. And certain ritual customs, like formal meals, engraved invitations, and exchanging business cards, add what a lot of people think of as ‘class’ to an event. So, even in today’s more casual world, where people often text or email rather than send letters, there’s something about certain formalities. We certainly see that in crime fiction. And those formalities can be effective tools for character development, cultural background, and even the setting up of context.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned sixteen years earlier; and at the time, his wife Caroline was the only really viable suspect. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. She was arrested, convicted and died a year later in prison. Now, her daughter wants to clear her name if that’s possible. Poirot agrees to look into the case. One of the people who give him information is Caleb Jonathan, the Crale family lawyer. He’s retired now, but he knows the family history very well. Both he and Poirot are accustomed to certain formal traditions, so before they even meet, there’s an exchange of letters. Then Poirot receives an invitation for dinner and to spend the night. Only after dinner and an after-dinner brandy does the attorney really begin to talk to Poirot about the Crale family. And that conversation proves useful.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, for instance, will know that Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. In his personal life, Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is, but both respect their people’s customs. For instance, one custom they observe has to do with visiting people’s homes. It’s the Navajo tradition when visiting to sound the horn and/or call out, and then to wait outside the home of someone one’s visiting until one’s host opens the door and invites one in. This is intended to allow the host to clean up, change clothes, or whatever is needed to prepare for a guest. These police officers know that they could knock on a door right away. But the formality of sounding the car horn and waiting to be invited in shows respect to the homeowner, It also puts witnesses at ease, so they’re more likely to be helpful to the police.

We also see formal courtesy, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg DI Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. One day, he falls from the balcony of his exclusive penthouse, and at first, it looks very much like a suicide. But small pieces of forensic evidence begin to suggest otherwise. So, Huss and the members of her team look more deeply into the matter. One of the important witnesses in this case is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly lady who happened to be walking her dog at the time of von Knecht’s deah. Huss wants to learn as much as she can from this witness, so she pays Fru Karlsson a visit. From Huss’ perspective, it’s an informal visit, just to get information. But she is a visitor, so Fru Karlsson insists on making a more formal event of it, complete with fresh coffee and homemade pastries. It’s much more than Huss wants to eat or drink, but putting the witness at ease is important, so she goes along with this formality.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe understands the value of a certain amount of ease and modern informality. But there are some more formal traditions that she continues, and prefers. She prefers to greet people in the traditional way, although it is a bit more formal. And she respects the custom of showing traditional respect to the elderly. When clients come to see her, she puts them at their ease by offering them traditional hospitality: a cup of bush tea and, perhaps, some cake. She knows that those formalities can help ease the awkwardness that often goes with hiring a private investigator.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to have a large house party, both as a sort of housewarming, and to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. The guests are among Mumbai’s elite, and include Bollywood people, a famous dancer, a famous author, and a critic, among others. And Hilla wants this to be a very special weekend. So, at the urging of her chef, Tarok Ghosh, she decides to make it a ‘foodie’ weekend that will culminate in a formal, traditional, seven-course gourmet meal. There are to be special hors d’oeuvres, printed menu cards, and other formalities. The weekend arrives, and so do the guests. Right from the beginning, there’s conflict among some of them, but for the most part, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the gourmet meal, Ghosh gives each guest a custom-made hors d’oeuvre, and uses these to show that he knows a secret about each one. That hint strikes too close to home for someone, and by the next morning, he’s dead. One of Hilla’s guests is a retired police detective, Lalli, who’s there with her niece. Together, the two find out who killed Ghosh and why.

Some formalities may seem unnecessary in today’s world. But they have their place, and a lot of people like them. What about you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helene Tursten, Kalpana Swaminathan, Tony Hillerman

27 responses to “I Love the Old-Fashioned Things*

  1. Col

    Hope your conference went well, Margot. Time for a Hillerman read soon, I think!

  2. Hope you had a productive conference and meetings.

  3. Fascinating. I’m a supporter of tradition in all its forms. I think tradition is part of every human being. I think it’s part of who we are-

    • Thank you, Jazzfeathers. You have an interesting point, too, about human nature. We humans like a certain level of security – of dependability. Traditions and certain formal customs help us feel that sense of stability, perhaps.

  4. kathy d

    Glad you had a good time at the conference.
    Some traditions are well worth keeping. Mma Precious Ramotswe and her friends in Botswana are so hospitable it puts shame to many of us in the U.S. They always invite people to have tea, often bush tea, and cake or other treats.
    One thing I also enjoy about reading books set in Britain is that people always offer tea (and sometimes biscuits), even to the police. And that seems to be true in Scandinavia, too, as Irene Huss is offered coffee and homemade (!) pastries. When have I had a homemade pastry?
    But I know it’s true in many cultures throughout the world — tea, coffee and some kind of biscuits or cake. Where did we go wrong in New York?

    • I’ve only ever been visited by police twice – once when my home got broken into and once when I had to be interviewed due to a friend of mine having done something truly horrendous and I had talked with him the day before. On both occasions I offered tea/coffee. No homemade pastry but only because I never have such things on hand, always have an emergency pakc of Tim Tams to offer though 🙂

    • Thanks, Kathy. And I agree, there some traditions I really do think are worth keeping. You know, your comment is making me think about the way people interact with the police when they visit. There are countless examples in the genre of the police visiting people’s homes to interview them, and it’s fascinating to think of that process. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. At the last conference I went to no one offered business cards, it was all ‘bumping’ of phones or other electronic shenanigans.

    As to formalities…probably not my thing. Us Aussies are not much for formalities in general (I work for a government minister who I call by his first name at his request, when English friends hear of this they are usually shocked, especially as I am not even a particularly close advisor). I do like some traditions – like a 5 day test (cricket) and wearing hats to weddings – but I can’t think of how to relate any of this to crime fiction

    • Interesting difference in the way we interact with people, Bernadette. It always amazes me how technology influences what we do. I have to admit, I do like business cards. And what’s interesting is, today, you can design them yourself. I’m old enough to remember a time when you had to go to a printer’s/typesetters for things like business cards. It was expensive and time-consuming. Not now. And as for the use of first names, I really find that question (to use them or not) fascinating. In some cultures, first names are used right away, even for people in authority; in others they simply aren’t.

  6. I’ve just been on a walk with a Ramblers’ group and met some German speakers there and it really drove home the difference in level of formality in the two languages. While with the other English-speaking members we were immediately on a first name basis (and that universal ‘you’), with the two German speakers, we kept on using the polite ‘Sie’ form until very nearly the end of the walk, at which point the older lady said (it would have been bad form for me to do so, as the younger person): ‘Can I call you ‘Du’ and you can do the same to me?’ Of course, in the workplace, that would probably have taken longer.

    • How interesting, Marina Sofia. Thanks for sharing your story. It’s interesting how language so often reflects culture. And part of that is a culture’s choices regarding traditions such as formality, respect conferred on an older person, and so on. And, to me, it’s just as fascinating to consider how language captures that with, for instance, two pronouns to indicate formality. Other languages make those distinctions, too, and it says a lot about the languages’ traditions.

  7. I’ve just been reading a classic Golden Age crime story by Anthony Gilbert, set – of course – at a country house. And there is a letter, and a question of authenticity. Someone is referred to just by their first name, and that is a real giveaway because everyone is so formal, most people would not use this first name… bygone days!

    • Bygone days, indeed, Moira! How interesting that the use of first name would be a giveaway. In today’s society, the reverse might actually be true! And it sounds like an intriguing little ‘country house’ mystery.

  8. I think that traditions can be very comforting and some people set more store by them than others – it often makes me smile that my daughter is much keener on some of these formalities than I am, and many of her friends have a similar mind-set which makes me think that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, just slightly, away from the totally relaxation of social mores.

    • That could be, Cleo. As I think about my own daughter, there are certainly some traditions she appreciates that I don’t so much follow. It’ll be interesting to see whether the pendulum will actually swing or not. And you’re right; there are some more formal traditions that do make people comfortable and a bit more at their ease. Perhaps that’s part of their value.

  9. I’m an enthusiast for traditions, especially in formal settings like the workplace. I worked in a doctor’s surgery for some years, and we always referred to them as Dr Whatever in front of patients, and the junior staff called them that even in private. But some of the staff would slip into calling elderly patients by their first names, and I was always having to remind them that many elderly people wouldn’t find that acceptable at all – in fact, even at my (middle) age I strongly object to someone in a formal setting calling me by my first name until I ask them to. I hope Cleo’s right that maybe the total informality of recent years is going into reverse… otherwise, I fear I’m going to be an extremely grumpy old woman… 😉

    • You’re not the only one who feels that way, FictionFan. There’s something to be said for using a surname at first in formal business situations. I think it really depends on the culture. And it’s funny you’d mention doctors’ offices. More than once, I’ve had this sort of greeting from a doctor:
      ‘Hi, Margot, I’m Dr. ____.’

      That immediately puts us on an unequal footing, which I admit can be annoying. So, if necessary, I’ll answer this way:
      ‘Hello, Dr. _____, I’m Dr. Kinberg.’

      I’ve only had to take that step a couple of times. It’s one of the very rare instances where I use my title like that. In general, I don’t. But you have a well-taken point that a lot of patients don’t want their first names used, especially if the doctor doesn’t use hers or his.

  10. Margot, I can’t think of Hercule Poirot without his air of formality. In fact, I think he’s formal about nearly everything in his life.

    • You’re absolutely right, Prashant. Poirot is quite traditional and formal, isn’t he? And there’s something appealing about that for him. It adds to his character, I think.

  11. kathy d

    Interesting topic. I am so glad we have one form of “you, your, yours,” or I imagine we’d have to spend time thinking through proper forms of address in speaking and writing. Easier to not do it.
    I like how you answered that doctor, quite appropriate.
    It’s funny. I use my nickname, but whenever I have a medical appointment, my entire name is said when it’s time for me to be seen. I think the only people who call me by my complete name are people in doctors’ offices.
    I have a similar pet peeve about use of my first name when dealing with businesses. If I call my credit card company, the representative says, “And how are you today, Kathy?” It sets my teeth on edge. And I say something.
    This from someone I’ve never met.
    Also, on the use of titles, I have used “Ms,” for years, but some people don’t know what this is and I’m often addresses as “Mrs.” with my last name. In fact, that happens often in business-type calls. I say, “no, that was my mother. I’m ‘Ms'” Many people still don’t get it.
    I do give a pass to people in other countries who are dealing with calls as they probably don’t use the term.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I think the topic’s interesting, too. And I do know what you mean about people using first names without even knowing you. I get that from my credit card company, ‘phone service provider, etc.. On their end, it’s to seem friendlier – ‘folksy’ – but it can come off the wrong way.

  12. Interesting topic, Margot. Recently, I was approached about writing a true crime story (what a story too!) and the young person kept referring to me as Ms. Coletta. Although I appreciated the respect, it always makes me feel old. However, I’ve also noticed (on Twitter and FB) some people use “Miss Sue” as a sign of respect. This seems to be more prevalent in the UK. It’s grown on me, and now I find it endearing.

    • Thanks, Sue. And your own experiences is really interesting, too. As a matter of fact, it’s the custom in a lot of places to do that. My niece was brought up in Baltimore, where the titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Mr.’ with first names is very common. I can see the charm.

      Oh, and I’m already intrigued by that true crime story…

  13. kathy d

    It’s a Southern thing here, too. People from the South use the Miss or Mr with first names also. Some people teach their children to call a family friend “Miss” so-and-so to show politeness to an elder.
    I think it’s more of a problem — to me, anyway — when men on a business call use my first name. I think that there should be respect to women.

    • It’s interesting, Kathy, that people where you live also use that traditional ‘Mr. and Miss’ formality. It’s an old custom, but it still has fans in a lot of places.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s