The Ethos of Casualness

1.

America was a start-up created by a dozen or so entrepreneurial people who were rebelling against an aristocratic, overbearing empire. They were scrappy, quick on their feet, smart, hard working as hell, and (mostly) open-minded to whoever could help their improbable cause. Kind of like Silicon Valley start-ups. Except for America's founders the stakes were higher and urgency greater.

When George Washington became the first president of the United States, he rejected regal titles like "His Majesty," taken from the British tradition. Instead he made sure "the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts." He said he was to be called "Mr. President."

I believe this relaxation of formalities is a component of Americanism. I'll call it an ethos of casualness. Europe's different. EU passports, for example, list your degrees (Dr., PhD, etc). Or when introducing someone's biography at a European business conference you start with his titles and degrees. I remember the senior journalist Martin Wolf being introduced at the St. Gallen Symposium as first a graduate of LSE, followed by his professional accomplishments. In a start-up environment, by contrast, you don't have time to flatter the status sensibilities of everyone in the room.

To be sure, although America has let go of the Victorian era more than Europe on the whole, there are exceptions. "I don't understand you Americans: you wear jeans to the opera but insist on wearing clothes at the beach." I.e., Europeans are more casual about nudity.

2.

I like casualness. It maximizes commonality instead of difference. When everyone's name appears the same way on a passport, what they have in common — a name and citizenship — is the focus. If jeans and t-shirt are the attire guidelines, everyone can comply; if Italian suits are the standard, not as much. In this way casualness emphasizes similarity by focusing on a common denominator.

3.

My upbringing stressed casualness and affected the way I think.

First, I grew up in the most casual part of America. There's only one restaurant on the entire west coast which requires men to wear coats. New York City, by contrast, has 13 such restaurants. Clothes are just one part of this, but they stand for a lot: in California you might well see Sergey Brin or Steve Jobs wearing jeans at a nice restaurant, as I have, but you would never see Henry Kravis doing the same in New York. California's billionaires blend in.

Second, at my high school we addressed all of the teachers, including the head of school, by their first name. Several teachers had advanced degrees — we still addressed them orally and in writing by their first name. Head of School, janitor, Chair of Science department, freshman student, security guard: Mike, Jason, Nancy, Jim, Kevin. There also was no dress code. I wore sweat pants to school many days and sometimes my teachers did the same.

Third, I had little interaction with the institutions that usually prize formality. People with religious upbringings get steeped in hierarchies, traditions, protocols, history. Not me. I also had little interaction with high culture (cuisine, fashion, or the arts).

The ethos of casualness came from my country, city, school, family and it's had an impact on how I think. It could explain why I'm skeptical of certain formalities. When someone dresses fancily, I sooner suspect he is trying to signal wealth than that he actually likes the clothes. I harbor related skepticism of people who talk about how much they love sushi or fine art.

As I've gotten older I have begun to selectively emphasize formality (and thus difference) in certain dimensions, such as use of language. But these are the selective overlays on a casual base.

Bottom Line: The ethos of casualness is a component of Americanism. Casualness maximizes similarities over differences. I am a product of this culture — I prefer casualness and I harbor skepticism of certain formalities.

(thanks to Steve Dodson, Chris Yeh, and Dave Jilk for helping brainstorm this post)

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Last year I wrote about how weak a hold institutional categories have on my identity, and excerpted widely from an excellent essay titled Identity is That Which is Given.

14 Responses to The Ethos of Casualness

  1. Ryan Holiday says:

    To be fair, Washington would have been aghast to hear himself described as casual. He paraded around in a carriage drawn by multiple white horses, purely for show. He turned down the title of King, but gave the silent treatment to a friend who referred to him by his first name after he officially became “Mr. President”

    Your point is definitely valid, but it always feels strange when people make use Washington as a metaphor for things he himself contradicted. Like when a Democrat or a Republic – a member of a POLITICAL PARTY, quotes his line about entangling alliances.

  2. I prefer casualness as well, but I do believe there are situations when dressing up places an emphasis on the specialness of the social situation, such as weddings, funerals. Even parties can be more festive when people dress up.

    On the work front, a countering point comes from Robert Caro: “Still, Caro wears a coat and tie to the office each morning so he never forgets when he sits down with his research that he is going to work.”

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/183678/page/3

  3. Anonymous says:

    And yet in some ways American discourse is more formal than discourse in other Anglophone countries. (I’m Irish, living in the US). American “serious” papers seem unbearably stuffy compared to the Guardian or even the Telegraph. Former Senators are still addressed as “Senator” in the media, while in the UK even Tony Blair would now be addressed as “Mr. Blair”. You’ve definitely captured something valuable, but it’s not as cut-and-dried as formal v casual.

  4. Kevin says:

    I think what you have captured Ben is what Geert Hofstede would call a country’s ‘Power Distance’ Index.

    http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_united_states.shtml

    “…the United States is Power Distance (PDI) at 40, compared to the world Average of 55. This is indicative of a greater equality between societal levels, including government, organizations, and even within families. This orientation reinforces a cooperative interaction across power levels and creates a more stable cultural environment.”

  5. Russ Harper says:

    FWIW, there is at least one restaurant in Seattle that requires jackets for men in the dining room. I suspect there are more elsewhere on the west coast.

  6. Shefaly says:

    “EU passports, for example, list your degrees (Dr., PhD, etc). ”

    Seriously, Ben? Where did you find this out?

    I have one (EU passport, not degrees of which I have a number greater than one of which none is written on the passport). May be I should go back and have them write all my degrees on it because the form offered no such options. So I am feeling deprived now, since I can’t impress the basic-educated immigration guy with my educational achievements! ;-)

    If curious, refer: http://bit.ly/2Rar1v

    I know the mention strengthens your point of establishing a contrast with America but come on :-)

  7. Taeyoung says:

    “I am a product of this culture — I prefer casualness and I harbor skepticism of certain formalities.”

    Bizarrely enough, I grew up on the West Coast too, and I’ve come out with a deep mistrust of the kind of fake forced-casualness that’s rampant in California — it seems to me a perverse kind of hypocrisy that conceals social distance, rather than actually eliminating it. This is particularly acute in a place like Southern California, where there’s abnormally high levels (for the USA, at least) of income and status inequality. And the whole business of calling people by their first-name on a first acquaintance smacks of the used car salesman — a cheap attempt at insinuating a closer connection than really exists. Like Californians calling distant acquaintances their “friends.” Some people like this kind of thing, but for me, it’s extraordinarily grating. Nails on chalkboard.

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    I can totally see this.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Usually the titles appear after "Surname" in the EU passport — I've seen
    several of this — but maybe it's not in all!

  10. Shefaly says:

    Ben: EU passports follow a standard format. Which is why I am surprised. I am going to have to ask more of my friends who live in countries where PhDs matter e.g. Germany more than in other EU nations.

  11. Devin Reams says:

    Fascinating observations, Ben. Just wanted to drop by and say “well said.”

  12. Brice Stacey says:

    I’ve grown up with an “ethos of casualness,” but I won’t deny the comfort of quality clothes. Even the cheapest clothes from L.L. Bean feel remarkable in comparison to department store crap.

    Ultimately, I don’t find it odd that a millionaire isn’t wear expensive suits. They’re not the most comfortable clothes in the world. But I wouldn’t be surprised if those millionaires in jeans and t-shirts aren’t wearing pretty damn good jeans and t-shirts.

  13. Guido Thys says:

    This may come as a shock to you: there is no such thing as Europe… at least not with respect to the aspects of culture you discuss. Power Distance between countries on the European countries is bigger than between the US and some of these countries. Passports are almost uniform in format (at least within the EC) but the rules allow for a lot of leeway as to which information is included where. I have been speaking atconferences for over 15 years and I have never ever been introduced with my academic degrees. Casualness differs greatly from one country to another. Etc.
    “Europe” is a word used only by geographers, aspiring politicians and Americans who have never been here.
    Guido Thys
    (Belgian, living in the UK, working in The Netherlands)

  14. shiangyingc@gmail.com says:

    I wanted to laugh so badly when I read “sushi” being linked with “fine art”. It certainly isn’t the case here in Asia.

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