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Dear Me, How Did I Become Your Sweetie?

Wendy Kaminer: While I don’t feel elderly and remain reasonably well preserved, in the view of many young men engaged in customer service, I am no longer “miss” or “ma’am” but “dear." (Bunn/Flickr)
Wendy Kaminer: While I don’t feel elderly and remain reasonably well preserved, in the view of many young men engaged in customer service, I am no longer “miss” or “ma’am” but “dear." (Bunn/Flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

“Would you like more wine, dear?” the 20-something waiter asked, with faux solicitude.

“Have we met?” I replied. He looked puzzled. So I tried politely explaining that, while I understood he meant no harm, addressing me as “dear” was patronizing.

Words like “dear” and “sweetie” are terms of endearment between intimates, but between strangers, they’re diminutives. They’re used to address people perceived as unequal or somehow incompetent — small children, pets and elderly women.

'You can pay for that over here, dear,' a grocery clerk recently informed me, pointing to an open register. I didn’t respond.

"Would you call a younger female customer 'dear?'” I asked the waiter, hoping, rather stupidly, to illustrate a point. He looked annoyed.

I’m in my 60s (a fact of life that still astonishes me), and while I don’t feel elderly and remain reasonably well preserved, in the view of many young men engaged in customer service, I am no longer “miss” or “ma’am,” but “dear.”

“You can pay for that over here, dear,” a grocery clerk recently informed me, pointing to an open register. I didn’t respond. I wasn’t going to respond, until he called the man behind me “sir.”

“How come he’s ‘sir’ and I’m ‘dear?’” I asked. “Oh, I like to mix it up,” he replied, inanely.

So I tried explaining, once again, the condescension implicit in his address, acknowledging that I realized he intended no offense. One again I failed, predictably, prompting sarcasm from him instead — an acid “goodbye, miss” as I walked out the door.

Was I guilty of indulging in the political correctness I so often critique? No. I don’t claim to have been harmed, much less traumatized, by any unintended incivility (which, of course, I wouldn’t want punished in any way). And I’m less offended than intrigued by this simple verbal clue to my newly diminished social status among young men, but not young women.

My recent attempts to enlighten ... have been teachable moments, for me, not for them.

They never call me “dear.” They still call me “miss,” or by my name, if they know it. I suppose that may change as I age, if I ever end up in assisted living, where some caregivers call the residents “dear,” apparently assuming that they’re all mentally infirm.

But I have learned my lesson. My recent attempts to enlighten boyish waiters, maître’d’s and grocery clerks have been teachable moments, for me, not for them. I’m resigned to the pointlessness of engaging these young servers, among others, when they condescend. Now, when they ask some variant of “Can I help you, dear?”, I simply respond in kind: “No thanks, sweetie. I’m fine.”

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Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

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