Brand building through storytelling

Don’t call me dear!

It was the kind of restaurant where the tables are draped in damask and the leather-bound wine list goes on for pages. A rosy-cheeked waiter leaned over my husband and me, all solicitude and old-school courtesy. He took my order first and asked, “How would you like your salmon, young lady?”

I am a woman in her wisdom years—neither young nor, thank God, a lady. I’ve earned my dashingly cut silver hair and a few facial grooves that not even candlelight can hide. I wanted to fix that waiter with my most intimidating stare and give him a piece of my mind: “Don’t ‘young lady’ me, sonny! I’ll take my salmon with dignity, thank you! Better get that through your thick head, or your tip will be as skinny as a parsley sprig!” But it seemed a bit over the top, so I answered, “Rare.” The server, meanwhile, had already turned to my husband. Next question: “How would you like your steak, sir?”

All my life I’ve been subjected to condescending faux endearments–at first because I happened to be female. Grizzled tradesmen would call me “dear” while addressing my husband as “Mr. Jones.” Sometimes I protested; more often I forgave the unintentional slights of men who had acquired their bad habits when June Cleaver was still vacuuming in pearls. Surely this problem would vanish soon enough when more enlightened generations came of age.

My friends and I were preparing our kids to banish sexism once and for all. Too bad we didn’t take a stand on ageism. Now that we’re old enough to pay for attentive service, we’re getting “dears,” “sweeties,” “hons” and “young ladies” from those whose job it is to please us. People young enough to be our children are addressing us like children. This time, though, it’s not just women who are being diminished. Men are starting to learn how it feels. They never guessed this sort of thing could happen to them. And they don’t want to take it.

Just ask my husband. On our last urban hike, we stopped for lunch at a neighbourhood bistro where a perky 20-something waitress asked him, as if the remains of his burger were a botched kindergarten project, “You still working on that, dear?” My husband has raised a son; he has run an organization; he has made tough calls under pressure. I have never seen him at a loss for words. That day he answered “yes” through gritted teeth. Once the waitress was safely out of range, he fumed, “I felt like telling her to f*** off!”

I know, I know: she thought she was just being friendly. Some excuse! Why is it only people in their wisdom years who must suffer this particular brand of friendliness? Because, in the eyes of our juniors, we’re just worn teddy bears on the toy shelf of life, that’s why. They think it’s kind of cute when we oldsters toddle out on the town (even if we’re training to climb Kilimanjaro and their last foreign trip was Disney World at March break). They make the snap judgment that we don’t deserve power, so they address us in terms reserved for the powerless. They’re unconsciously following the shameful tradition of southern whites who addressed black men as “boy” in order to keep them in their place. And unless we can get them to open their eyes, the worst is yet to come. Homes for the aged, where some of us will spend our final years, positively ring with high-pitched “dearies,” “sweeties,” “good girls” and the other diminishing expressions that are collectively known as “elderspeak.”

I had never heard of elderspeak when I used to visit my father-and later my father-in-law-in various institutions where, as far as I could tell, neither man was ever addressed by his name. They were men of sound mind, strong opinions and rich experience—my father a retired professor and painter, my husband’s father an up-by-the-bootstraps type who earned a master’s degree while supporting a family. I cringed to see them treated like incompetents whose smallest personal activities had morphed into group activities (“Are we ready for our bath?” “Have we had our medicine today?”). They had been raised not to argue with health professionals, but I saw disgust and shame on their faces. The frazzled staffers, already off to the next bed, appeared not to notice.

I didn’t protest—mainly because it seemed so clear that I could no more change the machinery of care than budge a freight train from its track. So I cheered at the news that forward-looking gerontologists are taking a stand against elderspeak. Last fall, in new guidelines for the care of elders, the British Nursing and Midwifery Council declared that patients should be called by their preferred name, not “love” or “dearie.” No wonder: studies have been showing since the 80s that treating older patients as helpless can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: they become less sharp, less healthy, more physically dependent, more withdrawn and more vulnerable to depression. Says Sandra Law, a nurse specialist in gerontology and a driving force behind the client-centred care at Toronto’s renowned Baycrest Hospital, “We’re providing a service. I address my client as I would anybody. The population is aging and people are going to ask for this.”

That’s the thing about service: you do have to ask, and there’s no better time than right now. That night at the restaurant, after being “young ladied” for three courses and a top-up of sauvignon blanc, I decided to give the young waiter a crash course in modern manners. “I know you mean well but I don’t like being called “young lady,'” I said, hoping I sounded both polite and a little fearsome. “I’m older than your mother. And that’s just fine with me.” He quivered and blushed as he explained that he had learned to “young lady” from—get ready for this—his mother. A debate between mom’s way of thinking and mine, in full view of other diners, was the last thing I’d intended.

In search of a simpler way to make my point, I called an old friend who has been speaking her mind since the heyday of Eleanor Roosevelt. Her favourite riposte is a one-two punch: a stern “How old are you?” followed by “It’s not appropriate for you to address me like that.” (I can hardly wait to give it a try.) Another approach, recommended by gentler souls, is to tell every waiter and clerk from the get-go how you’d like to be addressed. Oh, please! Must I say, “Call me Rona” every time I check out my groceries? Do service workers have to call me anything at all?

My friend Carol, an amateur pilot and award-winning entrepreneur, has found that blunt is best. Carol was treating a group of colleagues to dinner when the waiter addressed her by the D-word. “Don’t call me dear!” she said. The waiter smiled: a woman with attitude. When he brought her the check, she couldn’t miss his personal message, written in a bold hand: “THANKS, BABE!” That suited Carol just fine. She left a generous tip. By all means call me “dear” if you’ve shared a bed with me—or a secret or a piece of family lore that no one else alive would remember. If not, don’t pretend that we are dear to each other. I have listened all my life for the sound of my name, and I’d be glad to hear it from you (either Rona or Ms. Maynard, I’m not picky). My name has marked my place in the world from my first kindergarten report card to the spine of my first book, and one day it will appear at the top of my obituary. I’m partial to my name, but I can’t expect the whole world to remember it. So I’ll gladly answer to “Babe.”

Previously published in Zoomer, April 2009.


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

September 27, 2009 at 2:02PM

Agree. But in defense of assisted living facilities, my father-in-law was always called by his first name and my uncle by his title and last name.

September 28, 2009 at 4:04AM

This is kind of like being called “Mrs. So and So” or “Ma’am” and turning around and looking for someone else to be standing behind you…I tell people that Ernie’s mother died in 1984, that I am Lynne and NOT Mrs. Stevenson, when that one is hurled in my direction…As far as “Sweetie” goes, I have always lived in the rural Southern USA and have heard that all my life, so I consider it to be a compliment when I hear it from people, whether older or younger..

Jules Torti
September 28, 2009 at 4:04AM

With a few Australians and Brits in my life, I’ve grown partial to being called “Love.” It’s as endearing as a wink, which I know is as old-fashioned as bobby socks and sock hops–but I love being called Love.

As for the body of your post, I got you Babe.

September 28, 2009 at 9:09AM

My activism on this subject started with those who referred (and unfortunately continue to do so) to women as girls. The generic ‘ask the girl’. I know that you, Rona, will know the type.

I once did not buy a new car because the salesman referred to me at Kathy and my Father as Mr. Bennett. I was the one with cash in hand, ready to pay. I did explain how offensive I found his behaviour, but chose to walk out when he just didn’t get it.

On a happier note: I saw the younger generation take up this fight. When my Mother was dying in hospital and was subjected to dear’s, maam’s and worse, one of her grand-daughter — in her 20’s — posted a large sign stating the name that she was to be called. It gives me hope.

M. Claudette Sandecki
September 28, 2009 at 10:10PM

You’ve struck a blow for all of us, Rona.

I particularly dislike being addressed by my first name when a nurse or hygienist calls me in the waiting room. I worked in doctors offices for 14 years and would not have dreamed of skipping the Miss, Mrs. or Mr. Jones in favour of Lucy or Tom.

They can like stuff it and like save such terms for like their teenage pals.

Rona Maynard
September 29, 2009 at 3:03 AM

Great comments, everyone. And what a wide range of views on appropriate and inappropriate forms of address! I guess the bottom line is this: if you have strong opinions on this subject, it’s up to you to make them known. Kathryn, I’m heartened by your story about the younger generation taking up this fight for respect. Lynne, as a southerner you must be intimately familiar with the ubiquitous “y’all.” How bizarre it seemed to me when I first heard it in your state! But I’ve come to feel it solves a lot of problems by providing a form of address that’s always correct (in the south, anyway). It has no connotations of gender, age or social status; it can be singular or plural. It could never be transplanted to any other region, but unless I’m missing something, it works beautifully in the south.

November 09, 2009 at 5:05AM

Thank you so much for saying what I feel!

I have lived in the south all my life, and was raised to address people properly. I find it offensive to be called dear and honey. Sometimes I speak up (I’m not your dear!) and other times I let it slide. I have had waitstaff laugh in my face when I told them not to call me dear. I would like to say I got up and left the restaurant, but I was with others who felt I was overreacting.

Times have definitely changed. As a child (in the 1960’s), I often went with my grandfather when he ran errands. I don’t remember anyone, from the grocery store clerk to the hardware store clerk, ever addressing him as anything other than Mr. Smith.

My father is 79, nearly the same age his father was when I helped him run all those errands. I am furious that he is called doll, honey, and sweetie by assisted living employees young enough to be his grandchildren. He is also often treated that way at the doctor’s office. However, he doesn’t want me to complain. He says he doesn’t care what people call him.

Y’all have a good day, now.

March 26, 2010 at 6:06PM

I was just called ‘sweetie’ for the umpteenth time this evening by a twenty-something waitress, and yes, I am old enough to be her mother.

I am a Southerner and I agree that we are most often at fault using these sugary words when dealing with strangers in a service capacity. However, my husband has a term for the people who perpetrate this greeting condescendingly….he calls them ‘nice nasty.’ Not everyone who does this has a wicked agenda, but I find it to be, more often than not, an affront. I have a ‘thing’ about it. On more than one occasion my family has given me the evil eye of warning when store clerks, waitresses and even health professionals have gotten chummy with me. Well, tonight I was able to hold my tongue. When we got home I went into my office to use the computer and I heard my husband speaking furtively to someone on the telephone. His voice became louder and more animated. I went downstairs to ask him who he had been talking to and he told me that he had phoned the manager of the restaurant to complain about the waitress who had been rude to his wife! My hero!

Rona Maynard
March 26, 2010 at 6:06 PM

He’s my hero, too! What a wonderful story.

Nancy Lee Trihey
August 25, 2010 at 10:10AM

I never use “y’all” to refer to one person. If southerners say this to one person, we are referring to that person plus others. For example, if I say to an old friend, “Y’all come see us”, I mean the friend and her children or the friend and her husband, etc. So if anyone is using y’all as a singular pronoun, he/she must be a transplant who misunderstands the proper use of the term!

It has been a source of annoyance to me that people from outside the south think we seriously use this ungrammatical language form. I don’t, and I don’t know any other true southerner who does this, unless it’s as a joke.

Thanks! (Hope I’m “being nice”.)

Rona Maynard
August 26, 2010 at 1:01 AM

Being nice? Of course. I’ve never met a southerner who wasn’t friendly. Thanks for clarifying.

November 26, 2010 at 1:01AM

There’s a female clerk in a local supermarket that refers to me as “dear”, or “my dear”, or “hon” which which is the worse one for me.
I have been looking at this site and others to find a way of addressing this without coming off “too” strongly.
I think I’ll just tell her “I’m not your dear” or whatever false endearment she uses next time, and “I don’t appreciate your condescending attitude”.
I’m also ready for what I believe the standard comeback is with most of these people, “Oh, I call everyone . . .(whatever). My response would be something like this, “I find your behavior a passive-aggressive power play that you use to talk to adults like children so that you might feel superior”.

Think that will shut her up? Too much?

Rona Maynard
November 26, 2010 at 3:03 AM

Well, Matt, while I understand your frustration I do think it’s too much. She will immediately write you off as a pompous, judgmental sort whose views don’t matter. Some people really do call absolutely everyone by a term of endearment and although I don’t care for it, I’ve learned to tolerate it as their odd (to me) way of being friendly. What continues to annoy me is the use of “dear” for older adults; then it takes on a patronizing sound. But back to your situation. Humour works best, I find. When my podiatrist addresses me as “dear,” I call him “honeybun.” He gets the message. One last suggestion: you don’t know what her motives are for calling people dear, so you’re wise not to mention power plays. What you want is to stop the behaviour, not to cause offense.

October 11, 2012 at 4:04PM

I work with people each day, never have I ever come across anyone who dislikes being called dear or sweetie. For those of you that are taking this and blowing it way out of porportion allow me to clarify, no one is speaking down to you. Also, no one is being condesending, we are just being nice and friendly. If you feel that a title is what you need in order to gain respect than wear a name tag, therefore no one will call you anything rather than what you prefer to be called. If you are looking to demean someone in the service industry to make yourself feel better than maybe you are the problem.

Not Dear
March 10, 2013 at 8:08AM

The reason I came a-hunting this topic is because I was called dear yesterday in a setting that surprised me. I was looking for a gym membership. When the man talking with me called me dear, I asked that he not do it, but made the mistake of trying to justify why and noted that many women don’t express similar feelings — they just stuff them. The relationship nearly failed because of this. So, reading Connie’s comment directly above causes me to want to let her know that everyone is getting not enough training in the service industries today;. There is nothing wrong with ‘you’ as a word to use. When I and my mother, in her nineties, are out for dinner, I abhor our being called ‘you guys.’ If there’s time and a little privacy, I will pull a waiter or waitress aside and let them know. Some of them are genuinely shocked that it could be offensive, but the smart ones get it and say thanks because they hadn’t a clue. It is disrespectful or at a minimum presumptuous to use add-ons. How are you this evening? How would you like your steak prepared? Are you ready for your bath? Have you taken your meds? Is there anything else I can get for you? All of these questions are just fine without dear, you guys, honey, young lady and so on. This, I assure you, is not about being demeaning to anyone in the service trades — I’ve waited tables, counters and more and never added on a term of endearment. It’s about respect, boundaries and professionalism. If you go to Four Seasons restaurant, any good hotel, or a brain surgeon’s office, you will be treated respectfully no matter who you are–they set the bar for good treatment of women, men and children. How may I help you? Not how might I rename you?

Rona Maynard
March 11, 2013 at 10:10 PM

Well put! Thanks for stopping by and taking a minute to join this cinversation.

Not their young lady
September 03, 2013 at 7:07PM

I came searching this topic because I got “young lady’ed” and it was humiliating. Why do store clerks think that ageism is acceptable when they know better than to call black customers “boy,” obese customers ‘slim,” or mobility impaired customers “gimp”? I’m still looking for a snappy comeback for these clerks (I don’t need to be reminded that I’m not young anymore; I’m in my forties and, alas, look it). Maybe I’m overreacting but it was embarrassing and humiliating, and I won’t go back to that store. I’m writing to the manager asking her to please educate her clerks! It’s a sign of sexism that men get called “sir” or “mister” but women are stuck with “dear,” “sweetie,” “ma’am,” and the horrid “young lady.” Yes, “y’all” is much better! So how should I respond next time I get “young lady’ed”? These clerks need to get educated; after all, some day they’ll face age discrimination too unless things change.

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