In the Neighborhood, Part II

Laurie says:

The comments from Patia, Dan’l, and stef to my neighborhood experience got me thinking about the choices I make, as well as about categorization and about why I react so strongly to among other things, “dear.” Some of it is context: if a grandmotherly lady calls me dear, I’m apt to beam.

I think we all have places where we react more strongly than others. I know when I’m being patronized. If I don’t call them on it, I feel diminished. Trying to make change in the world is more important, but what I’m talking about right now is feeling diminished.

Dan’l, I appreciate your point about the confusion of what we call others. That’s something I care a lot about. But this is about who calls me what. I agree with Patia that the deli staff wants a category of one in which they can include all women. Is there a category of one for men in the same situation? Are all men always called sir?

And, yes, Stef, I’ve been a loyal customer of theirs for 25 years, and if this was a one-shot, I wouldn’t have bothered.

My impression (and I’ve worked with the public my whole life) is that people want to be treated well. I don’t think most people think that a tag phrase is the same as being treated well, especially not if the phrase is a simple one size fits all …whatever category the phrase is supposed to apply to.

People usually treat me very respectfully and patronizing phrases like “girl” don’t come up a lot. (Yes, I believe in “Girrl Power” but context is everything.)

One guy in my local corner market, whom I’ve known since he was helping out at 14, started calling me “young lady” when he began working full time in his 20’s. I pointed out our age difference and he said, “A lot of the old ladies like it, but the cop who lives upstairs told me she hates it.” He never called me young lady again. And actually I’ve never heard him call another woman customer that again either.

The problem with people’s desire to categorize groups in broad terms is: for anyone who isn’t in the center of power, or who’s in more than one category, the result is usually not respectful. This is because, respect is about people as individuals, not about our group identities.

The urge for simplicity may be understandable, but it’s also about a skewed and oversimplified perception of what women (or any other categorized group) want.


5 thoughts on “In the Neighborhood, Part II

  1. Miss Manners often gets sent letters saying things such as “my co-worker/daughter-in-law/next-door neighbor insists on being addressed by her first name/by her husband’s name/as Dr. John Doe, Esq.. Please inform her that she is wrong.”

    And Miss Manners usually answers with an explanation of the default correct form of address but then goes on to say “the correct thing is to address people as they wish to be addressed.”

    Within reason, of course. I don’t think she approve of someone who is not the pope or the Dalai Lama insisting on being referred to as “his holiness”.

    But your point — that treating people as groups is always going to be disrespectful compared to treating them as individuals — is well taken. I always say that the default forms of courtesy are where you start, and if you know a person’s individual preferences, you can use them for a person. So the correct form of address to a stranger is “sir” or “ma’am”. If you happen to know somebody who likes to be called “young lady”, that’s acceptable. Now that I’ve reached at age where I still occasionally get carded but am over a decade out of the danger zone, I often encounter waitstaff who think it is complementary to tell me that I don’t look my age. As with “young lady”, they’re making a dangerous — and false — assumption about the kind of so-called compliments I would like to hear. They should keep a professional.

    Of course, the absolutely devastating error that was made when dealing with you was the owner coming up and attacking you. The only appropriate response to a customer saying “I prefer not to be addressed by that form of address is “I’m sorry ma’am, I shall try to remember in the future.”.

  2. “Is there a category of one for men in the same situation? Are all men always called sir?”

    By service staff in a store where I’m not known by name? Generally, yeah. At least that’s my experience. But I can’t speak for “all men.”

    (One of the problems with this sort of discussion is that it’s assumed that any woman can speak for “women,” and any man can speak for “men.” If you want to look at categorizing people, that’s a good place to start. We all have unique experiences, and, while some generalizations based on such categories probably have some validity, I find that most of them are untrustworthy.)

    People need to address each other somehow. My entirely unscientific suspicion is that most people would prefer to be addressed by name in most situations; but the situation of a store where the staff doesn’t know you makes that more or less problematic. They may wear badges saying “Hi I’m Jo-Jo,” but we don’t, as a general rule… unless we’ve just come from work ourselves, or a convention of some sort.

    (Data point: our local Safeway tries to fake things into a more “intimate” feel. When you use your “club” card (or phone number) to get the discounts, it pops the name to the clerk. “Thank you Mr. Danehy-Oakes” is nice enough, I guess, but would be nicer if I hadn’t just seen the clerk struggling (and usually failing) to read the small type and pronounce it.)

    So there they are, in a position where they have to interact with us verbally, and we may even be calling them by name (I frequently do), and they don’t know us from Pat. It seems almost imperative that they address us somehow. And the English language is not exactly rich in gender-neutral terms of address.

    (Yes, some form of address is necessary — if only for situations where it’s necessary to pick up an interrupted conversation. Like f’rexample, you had an issue with a piece of merchandise, they got on the phone to talk to the supplier, and while they’re doing that your attention wanders. Maybe you start looking at other merchandise at the counter; maybe you start chatting with someone else in line. But the supplier asks something that requires information from you; they need to get your attention. Some term of address — “Sir,” “Ma’am” — is the social convention for this situation.)

    So … I’m not dismissing your concerns, I actually pretty much agree with them, but there’s the pragmatics of the situation to overcome. What do you suggest? How may some poor schlub of a clerk address you, or me, if she doesn’t know our names?

  3. jadelennox,

    Clearly I agree with you. I think people should be called what they choose, including queer/gblt, african american/balck, indian/native american etc. Or, for that matter, both of my daughters changed their first names in high school.


    In this case for me “poor schlub of a clerk” is a generalization that doesn’t apply. When exploited minimum wage folks call me whatever their bosses want, I just smile. They are already having too hard a time. But, the guys in the deli are an authoritative and knowledgable team that have been working there for years. The status stuff is different. My term of choice for getting attention is “excuse me”.

    This is the first time I’ve had a “difficult” real-world experience and immediately blogged it. The comments have been great.


  4. I think one of the key issues here lies around the meaning of “honorific.” “Sir” and all its variants have always been positive recognition of rank and status. “Madame” and its variants have usually been the same.

    But “Mrs.” is historically a sign of subordination to a husband, and “Dear” and “Miss” have never been signs of rank, power, or independence.

    Add to this mix the historical use (in our lifetimes) of the deliberate use of titles and/or informality to enforce race and gender privilege …

    So while I agree with Dan’l that there is a need to address people somehow, there are good and sufficient reasons in history (and in the lack of social consensus) why the topic is fraught.

  5. I disagree that people need to be addressed “somehow.” If a person is a stranger, why pretend otherwise?

    Furthermore, since gender is not always clear, there’s a lot of room for error. In fact, although I look very much like a woman, a parking lot attendant once said, “Thank you, sir,” because he wasn’t paying attention (and may have assumed from my large body size in the driver’s seat that I was male). I was shocked. He quickly realized his mistake and apologized profusely. But he could have avoided the whole thing if he’d just said, “Thank you. Have a nice day.”

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.