In the Neighborhood

(This just happened to me, so it postponed a long response to the great comments we got on our body language post.)

Laurie says:

I just came back from my favorite Italian deli. It’s been in my neighborhood forever.

As I was finishing up, the guy behind the counter said, “Is that all, dear?” And I made that half-beat pause one does, saying to myself, “OK, am I going to spend the energy to call him/her on this or am I going to just leave irritated?” In the case of this deli’s staff, this wasn’t the first time. My earlier responses of humor and sarcasm hadn’t been noticed. So this was the time.

Add to the picture that I’m simultaneously polite and very intense and forceful. I told him how long I’ve been coming in and how much I like the place, and then I said, “I’m 63 years old, and I’d rather you didn’t call me dear.” He’s forty-ish, professionally pleasant, and helpful. He looked upset and asked me if I felt it was insulting. I said, “No, but it doesn’t feel respectful.”

Then I said something else nice about the place, and left.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, I made a change of menu decision. (I’m having my daughter and her partner over for a birthday dinner tonight.) So I needed to go back, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit.”

A grey-haired mustached guy, whom I think is the manager, called me over to a corner to talk. He heard my earlier conversation and was civilly angry and upset about it. He feels that their conscious choice of “dear” for women is very respectful and told me that many women object to “ma’am” but no one has ever objected to “dear.”

We went back and forth, with me firmly insisting that I don’t find it respectful, that they told me “girlie” was respectful when I was 20 but that I think that he is sincere in believing their choice comes from a respectful place. When I asked him if he would call a man “dear,” he reacted angrily, saying that that would make him seem gay.

We left it that I thought it was an unfortunate choice of words and was unmoved by his explanations.

Then I walked out feeling “I wish I didn’t feel feel like these things were important enough for me to react to, because now I’m angry and I was having a nice day getting ready for a birthday dinner.”

This has been an ongoing decision for me forever: is it important enough to respond to, will I give myself a vacation next time, etc? I face this a lot because I don’t only respond when people react disrespectfully to me, but also when people say offensive things about other people around me.

More often than not, I do say something, and when I don’t, it’s because I’ve made a conscious choice not to. But I get really tired of making this decision.

What do you folks do?

10 thoughts on “In the Neighborhood

  1. Speaking from the other side of the table … that is the white male middle class privileged &c. POV … it can be pretty confusing. This is a subtler form of the “what do we call persons of African descent” problem that plagued us whities in the ’70s. Negro, black, afro-american (which lasted about five minutes, probably because it sounded like a brand of canned pasta), afram … finally settled down on African-American with black as a semi-acceptable alternative for us what don’t want to say that whole mouthful every time.

    But we’re not talking about categorization here; we’re talking about forms of address, which adds a level of subtlety right there; and we’re also talking about something that seems to be very much a matter of personal taste, style, etc.

    If I call my (and let’s not even get into the implications of that pronoun…) Beloved Spousal Overunit “dear,” it can be affectionate, insulting, or routine, with many shades along the way. Ditto for my daughter.

    For my son, a lot of the possible shades seem to disappear… In fact, I would have trouble calling him simply “dear,” more likely to say “dear boy.” Which says something about the sexual politics of that word in my head right there, dunnit?

    A close female friend … I would have trouble using the word at all, for fear it sounded like a come-on. On the other hand, I would have less trouble using it with a woman who was a less-close friend or a “mere” acquaintance … provided it was in a context where there was some clear ironic or self-satiric intent.


    I understand the deli manager’s immediate concern: some women of my acquaintance _do_ object to being called “Ma’am.” It sounds quaint and oldfashioned and ever so slightly _condescending_ to a lot of women, or from a lot of men. It also, at least two of them have told me, makes them feel old: “Ma’am is the word you use for your old schoolteacher.”

    And obviously his people can’t call women customers “Lady.”

    What’s left?

  2. “What’s left?”

    How about nothing.

    Why must every business transaction include a form of address? Why must it be Yes, Sir, or Thank you, Ma’am, instead of just Yes or Thank you?

    I am personally annoyed by Ma’am and the whole Miss/Mrs. thing I get at Safeway (it’s Ms., thank you), and I find Dear, Honey, and Sweetie downright offensive unless they’re coming from a seasoned, gum-cracking waitress.

    Customers aren’t expected to call retail salespersons and the like Sir, Ma’am, Dear or anything else. Why do retail folks think they are supposed to address their customers with terms of (value-laden) respect or endearment?

  3. What do I do if someone uses a word to describe me that I don’t like? If there’s an opportunity, I try to respond with the word that I do prefer. This happens a lot around euphemisms for “fat” – if someone says I’m “overweight,” I reply that I’m “large” or if I think they’re ready for it I reply that I’m “fat”; if they ask me how long I’ve had a weight “problem”, I reply without using “problem” or a synonym for “problem”.

    That doesn’t work for sales transactions. There, I agree with Patia: I don’t like any honorifics or diminutives applied to me by service personnel. But for some reason I haven’t internalized this as having anything to do with sexism (although now that I think about it, I think you’re right that it does have to do with sexism) but instead have internalized it as a slightly eccentric personal preference. I suspect it is impossible for service personnel to please everyone on this matter, so I don’t usually say anything unless I’m going to encounter someone regularly.

  4. No form-of-address at all? Just “Yes” or “Thank you” or “Good morning” or whatever? Yeah, that could be done … I suspect that most customers wouldn’t like it. It sounds, well, impersonal.

    One thing most people like, consider part of “good service” that brings them back to the same stores, is a sense of personal connection, human contact, however fleeting (or even illusory). Some sort of personal address — ideally, your name (“Mr Smith,” “Ms Chen,” whatever … first names are too personally, a bit risky for the Safeway clerk or deli counter guy … though car and real estate salesfolks glom onto your first name even if you ask them not to) — is a big part of how they create that.

    What I’m saying here is that, while I respect your preference, I understand the reasons and emotions behind it, I think it is not reasonable to suggest that shopkeepers abandon what works with the majority of their customer base.

    In a shop where you are a “regular” — like the deli in the incident that prompted this thread — that’s something of a different matter, of course. The deli manager should (in my opinion) have simply listened to Ms Edison’s desires and asked his people to respect them. Unless it’s a high turnover shop, and this sounds to me like more of a family business — obviously, I don’t know the place in question — it’s reasonable for the employees to know the preferences of the regular customers… But when walking into a shop where they don’t know you, FGI. You’re going to get “Ms” if you’re lucky, “Ma’am” if you aren’t, and “Dear” if the owner is clueless. And there ain’t nothing to be done about it because you’re fighting against their economic best interests.

  5. It’s interesting, and maybe it is just personal preference, that what you see as “personal connection” and “good service,” I see as fake, presumptuous and rude.

    I actually quit going to Blockbuster because I got so tired of their efforts to greet me by name, which they _always_ mispronounced, despite the fact that they entered a phonetic spelling into their computer after I corrected them. I mean, please, how impersonal can you get?

    I love making actual connections with people I regularly interact with as a customer — but only if it’s authentic.

  6. Oh, and I forgot to agree with Stef on her use of the terms “honorifics” and “diminutives.” The former is a level of respect afforded on the basis of your marital status or age (Mrs., Ma’am); the latter literally translates as making someone small, which is appropriate with someone you’re familiar with, but not with a stranger.

  7. I find honorifics from salespeople a little weird. I tend to think it’s a Southern thing, and I’m not a Southerner. I’ve gotten used to being a “mam” instead of a “miss”. I’d as soon just be addressed without the honorific.

    Endearments from salespeople used to drive me crazy–it seemed like fake affection, and hit me on a sore spot. I seem to have somewhat calmed down about it. In my case, it was emotional issues rather than perceived status.

  8. OK, I now see three people I guess by their names to be women saying that they would rather not be addressed with specific terms of address, and one person I guess by zir name to be a man saying that most people want to be addressed with specific terms of address. It’s a very tiny sample size, but it makes me wonder if there is a gender difference in people’s preferences in this regard.

  9. Stef, that’s an interesting question. I’d guess it would bother men less, since their honorific (Sir) doesn’t change depending on age and marital status.

  10. WTF is the matter with calling all women Ms. which is neutral and has no reference to age or marital status? It’s commonly accepted in business correspondence and is a great alternative that will not offend. Plus, we aren’t making a million value judgements about women. All men are Sir. So what’s the problem? Why do we feel we have to categorize women according to age and marital status? It’s ridiculous. If we just used Ms. as we do in a business letter (since we have no way of telling anything about an unseen woman) we would be done with the nonsense already. Doesn’t anyone understand that the very fact that there is one honorific for men and twenty different ones for women (I’m exaggerated of course) means the way we address women is SEXIST. That is the very reason Ms. was invented. Let’s start a revolution, people. Stop using ma’am unless your in government and military where it doesn’t have ageist connotations, and let’s call all women Ms. How about that?

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