The Voice of Experience: Don’t call me dear… or honey… or sweetie

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You are in your senior years, and perhaps you are being addressed as dear or honey, or miss or sweetie. The most original I’ve heard so far is hon bun. Older men get called dear as well, but not as a matter of course, with the perfectly acceptable sir at hand.

Opinions on this issue are varied. Some women find it cute, others patronizing; some find it downright rude. Many peers I’ve asked in Creston think it shows a decided lack of respect. Some women allow a lot of leeway because that is their nature. At least one person said, “Well, they could call you a lot worse.” (Old crone, old bag and old fogey are available.)

Internet comments on the subject include, “It’s belittling but well intended,” “It totally weirds me out,” and, “They are simply terms of affection.” Rona Maynard, journalist and former Chatelaine editor, said, “When you call me dear, I expect you to pat my head while I totter off.” (She wrote a column titled “Don’t call me dear!”, at ronamaynard.com, which is worth a read and several laughs.)

Many questions come into play: What is the age of the person doing the damage? Where does he/she come from? Is there a motive? What was their upbringing, background, culture?

I have had peers call me missus, and I know it is meant with respect and empathy. In this case upbringing and generation surely apply. My mother and aunts called me dear; older to younger seems fine but the reverse is not so accepted.

Recently, I was called sweetheart by a younger woman who doesn’t know me. When I asked her why she had used the term, she was taken aback. She was also embarrassed. She explained she was from eastern Canada “and that’s how we talk back there.” Are you sure it’s not because I’m old? I asked. She denied it but I’ll bet she thought about it later.

In the southern states, people are honey or darlin’. Ma’am is popular as well, considered polite, if outdated (but young women don’t want to be called ma’am because it makes them feel old).

When I was in my 50s I was addressed cheerfully and consistently as “dear” by a young male gas attendant — back when full serve was the norm. I felt he saw me as an old lady, which translated into lesser and helpless. I also remember hating it, although I never confronted him, which was my failing. He probably never gave it a second thought, and what other word was available to him?

For some reason, “Hello, ladies, what can I get you?” is not a problem — much better than girls or gals. But the singular form does not work; we cannot have the curt “Hello, lady.” So what is there?

When independent women were complaining about the “Miss” and “Mrs.” appellations, we arrived at “Ms.” According to Wikipedia, Ms. is “a default form of address for women regardless of their marital status … and has its origins in the female English title once used for all women, ‘Mistress’.” Well, you can see the problem immediately.

Apparently, women have been feeling insulted by titles since the early 1900s, but it took a while for feminism to fix it. In the ’70s Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine encouraged official adoption of Ms. The bottom line is that Ms. works.

In the meantime, we need a new word for older women in general, something comparable to sir for men. Madam and ma’am do not cut it anymore. No neutral greeting exists, unless people start saying, “Hello, aged person.” Maybe we need to go outside English and borrow an address that has no connotation for us. Apparently, in Japan, clerks and waiters use sama, which is a polite term for anybody noticeably older. Hungarians use néni as a term of respectful endearment. Surely, we can come up with something appropriate.

People are not being malicious; they simply are not aware. If we don’t like it, we should confront. That is difficult for a lot of people, but it can produce surprising reactions.

For now, it comes down to personal preference. Let people know what you want to be called — your name, perhaps — and forgive the generational lapses. For my part, if you must, call me dear, but please don’t call me hon bun.

Betsy Brierley lives beside Kootenay Lake. She used to write for the Advance a long time ago. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.