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 September 27, 2009 @ 12:55 PM. File in Published elsewhere