I’m going to confess something now that will reveal once and for all how cranky I really am, but I can’t hold it back any longer.
Please hear me, grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, librarians, food servers and retail sales associates: I am not your “dear,” nor am I your “sweetheart.” Those terms are reserved for use by close relatives, not perfect strangers, especially if you’re younger than I.
This is not a new peeve for me, I’ve been peevish since childhood, when usage of the word “dear” by strangers underscored the fact that I was just a kid. Then, in adolescence, I wanted to be called “Miss,” since I was on the fast track to adulthood. I enjoyed “Miss” all through my twenties, and by my 30’s, “Miss” became a highly-prized title because I was transitioning into the matronly-sounding “Ma’am” (which, by the way, is also a traumatic development).
Today, in my 40’s, with my gray-speckled hair and spreading crow’s feet, I’m okay with “Ma’am.” I’ve earned it. If it’s good enough for Elizabeth II, it’s good enough for me. But I’m finding the word “dear” is once again rearing its ugly head, in the grocery store, at restaurants, wherever workers are trying to convince me they’re down-home friendly and they give a hoot.
For older people, the term “dear” is used on younger people as an expression of a nurturing, caring attitude, as in grandma saying, “would you like another cookie, dear?” Grandma is allowed to call me dear. She earned that privilege, not the bank teller.
Younger people also address older people as “dear,” presumably for a similar purpose—to be soothing or warm perhaps, but to me it doesn’t have the same cachet. It’s what nurses yell at seniors on the geriatric floor: “We’re going to turn you over now, dear, so we can get that suppository up there. Just hang on…”
I’ve noticed that children and seniors are often treated the same way by those of us in the middle years. We patronize them. The cycle of life begins and ends with total dependence on others. As we age we gradually need most or all the assistance we needed as children…and yet we’re not children. Did the old man on the geriatric floor live through the Depression? Did he fight in World War II? Did he have a meaningful career and a wife? Did he raise a good family? To call him “dear” is to emphasize the fact that a once vibrant and vigorous person with a lifetime of experiences is no longer able to care for himself, a mortifying truth for an adult to face.
We live in a society that is very much focused on what each citizen brings to the table. We are encouraged to realize our ultimate purpose, to make our contribution. As our dependence goes up, our usefulness goes down. The degree to which we marginalize those who can no longer compete is the measure of our preoccupation with self.