They can be found behind library desks and grocery checkout scanners and especially fast-food counters or standing over your table at Applebee’s or Max & Erma’s. They generally tend to be in their 20s or early 30s, and, although they don’t really know you, they pepper their language with terms of endearment.
For those who are the recipients of their unsolicited and superficial affectations, they are either a source of amusement or a source of annoyance. And, while you may try to dismiss them, they will not go away.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Hon Patrol.
In the middle of my workday not long ago in Troy at an Arby’s, I was — all in the time it takes for 60 seconds to become a minute — called “Hon,” then “Sweetie,” then “Darlin’” by a 20-something who was in the process of taking and getting my order for some of that “good mood food.” And, that was just the last time I’ve been accorded such a somewhat specious term of endearment by someone I don’t know and someone far younger than I.
Now, I don’t remember this happening when I was younger, but, now, as a sexagenarian (get your mind out of the gutter, folks, from the Latin word for the number six!), it happens on a fairly regular basis.
And, I think I know why. My theory on the frequency of this common occurrence is, since the disseminator of these terms of affection almost always is someone who’s younger, I call it the grandparent phenomenon. I think it’s a way of being told that when we reach a certain age, we become sort of cute, and there’s a certain non-threatening aura that we exude.
Now, as for referring to others with whom I don’t know all that well using such terms, I’ll have to plead guilty, since I will do it on occasion. While doing a bar shift at the Knights of Columbus, I’ll let a “Hon” slip with the kids that want a pop refill or another glass of water (the girls are “Hons,” the boys are “Young Fellas”), but of course the difference is I’m talking to children.
According to Trisha Torrey in an article she wrote titled “Don’t Call Me Honey,” when it happens in a restaurant, she feels that younger servers are making a not-so-subliminal statement. Torrey believes she has reached the age that younger people are compelled to speak to her as if she were a child.
Torrey went on to say that professionals in health care have a term for speaking to an adult in a childlike fashion about a health issue by slowing down while speaking and liberally dotting the explanation of conditions and treatments with “Dear” or “Sweetie” and patting his or her hand to reassure. The term is “elder-speak.”
And, to Torrey, who is by profession a trained health-care patient advocate, there is a solution to all this “Sweetie” and “Hon” business, especially by younger people.
Writes Torrey, “If you are old (like I obviously am) and someone speaks to you in a condescending fashion, even if they think they are being sweet and helpful … or … if you observe such elder-speak taking place, perhaps as you accompany an older person to a medical appointment or visit or advocate for them in a hospital, then do something about it.
“Reply with something like, ‘Please don’t call me ‘honey’ or ‘I know you mean well, but I’m not a child.’ You don’t need to be defensive or belligerent. Just a polite comeuppance will do! You’ll be empowered by knowing that you are helping not just yourself but others who might have felt belittled in the future. It’s a great way to pay-it-forward.”
Now, I’m thinking Torrey is speaking more as a patient advocate here and feels the issue is more about patient dignity and empowerment.
However, if she is speaking about such an issue in other settings, say, a grocery-checkout or in a restaurant, I think following Torrey’s advice is a tad overreactionary. In other words, I guess the longer I live, the more I try not to sweat the small stuff, so I certainly can be a “Hon” or a “Sweetie” when a young lady is sliding a tray forward to me with a burger and side salad.
I suppose, if you want to show some mildly barbed sarcasm, the next time a server says, “I’ll be right back with menus, Sweetie,” you could respond with, “OK, Honey Bun, I’ll be right here waiting.” I think that may send Torrey’s message but in a far lighter way than a mini-lecture on what Torrey sees as the marginalization of us older types.
To me, as is the case with words in almost all instances, it’s a matter of context and circumstance. In other words, you should be able to ascertain when words spoken to you are intended to condescend, and if it’s obvious no harm was intended, what’s the big deal?
As false as the words are, as far as I’m concerned — especially on those days when things aren’t going real well — a little elder-speak might just be enough to get me through the day.
John Grindrod is a freelance writer and the author of two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.