After giving us menus and a few minutes to decide on our order, a waiter arrived at our table of mature women asking “Are we ready to order?” What? I didn’t remember inviting him to dine with us. Oh. I get it. He spoke the royal “we.” Mistake number one. Then he addressed me, “What will you have, dear?” Mistake number two, and a tiresome one at that. I cannot remember when I last found this overly familiar term of en-dear-ment endearing, but it’s been a while. He could have made a common mistake number three: “How are you young ladies today?”, a question posed by servers, usually young males, to groups of not so young women. Although the waiter may think he’s showing respect, courtesy, I detect a note of condescension in these various salutations.
My generation not only tolerates names such as “dear”, “hon”, “sweetie” but also uses unsuitable ones. For example, in a meeting about recruiting new volunteers to our local museum, one gentleman declared “we want to attract the geriatrics.” I gasped. “Did you just call us geriatrics?” “Well, that’s what I am,” said the robust 70 year-old. I responded sternly: “I may be too but will never call myself one.”
Having come of age, I notice service providers and health professionals increasingly engage in “elderspeak” when interacting with older women — and with older men too, though perhaps not as frequently. Elderspeak results from or contributes to ageism, a form of judgment based on age differences. Like a racist and a sexist, an ageist discriminates against an “other” based on a perceived difference. But an ageist will one year join our group, if he or she is fortunate to grow into older age. Thus ageists, unwittingly, insult their future selves.
The fact is the young often don’t grasp that most older people feel much the same as their youthful selves. While I readily admit to looking all of my wise years, I do not appear — or feel — enfeebled or diminished. I do not want to be the subject of elderspeak.
Note to everyone in the service and health care professions: reserve terms of endearment for close family members and friends. If you know the person’s name, use it. If not, then madam or sir will suffice. Even better, make eye contact and simply ask: “What may I get or do for you?”
Instead of crying “oh sh_ _” when missing a tennis shot, I exclaim “oh dear!” That’s an appropriate use of the word. •
P.S. While nicknames can be fun, endearing even, I don’t much favour generic terms of endearment at any stage of life. My name is personal, precious even. No one wears it as I do, and I appreciate people calling me by it. Daniel Day-Lewis gets it right in The Crucible when he howls his defence: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life.”