"May I help you, dear?"
I continue to examine the possibilities in the sale rack in the boutique, oblivious to the clerk talking to another customer.
"Are you finding what you need, dear?"
It’s louder this time, and I look up. The clerk is smiling at me. She is talking to me!
She’s not my daughter, although I have at least twenty years on her. I don’t even know the woman.
In fact, my daughter would never call me dear. My husband hardly ever calls me dear. I feel suddenly old, as if I should be reaching for my cane, or taking a breather on my mobile seat walker. Worse, I feel demeaned, patronized, almost violated, as if someone has crossed an invisible line, invaded my space, and taken away my dignity. People know me around here, though, and I can’t make a scene. I scrutinize her eyes, trying to mask my displeasure beneath a wry smile. Maybe I can’t say anything, but I can vote with my feet.
"I’m just browsing, thank you." I leave the store. Somehow, I don’t feel so much like shopping any more.
I get "deared" all the time—in restaurants, shops, gas stations, reception counters, everywhere. The habitual dearers are well-intentioned, affable people. They don’t mean to be condescending. They aren’t radiating superiority on purpose. They might even be horrified to think the dearing affects people like me negatively. In fact, a young man at an airport check-in experienced just that.
I had had a rich weekend. The workshops I had facilitated had been well-attended, the discussions animated, and the response positive. Now, suitcase and gear in hand, heart alight with gratitude and satisfaction, I stepped through the automatic sliding doors at the airport. I headed toward the free agent I had spotted, and greeted him with a jovial, "Hello."
"May I see your identification, dear?"
My smile dissolved into a disappointed half-grin. I studied the confident, personable, well-groomed, twentyish young man with the blue polo shirt and the name tag who had just blindsided me. Not you, too?
I took a deep breath. I might have to dissimulate at home, suffer through the dearing. In this strange city, however, before an individual I would probably never see again (and not recognize, even if I did), I could express myself. I made a decision.
"Please, don’t call me dear," I affirmed, in a matter-of-fact, calm tone. "I find it patronizing and condescending."
His turn to be blindsided. What goes around, comes around--the immutable law of life. He blanched. His eyes widened in horror.
"I’m sorry, ma’am." Might he have been worried that I would take this complaint to his superiors? A company that prides itself on customer service might not stop at a reprimand.
"Could I offer you a seat with more leg room to compensate?" Of course. Please do.
"Thank you. I appreciate that." The check-in process continued good-humoredly, and I gathered my things to run the security gauntlet. I didn’t write to human resources, of course. I didn’t want the employee to be reprimanded, much less lose his job. I just didn’t want him to dear me, or anyone else, ever again. My bet is that he hasn’t.
Back to school the next day, I heard myself reply to my French Immersion student’s raised hand, as I walked about the class while the students wrote, « Oui, chéri, qu’est-ce que je peux faire pour toi? »
Interesting, isn’t it? I would never have deared anyone in English. But in French, it seemed so natural. That was the last day I used « ma chouette » or « chéri » in class.
What is it about this term of endearment that discomfits me so much? Is it the language? I grew up hearing the terms used all the time in French, but seldom in English. Is it then just a question of culture, and I just have to get used to it? More worrisome, am I the only one who reacts this way? Does dearing not bother anyone else? Do I associate impressions with the word "dear" that other people don’t? I don’t have any answers. All I have is the certainty of my feelings, and the resolve never to "dear" anyone else, whatever the language.
It's a question of respect.