7 January 2011


All of us exchange words with strangers in our daily lives. Usually it's connected with shopping or receiving services. Now in these exchanges, I always try my best to be civil and pleasant. It's rooted in my nature to respect such people - often on low incomes and probably all capable of better things.

However, the provision of services means that one partner is a provider and the other a receiver, client or customer. Traditionally in England, where service transactions were concerned, men would always be addressed as "sir" and women as "miss" or "madam". Using such forms of address never suggested that the provider was somehow less equal. The terms simply endowed the exchange with respectful formality.

Increasingly, I am finding that those traditional forms of address are being abandoned. Just yesterday, I was in "EuroSpar" over at Broomhill and the twenty something young man on checkout twice addressed me as "mate". I wanted to say to him, "I am not your mate! Please call me 'sir' you scallywag!"

Just before Christmas I needed to see a doctor at my local health centre. When it was my turn to go in, the matronly receptionist announced "The doctor will see you now love!". I mean "love"! I find the term so condescending and disrespectful when used by strangers in such contexts. Does she call the doctors who are partners at the health centre "love"? Would she call her solicitor or her bank manager "love"? I doubt it.

And that reminds me of one of the headteachers I had to labour under - not literally! She was only about five feet three and took over from the headteacher who had promoted me to Head of English a few years before. I'd have been over forty years old at the time. I became annoyed at various levels about how she used the term "love" when addressing me. I thought it extremely patronising and unprofessional. I suffered it for several months and then one day when I was alone with her in her office, I took her to task over this matter, insisting that from then on she should address me by my name. It had all been about the exercise of power. This slight little woman in a powerful position thought she had the licence to almost unconsciously demean me - a six foot hulk of manly Yorkshireness - by using the sort of condescension some people reserve for children. After that meeting, she never again called me "love" and I think I taught her important lessons about use of language and how to win respect from her staff.

"Pal", "duck", "mister", "bro". I don't want to be addressed with terms like these. I want the people who provide me with services to appreciate that I and other customers or clients are their paymasters. Without us they'd have no jobs to go to. And to continue this ranting, it also makes my blood boil when call centre people address me by my first name even though they have not asked for my permission to do so. Grrrr! Gnash! Have a nice day!


  1. Oh YP, you come from a time where things were so much more controlled and formal manners ruled the day. Things are much more casual now - I know a little too familiar and casual at times - but on the whole more relaxed. Most of the time these relaxed terms contain a note of, I suppose you might call it friendliness, a relaxed camaraderie.
    I find the ones who address you as "Sir" or "Madam" or some such title are often being unco-operative or rude and sarcastic and will be making rude signs as soon as your back is turned.
    My experience is that the service delivered by young people is generally done in a more pleasant and polite way than the cranky older generation who are more often rude.
    I guess I should add that Aussies on the whole don't go in for formality, polite but friendly suits us and we find the other way a bit too stiff.


  2. In the southern U.S., "Sir" and "Ma'am" are taught to children by their elders and expected, nay, demanded to be used; people who don't say "Sir" and "Ma'am" are considered insolent. In the northern U.S., however, "Sir" and "Ma'am" are avoided studiously because they are considered subservient terms hailing from the time of the Irish immigration; people who are addressed as "Sir" and "Ma'am" usually protest loudly because of the more egalitarian times in which we live.

    In other words, you can't win.

    What galls me, an older man, is when female clerks and waitresses address me as "hon" or "sweetie"...

  3. HELEN Thank you for that different perspective. As a consequence, I have now crossed Australia off my list of "places to go"...mate!
    RHYMES Sweetie? Oh Lord! If only they knew the truth. I've also suffered that swear word over here. Sweetie? I mean, come on. That's not friendliness, it's a complete misunderstanding of the relationship and also insulting to people of more senior years.

  4. pud
    this is one of my bug bears

    at work I ALWAYS refer to older male patients as sir until they give me permission to call them something else...

    .....dont get me started on the "darlin, mate and bud brigade...

    ps Charlie Etheridge was my pre Matt Cardle pin up!!!

  5. Unlike you, YP, the horrible headteacher (male) that I had to 'labour under' for five years too many, never called me any of those names - if fact, I shudder to think what he undoubtedly did call me behind my back!

  6. I completely agree with you, YP, and share your outrage/ distress/ disgust.

    "Honey." "Sugar." "Hon." "How are you "girls" today?"

    That's what I get around here, especially in restaurants and grocery stores. Apparently, if you have one silver hair in your head, you automatically become subject to untoward familiarity.

    My hackles have been raised. I have to go shopping today. I pity the poor clerk who dares call me "Honey."

  7. Anonymous4:13 am

    I feel totally chastised. I apologise wholeheartedly for any time I have ever referred to you by any less name than Lord Pudding, sir. I meant no measure of disrespect or to imply a depth of relationship that was not there. Like you, I respect people and their positions, but sometimes I do use friendly terms in an attempt to be pleasant or convey a point. I actually respected you very much and feel thoroughly wretched that I have offended by my misuse of the English language. I have come to realise that with some people I just can't win no matter how hard I try to be pleasant and polite. Sadly we are not all wordsmiths like yourself - some of just instinctively respond in the ways that come naturally to us, yet time after time you feel obliged to point out our inadequacies, spelling mistakes, lack of grammatical usage or the use of wrong language. Why not just appreciate people for the kind, caring individuals that is at their heart instead of being so hurtful and pedantic about their failings all the time?
    I am thoroughly, thoroughly apologetic, sir.

  8. In addition, I have noticed lately that some service people have a different response to , "thank you." Now, instead of a simple "you're welcome," I find that some are saying, "no problem." What?

  9. I don't mind being called Sweetie, Hon, or whatever by women or men. I like it and don't find it demeaning. If someone said, "Sweetie, will you pick up all my mess and lick my boots?" I'd first have to ask myself if I'd gotten married. Then I would reply, "No frelling way." It wouldn't matter if they were superior or inferior. My experience with "Ma'am" is similar to Helsie's, it usually means the person (usually young) is starting to get annoyed with me.

    I think respect is something that starts with self-respect. If you have that, it doesn't matter what other people call you. Enforcing standards that other people may or may not share is only meaningful in your own mind.

    I'm afraid if I'd been the headmistress you took to task, my new nickname for you (probably not spoken aloud) would have been "Captain A--hole" and it wouldn't have reflected a bit on my undoubtedly high respect for you and your professional abilities.

    But we do things differently in Cosumne.

  10. JOHN GRAY I'm so pleased that you at least understand where I'm coming from on this matter. In care homes, elderly people who are deserving of proper respect will sometimes find themselves spoken to as if they were children or idiots. Fortunately, the majority of care workers are kind and considerate to the residents they serve.
    JENNY I find it hard to imagine you being actively disrespected by some jumped up little careerist. Your very nature seems to invite conciliation, compromise and fair play.
    PAT ARK I hope the gum chewing shop assistant who dared to call you "Honey" will consider his/her audacity whilst in hospital!
    ANONY MOUSE Your caricaturization of me is as unpleasant as it is absurd. My thoughts about how service providers address people were quite obviously and most emphatically not about bloggers. I am not someone who is anal about grammatical errors and though I have dealt with written expression all my working life, first and foremost I have always championed meaning - the "what" over the "how".
    MOUNTAIN THYME I guess the service people that you and I are referring to are not instigators but simply followers in communication trends.
    JAN I'm sorry if I didn't make my relationship with the headteacher as clear as I might have done.

  11. OK, and I might be guilty of not reading carefully enough, or of seeing the rest of the world through my own negative attitude today. Sir.

  12. Anonymous11:29 pm

    I'm actually surprised at your objection to the use of the "Yorkshire Love" phrase or the "Derbyshire Duck", as they are in common enough use to be as accepted a practice as "Sir" or "Madam".

    Please add Leeds to your list of places not to visit for fear of annoyance as you'll find that we have a long established traditio of using the word "Love" between adult males - its actually more commonplace than between older/younger, male/females.

    I agree with the rest of the stuff though :)

  13. Anonymous10:25 am

    You should do a stint at living in Bristol: 'How are you my lover?' is a common one.

  14. JERRYCHICKEN I have no intention of visiting Leeds as its reputation goes before it. There be dragons!
    LUCY "Common" indeed. I have never been to Bristol but if I do go I will pack earplugs. Thanks for the warning madam.


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