Hey baby, don’t call me dear

I remember the first time I got called “ma’am.” It was at a gas station in New Jersey, on Route 3 in Bergen County. I was in my 40s and didn’t feel or look like a “ma’am”—or so I thought. But apparently the 20-something guy at the pump disagreed. Who knows, I might have been the same age as his mom.

If “ma’am” told me the world was beginning to see me as middle-aged, “dear” surely represents the next step. The lawn guy called me “dear” the other night and it made me feel 1,000 years old.

Most women I know dislike “ma’am,” but at least the word has gravitas. It’s said with respect and a tacit nod to your maturity. “Dear” is condescending and nothing more. It’s a putdown wrapped up in an artificial-sugar coating.

We usually do our own lawn but we had gotten behind and the weedy grass was embarrassingly high. Queen Anne’s lace was ready to bloom on the grass path to the front steps.

Lawn Guy and his assistant were working on the property next door, so I ran over and asked if they had time to do our yard as well. Lawn Guy is a well-built, good-looking charmer, probably in his 30s, who approaches his lawn tractor like an off-road vehicle. He’s a cowboy doing wheelies.

He said OK, as soon as he was done next door, where he was mowing the grass into a geometric diamond pattern. He laughed when I asked if he knew how to do crop circles.

It started to rain just as he was finishing our yard. As his assistant packed up the equipment, Lawn Guy bounded up the stairs to our porch to get paid. We chitchatted and he made his pitch for doing our yard regularly, at the same price he had charged that evening. I told him my husband usually did the lawn but that we’d think about it. That’s when he dropped the “D” word.

“OK, dear, have a nice evening.”

The word stopped me cold. What had seemed like a pleasant conversation between equals suddenly assumed a different spin as I realized that to him, I was not just a potential customer and friendly neighbor, but a veritable “dear”—an old lady, I suppose. If only he had called me ma’am!

I remember nurses and home aides calling my mother “dear” and “honey” in the latter part of her life. The words combined distracted faux affection with dismissiveness. You don’t take someone seriously if you’re calling them dear.

Men get called “dear” too, but only if they’re old enough. My father-in-law was addressed that way in the nursing home.

But generally speaking I think it’s more of a woman thing. My husband, for example, can’t remember ever being called “dear” by a lawn guy, gas jockey or anyone else. (Well, maybe me—but in a completely different context.)

If we ever do hire someone for yardwork, it will have to be somebody who doesn’t call me dear. And he’d better not address me as “young lady,” either.

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