Last month, when we had weekend breakfast at Poco and Mom’s, I found out the waitress was in love with me.
I was pretty flattered, and a little confused, because we’d never met before that day. But she kept calling me “my love,” or sometimes just “love.” And I felt pretty special. I felt special right up until the moment she called Scott “my love,” too. That hurt some, I admit. Not that he isn’t lovable; I’ve been loving him for a quarter-century myself. But I didn’t feel quite as special after that. And then I felt ever less special as she called everyone at every other table “my love” as well. By the time we paid the check, I had reckoned with sad truth that she said that to everyone, and that our connection was, in fact, that of mere strangers after all.
And while I’m pretty careful about throwing around terms of endearment to random strangers, I guess other people are less so. But you know, I got over it by lunchtime, and chalked it up as a quirk specific to that waitress.
Until I went to the gynecologist this week for my annual, and was surprised to discover that I was her sweetheart! And this despite the fact that we’d never met before AND I was pretty cranky for having waited 45 minutes past my appointment time before I finally saw her, so I wasn’t feeling particularly sweet. But she was undiscouraged by my grumpiness, calling me “sweetheart” at every possible opportunity. And while we certainly experienced some intimacy, given the nature of our meeting, being her sweetheart seemed somewhat premature.
But I shook it off, figuring she probably thought it was comforting to people who were in a vulnerable position, people whose names she wouldn’t have to bother to read off the chart and remember for the entire 15-minute appointment if she called them “sweetheart.”
Until yesterday, when I ran over to Big Lots to pick up a cheap curtain rod, and I was suddenly the cashier’s “dear.” In fact, she called me “my dear” at least 3 times in the course of a 2-minute cash transaction.
Clearly, something’s going on. I had to ponder this mysterious love spell I seemed to be casting upon all and sundry, because historically, I have not been one who inspires instantaneous love in strangers. In fact, past evidence has strongly indicated that I am very much an acquired taste, as likely to inspire (for reasons unbeknownst to me, as I really am a kind person) visceral enmity as I am steadfast friendship, with no middle ground. So this is a big change. Is it pheromones? Is it because I’m parting my hair on the other side? Have I been leaving a trail of cash behind me unawares? Whence comes this sudden passion and popularity?
I’m not sure why people think this is an affectation worth cultivating; at best, it’s kind of annoying for its obvious insincerity. Of course I am not your love, your sweetheart, or your dear if all we have between us is a breakfast burrito, a swab and a paper table cover, or a $6 curtain rod. At worst, it’s creepy as hell, and every time a stranger under the age of 80 calls me “dear,” I feel like Fantine at the docks.
There used to be name for this social sin, and it was called “familiarity,” and being overly familiar with strangers was not done. Languages even have different pronouns and verb tenses for different levels of familiarity; even ours, though that distinction is obsolete in modern English usage–“thou” is the familiar, “you” is the formal. If you aren’t sure what level of familiarity you have with someone, then you don’t have it at all, and it’s best to err on the side of formality until you’re told otherwise. That’s why, when my students would ask, “Mrs. Cunningham, what’s your first name?” I’d say “Mrs.” Because students will always meet you one level below what you offer them, and too casual a relationship can cause all kinds of classroom management issues. Not being overly familiar means you don’t hug people who are not your friends or family, and you don’t call customers by their first names, and you don’t use terms of endearment with people you have a fleeting and purely business relationship with. I’m not sure where this got lost, but I’d be delighted if we rediscovered manners.
No, my first name ain’t “sweetheart.” It’s Kristie. Mrs. Cunningham, if you’re nasty.