That’s “Mr. Sweetie” to you.

Rob Woutat

First names should indicate that people know each other well… surely there is little to be said for the present-day familiarity in the much-too-frequent use of first names. A century ago, it was not unheard of for a wife to speak always of her husband as “Mr. Jones” and even to call him “Mr. Jones” herself….
Etiquette, Emily Post, 1960

My, my, my; how far we have strayed.

Walk into any auto dealership these days, let your first name slip out, and before you know it a chummy salesman is tailing you all over the showroom, first-naming you right and left as if he’s been your bosom pal since childhood.

“What’s it gonna take to get you behind the wheel of this snazzy little number, Rob?” he’ll say, maybe even putting his hand on my shoulder to remind me what good buddies we are. (Imagine his reaction if I said, “Feel free to call me ‘Sir,’ orif you prefer‘Mr. Woutat.’” Well, well, well, he’d say to himself, aren’t we the gold-plated, stuffed-shirt snob. Whatever you like, your holiness.)

And in restaurants: “Hi, there, my name is Jason and I’ll be your waitperson this evening.” (An acquaintance of mine responds to waitpersons like Jason by popping out of his chair and shaking hands. “I’m happy to meet you, Jason,” he says. “I’m Bob Martin. This is my wife Marian, and these are our friends Tommy and Terri Thistlepot.”)

Befuddled for only a moment, the waitperson slips back into his familiar routine: “Would you guys like to start with a beverage?”

Maybe the reader can direct me to a restaurant where waiters do not address customers as “you guys.” I am unable to find one these days. “Are you guys ready to order yet?” “Would you guys like some more bread?” “Are you guys doing all right?” “Have you guys saved some room for dessert?”
The problem, says a friend of mine, is that I go to the kinds of places where a neon sign says “EAT,” where ketchup bottles are part of the centerpiece and the food-stained menu includes grilled cheese sandwiches and pigs in a blanket.

Well, maybe, but recently at a waterside restaurant in Seattle where there was nothing on the menu under $26, Jason’s counterpart asked, “Would you guys like to see the wine list?”

At the Outback Steakhouse’sit’s company policy for the waiter to actually sit right down at the table with you. “It’s a make-you-feel-comfortable kind of thing,” the company spokeswoman said.

Here in America where we have a talent for taking things to extremesLas Vegas comes to mind here, as well as the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl, the Miss America Pageant, and everything about Donald Trumpwe seem to believe that nothing succeeds like excess, including excess familiarity.

“Will that be all for today, Sweetie?” said a clerk at the hardware store.

“Did you just call me ‘Sweetie?’” I asked.

“Huh?” she said, snapping her gum.

And in a coffee shop: “What’ll it be, Hon?” the clerk asked. In one two-minute transaction, she also managed to get in one “Dearie” and a couple of “Luv’s.”

I have a half-baked theory about this chummy, egalitarian familiarity of oursthat it might be partially explained by a fact of our language. English, unlike many other languages, has only one singular, second person pronoun—you—and we use it with everyone from street people to presidents, from young people to old.

German, on the other hand, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Turkish, Lithuanian, and Suquamish, to cite just a few examples, have both formal and informal versions of you, which means those languages allow a neat little linguistic distinction that, alas, is not so easily available to us English speakers. (Although the Japanese have an informal word for you, they don’t use it; they consider it rude to address someone so directly.)

If a German, say, were presumptuously addressed by either a stranger or a child in the equivalent of the informal you, he’d be as shocked as if he had just been asked about his income or his sex life. The formal pronoun, the one that we’ve lost, helps cushion him against these kinds of discourtesies; it reminds all speakers of that language that there are, after all, proprieties.

Not since the Middle Ages has English permitted this nice little distinction. When the lower and middle classes rose to positions of economic influence, and class lines blurred, the grammatical distinction gradually disappeared, and now we cozily address everybodywhether pauper or Popeinformally, on the shakey premise that a desire for familiarity will be shared and reciprocated. The problem is that not all of us are keen on this counterfeit palsy-walsy-ness.

So where does the reader stand on this matter of Americans’ aggressive familiarity? Even if you, like Dr. Johnson, believe that politeness is fictitious benevolence, you must agree with essayist Brendan Gill that at the least, “Custom requires an exchange of piffling politenesses.”

Meanwhile at the auto parts store, “Hey there, Big Guy, what’ll it be?”

TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]
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