Guest contributor Kristen Powell takes a moment out of her work day.
I can’t usually write anything at work. I’m the manager at an independent coffee shop, so it’s not like I can open up Word while I’m making a cappuccino. But today I’ve decided that this is important enough that I’m going to make time.
There is a customer, a white male in his late 40s, who I know by first and last name. I know this because he works for a local charity and the coffee shop has done some work with his organization. But I also know his name because we’ve been introduced and I have taken the time and energy to remember this detail about him.
But he calls me sweetie, and only sweetie.
The last time he came into the shop he said to me, “Bye, sweetie, have a nice weekend!” This sort of pet-name-dropping entitlement he has gradually been working into our interactions for weeks. It has already gotten to the point where I’ve brought it up to my co-workers. It’s clear that we little folks in the service industry are below him, as he consistently called the previous manager by whatever name he saw fit.
The male former manager, though, was awarded a chummy “Ryan” or “Chris.” My name is now just Sweetie.
Today my ire has reached a tipping point. He came to the register, and I, as I do each day he comes in, greeted him with a smile and an open mind. And he interrupted me as I greeted him to say, “Hi, Sweetie, how are you today?” Today, I think, is the day it changed from a lower-cased faux-endearment to an upper-cased legal renaming.
When this happened, this sickeningly sweet belittlement, my vision actually blurred with anger. I mentally shut down and walked away from the register as soon as I took his order, sat in the back with clenched fists.
It’s something about his choice of Sweetie, too. There is something in that name that is particularly demeaning.
My male co-worker and good friend, Sean, tries to understand why this has been making me so mad for weeks. And I’ve explained it from so many angles.
“It’s like he’s constructing Daddy issues, like, for me,” I tried.
“He can’t even remember my name, why does he get to use a term of endearment.”
“It’s what you name your pet bird.”
“It shows a complete and utter lack of respect.”
“He remembers your name, but he chooses to forget mine.”
He not only remembers Sean’s name, he talks to him about music, offers to bring him CDs and treats him like a human being. He calls me Sweetie and doesn’t let me finish a full sentence.
My main issue is this: this customer is attempting to impose an archaic, inappropriate power dynamic on me. Sure there’s the customer/cafe worker dynamic going on here, an inherent power structure that puts him in the driver’s seat, but one that also requires reciprocal respect. What is really happening here, to borrow from Charles Tilly’s “Durable Inequality,” is this customer is trying to import an exterior categorical boundary to create a script to help him navigate an unfamiliar situation. He’s relying on our gender differences to replicate a familiar structure. And I won’t have it.
So what am I doing about it? I’m writing this. I’m taking the passive aggressive digital age approach and telling the Internet I’m angry. I’m repeating Jenny Holzer’s truisms, which I read when I’m angry, to myself under by breath:
“A name means a lot just by itself.”
“Men don’t control you any more.”
“Sex differences are here to stay.”
And tomorrow I’m going to introduce myself. Again.