I’m not your boss, sir: service worker small talk as class warfare?

One of my least favorite social interactions is when service workers, often waitstaff, use ‘terms of endearment.’ You know, “what can I get you, hon?” or “there you go, boss.” It makes me uncomfortable. I say service workers because these are the interactions in which I notice it, but surely it happens elsewhere too. Quite frankly, terms of endearment from just about anyone make me uncomfortable, so it may just be that I’m atypically socially distant (I’d buy that). Maybe, but I think there are social patterns here to be considered

First, the phenomenon appears gendered. I’ve never noticed a male waiter call me ‘hon’ or ‘sweetie,’ and I don’t recall a lot of female service workers calling me ‘boss.’ Service workers have an opportunity to do some fun breaching experiments here. I imagine most folks wouldn’t notice if a female worker called them ‘boss,’ but I imagine nearly every male would notice if a male worker called him ‘sweetie.’  Having read about ‘everyday sexism‘, I’d guess women hear a lot more of this sort of small talk than do men, from both women and men. Women are probably uncomfortably called ‘sweetie’ all the time, by everyone. Do male workers call female customers ‘boss’?

Second, why do I find it so uncomfortable? I think the language is too intimate for what are nearly always fleeting relationships in the context of economic transactions. While I’ve never said it, I always think “I’m not your hon,” or “I’m not your boss”  Maybe Donald Black’s theory of Moral Time could help me understand a bit of it. Is the conflict I feel a result of ‘over intimacy?’ That seems reasonable for ‘hon’ and ‘sweetie’ and the like, but maybe not for ‘boss.’ I find ‘boss’ harder to take. I always hear with it a bit of disdain. Maybe it’s a small shot at the inequality of the service relationship? Maybe in this context ‘boss’ is meant to draw attention to the fact that work is being done, for me, by someone who is likely underpaid and under appreciated. Maybe it’s a subtle critique of class privilege? Maybe it’s the expression of completely internalized capitalistic social relations?

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3 comments

  1. I was at a Jiffy Lube recently, and the guy behind the counter kept saying things like, ‘Hey boss, your car is next. You want some coffee, boss? Boss, here’s your air filter, do you want us to change it?” I felt this was more annoying than indicative of a class struggle.

  2. Agree that the “boss” moniker is irritating. However, I must confess that I do not object to the use of hon and sweetie from women service workers–but that might just be my latent sexism or willingness to accept flattery.

    What I like the most is the flip side of these interactions–when workers use the term “brother” or (to my female comrades) “sister” as an acknowledgement of class or occupation solidarity.

  3. I always felt the terms like hon (I almost put hon in quotes and I remembered your admonition against the use of quotes) were simply used because the female wanted to address me in some way and felt that was the easiest way to do it. Sir being too stuffy and Asshole being too accurate, hon is an good compromise. I don’t ever recall being referred to as boss.
    Looking at it from my side, I’m always uncomfortable referring to a woman as hon, or lady, so in my clumsy way I go with ma’am, which is actually a term of deference to the one being addressed, but it is short and easy and I can be excused because I’m an old asshole (see above) and if I use some of the other terms I’d be thought of as an old pervert. In reality it isn’t an issue for me, perhaps because I have a problem with how to address others as well when I don’t know their name. (That’s why I hang out at Cheers)

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