Column: Just Call Me Steve, or Whatever You Want

“Is that all, sweetheart?” This unbidden term of endearment came not from my wife, who only uses saccharine in her vanilla lattes and, I hope, wouldn’t utter it in any intimate context. The query came from the middle-aged woman tending the cash register at the Butterfly Pavilion in Boulder, Colo. I felt special for a very short time, until the woman next in line was “hon” and a man older than I was “sweetie.”

I wasn’t offended, but it rekindled my curiosity about who calls whom by what name or term, and why. It is a complex human matter and seems to pass without examination, although I’m sure a dusty Ph.D. thesis or two addresses it.

“Sweetheart,” “sweetie,” “hon,” and similar terms are generally used to speak to small children or intimate relatives or friends, not total strangers. But such language also is employed by folks in service positions — cashiers, sales clerks, wait staff — who likely endure all manner of rudeness. Using a term of endearment is a relatively innocuous, pre-emptive way of condescending, rather than being condescended to. I suspect it is a subtle psychological attempt to establish stature.

Of course that’s in the context of the term’s user being in a position held in relatively low esteem, regardless of the value or dignity of the important work they do. I would never object to that. It is quite a different matter when a physician or other “authority” figure uses such terms. In those instances it is double condescension, reminding the recipient of who’s in control. This is quite objectionable, especially when directed to older people. I would recommend calling any such doctor, lawyer or other person “sweetie” in return and enjoy the reaction. (You might also look for a new doctor or lawyer.).

There are other ways the use of names expresses something psychological about the namer. My mother, now 93, is an example. For most of her life she has mispronounced names. I’m not referring here to her lifelong predilection for calling me “Peter,” which is my younger brother’s name. That, I have always suspected, is just wishful thinking on her part, as he was and is a much more attentive child than I.

But, for example, she might refer to a movie star, say Matt Damon, as Matt Damn-on. Or pronounce the name of the famous pianist Richard Goode as Richard “Good-ee.” The innocence of her mispronunciation is invariably betrayed by the disdainful clarity with which the name is misspoken. It doesn’t necessarily reveal her opinion of the person, as she is a fine pianist herself and holds Richard Goode in appropriately high regard. But it is a way of expressing her disdain for fame or popularity as though it is beneath her to be aware of what everyone else knows. But you can bet the ranch that she’d nail the pronunciation of a minor Dostoevsky character with a flawless Russian accent. Of course I wouldn’t know if she were faking it.

The choices made in name use say much more about the person naming than the person named. Several work associates in past years always called me “Steven,” even though no one else did. In these cases it served some odd need to impose a more formal aura on our relationship. In a delightful reversal, nine years ago a group of second-grade girls started calling me “Stevie.” At Calhoun, the school I head, all of us from board chair to 3-year-olds are on a first name basis. But I don’t believe I had ever been called “Stevie” in my life until 2005. These girls are now high school juniors and still call me “Stevie.” It is a hoot when I’m escorting visitors through the school. It empowered them in some way knowable only to 8-year-old girls but I was, and remain, happy to be of service. I add an “ie” to the end of each of their names too, and will do so when I hand them diplomas next year.

A student who came to Calhoun from the South some years ago insisted on calling me Dr. Nelson (I have no doctorate). For months, whenever encountering her, I would remind her that we were all on a first name basis. She finally gave in and started calling me “Dr. Steve.” She just couldn’t quite rid herself of the cultural rules of Southern formality.

Years ago, I would likely have corrected anyone who called me “Steven,” “Stevie,” or “sweetheart.” Now I figure it must be doing something for the other person and simply acknowledge the name with a smile. I don’t even mind when my mother calls me “Peter.” I choose to believe she means it as a compliment.

Steve Nelson’s column appears in Perspectives every other week. He lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is head of the Calhoun School.