Maybe I wasn’t loved enough as a child. Maybe I romanticize a strain of mid-20th-century Baltimore culture that I first encountered in Barry Levinson movies. Whatever the reason, I love it when a waitress calls me by a pet name, a form of sweet punctuation to an otherwise transactional question:
“You want a splash more coffee, hon?”
I’m fully aware that such provincial friendliness is frowned upon by polite society. The record is filled with diners who fairly faint at the sound of a server injecting a familiar “sweetie” into a formal interaction. To these souls, terms of endearment are practically weapons of mirth destruction when spoken outside the confines of an intimate relationship.
To such sticklers, a casually dropped “sweetheart” is not a sign of affection, but a suggestion of insolence. A server may be trying to assert her dominance. She may be expressing contempt by treating adults as children. She may be using pet names as code words for “old,” “senile” or “please don’t die before my shift ends.”
Miss Manners has advised, straight up, that “terms of endearment ... are not suitable for commercial transactions.”
I’m here to tell you that they’re suitable for my commercial transactions. Most of my transactions, anyway. It would just be weird, and sort of surreal, if a server started calling me “dear” at Minibar by José Andrés: a dose of gum-smacking sweetness in a xanthan gum world. So, yes, context can be important.
Most of the time, when a waitress serves me up a heaping helping of “hon” at a diner, I take it for what it is: an expression of culture. She may have lived in an area where such pleasantries were a routine part of daily life, as unconscious as breathing. I might even ask about her hometown, if she’s not too busy wiping down laminated menus or refilling cups of mud.
But, to be honest, it’s a rarer form of this server-diner interaction that moves me. I’ll be sitting at a counter, just one of seven or eight diners under a server’s watch. In between bites of short-order eggs, I’ll notice that, no matter how frantic she gets, the waitress keeps an eye on me, occasionally circling back to make sure I’m still a happy little blip on her radar.
“Everything OK here, dear?” she’ll ask.
It’s said in a tone that I can’t fully define, but it’s an intricate weave of tenderness, professionalism and fatigue, never manipulation. It melts me. It’s like, for a brief second, I’ve encountered a person who has acquired wisdom beyond my comprehension. She can shoulder the demands of a brutal lunch hour and still have room in her heart to offer a kind word to a stranger.