DEAR MISS MANNERS: As a cashier at a pharmacy chain for 19 years, I take great pride in the level of service I provide. I go out of my way to make my customers happy because ultimately they are the ones who pay me. I also take great pride in knowing the names of 80 percent of the regulars.
I've had my fair share of difficult people, and I always manage to find a way to deal with them politely and professionally. But last evening I had a particularly difficult one who berated me very loudly in front of several others.
When she walked through the door, I greeted her as I greet everyone, male or female, with: "Hi, hon! How are you today?" She responded, "I'm not your 'hon,' I'm your customer!" She walked away, cursing me and my store location in particular.
I was taken aback! Not once in all of my years of working with the public have I ever had anyone complain because I had called them "hon."
When she came up to the register, I greeted her again, without the "hon," but during the course of our interaction, I unintentionally called her "dear."
That was it -- she was off and running with a loud verbal assault on my rude and condescending behavior and my overall intelligence. She asked me if I even knew what "condescending" meant. I told her yes, I do know what it means, I'm very sorry, that I never meant to offend her, and I was only trying to be friendly.
This shook me to my core! I was heartbroken that I had insulted someone, even if it was unintentional, and extremely embarrassed for both her and me. It bothered me so much that I waited on the couple behind her in tears. I would NEVER purposely insult or condescend to my customers. I love them; they allow me to keep food in my daughter's mouth, clothes on her back and a roof over her head.
Until that moment, it never dawned on me that my use of "hon" could be offensive. This bothered me so much that I started doing research about it. I found out that many people are offended by it.
I purposely don't use "ma'am" and "sir" -- I think it is too formal. I want my customers to know that I truly appreciate and care about them. I'm hoping that you will suggest something to call those who I don't know by name -- something that falls somewhere between the "ma'am/sir" formality and the "hon" familiarity.
GENTLE READER: There, there. Let us begin with acknowledging that you meant well and that the customer was rude. But then Miss Manners must go on to explain the problem.
Terms of endearment, however common, are not suitable for commercial transactions. It is a relatively formal situation, and "ma'am" and "sir" are not wrong. Except that ...
There is a problem related both to those terms and to the accusation of condescension. It has to do with our prudish attitudes toward age. Some people object to titles of dignity because they believe it identifies them as old. Others consider that unwarranted affection is used to treat the elderly as children.
So you can't win. Miss Manners offers her sympathy and suggests that you refrain from direct modes of address until you learn the new customers' names.