Address terms in service encounters

A Bizarro from long ago (May 25th), with a groan-worthy pun on senior and señor (roughly ‘Mr.’ in referential use):

Now some words about referential vs. vocative uses of names (Arnold Zwicky, Arnold, Zwicky, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Zwicky, Prof. Zwicky) and prefixes (like Mister or Professor on their own), both in English and Spanish, all this as a preface to some discussion of address terms in service encounters, where servers have a complex task in balancing the desire to show respect to the customer and the desire to express closeness and friendliness.

Basic distinction: between referential uses, as in

(1) Arnold Zwicky will speak on English usage at noon today.

and vocative uses, as in

(2) Arnold Zwicky, you will speak on English usage at noon today.

You’ll see just from these two examples that the sociocultural concomitants of referential vs. vocative use of the very same expression can differ substantially: (1) is neutral in tone in a way that (2) is not; (2) is associated with a power differential between speaker (superior) and addressee (inferior).

On the sociocultural front. The full range of facts — about which names can be used in which functions, with what sociocultural concomitants — is monstrously complex, and things only get worse when we move away from full NPs that are names, to other sorts, like the prefixes Professor and Mister (and Señor) used on their own, to respect terms like Sir and other bare Ns like boss, pal, buddy, friend, etc. (Here I’m concentrating on Ns that primarily denote males, since I’m going to be talking about vocatives addressed to me.) You can get some sense of the complexity of vocatives in English from my 1974 paper “Hey, whatsyourname!” (originally entitled, “Hey, lady, you dropped your piano!”) about them. And things are even worse than that: not only are the facts socioculturally complex with respect to who says what to whom in what contexts, but (as we’ll see) there is also a significant amount of variation from person to person as to how who, what, whom, and where are connected to one another.

Background: boss. In a posting of 4/12/13, I reported on being addressed as boss by servers at three local restaurants. I wrote:

The speakers are all Hispanic men, younger than me (I’ve never gotten boss from anyone else; I don’t have employees of my own); and of course it’s crucial that I’m male; and it might be relevant that I’m a regular customer in all three places; and it might be relevant that the atmosphere of all three places is informal. (Some of these men sometimes address me as Arnold, but other times as boss.)

I saw this usage as a way of accommodating both the dimension of power (showing respect to me, as the superior participant in the service encounter) and the dimension of solidarity (showing closeness or friendliness to me. (The dimensions of power and solidarity are the basis for a long tradition of studies, set of by Brown & Gilman, “The pronouns of power and solidarity” (1960),  on the choice between T (informal) and V (formal) 2nd-person pronouns in languages that have both.

A couple days later, I reported on a number of messages I’d gotten about boss as an address term not directed to an actual boss. Reports from different places in the US and the UK and in different contexts, but all in service encounters, all from men (of various ethnic groups), to men. It seemed that an assortment of people had independently fixed on boss as a solution to the problem of simultaneously conveying respect for power and friendly solidarity.

Mister and Sir. On to last year, when I began lunching regularly at Reposado, a high-end Mexican restaurant I’ve written about a number of times on this blog (to talk about food and food names). The servers there include a number of Anglos (who all address me as Arnold) and also quite a few Hispanics, almost all from Mexico (we talk about the places they grew up in). Some of the Mexicans addressed me as Arnold, but most struggled to find an address term that would maintain the friendliness of the first name but introduce a note of respect as well. Most of the hit on Mr. Arnold — presumably a translation of respectful Señor Arnold — as a solution. I was distressed, because of the history of Mr. FN as an address term in the US.

The story, compressed considerably, starts with a common address pattern on the plantations of the South, in which (white) masters and (black) slaves exchanged FN, but asymmetrically — the master giving FN alone to the slave, the slave expected to give Mr. FN in return (and the master’s wife, or other woman of the house, giving FN to the slave but expecting Miss (not Mrs.) FN in return). In an extension of this usage, slaves used Mr./Miss FN for referential use amongst themselves — referring to those people the way those people expected the slaves to address them.

Two developments from this pattern. First, Mister Charlie was fixed on by black speakers as a cover term to refer to white men in general (those who exploited blacks or were condescending towards them) and Miss Ann as a cover term to refer to white women in general. Both expressions are, as a result, deeply pejorative.

Second, long after emancipation, the patterns of Mr./Miss FN continued to be used in the South in intimate contexts, for employees (especially domestic employees) to address their employers. This was the usage of my first father-in-law Keene Daingerfield and his wife Libby, in Lexington KY: black employees (employees in the household or on the horse farms where Keene worked as a trainer) got FN from Keene and Libby and gave Mr. Keene and Miss Libby to them. (And in referential uses, Keene referred to Libby as Miss Libby in talking to these employees (“Miss Libby is pregnant”, Keene once said to his stableman Dick Mitchell, who then married Minnie, who served as nurse to the child, who grew up to become my wife Ann), and Libby referred to him as Mr. Keene in the same circumstances. That was the dominant pattern in Kentucky, for exchanges between black employees and white employers. It’s long gone now, under assault from Black Pride.

A footnote to the story of Dick and Minnie (both of whom, and Dick’s brother Frank, I came to know well). When their daughter Janet graduated from high school and Ann and I were invited to the ceremony, we sent Janet our regrets, with a graduation present, something useful for college (from which she went on to medical school and a distinguished career as an M.D. in New York City). Janet sent us a thank-you note, with the salutation “Dear Miss Ann and Mr. Arnold”. Ann immediately phoned Janet, to say that wasn’t appropriate, those times were past, she mustn’t do that any more, Janet confirmed our suspicions by bursting into tears, protesting, “Mama made me do it!”. Well, Ann said sternly, that’s your Momma’s generation, but it’s not yours.

Back to Reposado. I didn’t confront the servers who addressed me as Mr. Arnold directly, because they were only trying to show me some respect and were no doubt entirely ignorant of the history of the usage, but I did mention the matter to one of the Anglo servers, who apparently succeeding in gently edging them away from the usage.

There was still the problem of how to show me some respect. Many of them then hit on Solution #2: vocative Arnold, Sir, with Arnold for friendliness and Sir for respect.

But new servers get hired every so often, and almost all of them go for Solution #1.

Footnote: Last year I had a visit from an old friend who works at the University of Texas and lives just outside Austin. He frequently eats at restaurants in Austin, and reports that Mister FN is in full flower there. The servers are mostly Hispanic, regardless of the type of restaurant they work in, and  the black population of Austin is fairly small, so the two social worlds apparently don’t come into conflict much.

4 Responses to “Address terms in service encounters”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Interesting that it apparently didn’t occur to any of them to address you as “Sir Arnold”, thereby inadvertently knighting you.

  2. Drew Smith Says:

    I grew up in upstate South Carolina, where it was common for children to refer to the adult friends of their parents as “Mr. FN” and “Miss FN”. Calling them by their first name only would be inappropriate for a child, and calling them by their last name would be too cold. We did this with our Sunday school teachers, too. So when I get it from the Starbucks employees in my library (they like to use Mr. Drew), I take it in the same way, as friendly but respectful (since I’m old enough to be their parent, at least).

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ann Burlingham on Facebook:

    I get “Miss Ann” from a few people here in western New York, mostly from those with Southern ties. With the latest, I’m trying to train myself to return it in kind.

    I hope none of them mean it pejoratively….. as a Northerner, I hear it as almost sarcastic, though, and had to retrain my ear.

  4. Julian Lander Says:

    To me, Mr./Miss is what a young child calls a pre-school teacher. It’s what I was taught to do (in the Boston area, early 1960s) and it was what was on _Romper Room_ on TV. Adult friends of the family were called either by first name or Mr./Mrs. and last name. But extended family of my grandparents’ generation for whom there was no standard title were called Uncle or Aunt plus first name. These were my stepfather’s parents, and the parents-in-law of my uncle and my step-aunt. I don’t think the Southern Black usage was in anyone’s head: Boston was pretty segregated and had a small Black population, and I don’t think anyone in my family had Black people in their social networks.

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