Communicate Interpersonally: Terms of Non-Endearment

communicate interpersonally; african american woman helping an asian man

I was checking out at the neighborhood grocery store when a checker came up behind me and asked, “Did you find everything you need, Hoss?” Hoss? Seriously? Perhaps like you, I’ve been called Hoss, Chief, Dude, Sugar, Darlin’, Love, Young Fella, Bro, Pardner, and any number of other names that have nothing to do with me. I like to call them “terms of non-endearment.” They can get in the way of our ability to communicate interpersonally with customers, coworkers, and everyone else.

In our online customer service training, we recommend avoiding the use of such names when dealing with customers, especially those whom you don’t know. There are a couple of reasons why you should avoid such terms. First of all, they’re unnecessary. They’re just a conversational crutch that some people use. Secondly, you most likely have no idea about the other person’s history or beliefs. The pet name you call them might be offensive, inappropriate, or even hurtful. For example, my friend Paul is a retired naval officer. A clerk at the local hardware store always refers to Paul as “Chief.” If you know anything about the United States Navy, you know that Chief Petty Officers are among the highest ranking enlisted people. Referring to an officer as “Chief” is inappropriate with both officers and chiefs.

In a recent training, one of the participants said he uses those types of pet names with his customers to make his communication more personal. The problem with that is it’s not more personal. He uses the same pet name with everyone, so it’s actually generic.

Of course, there are situational considerations and stereotypes may apply. For example, in a California surf shop, you might expect to be called “Dude” or in a diner, you could expect to be called “Darlin’.” There are geographical and cultural considerations as well. What’s appropriate in the Deep South might be inappropriate on the West Coast or vice-versa. What’s appropriate within your social group may be inappropriate in a different group, and vice-versa.

What about “Sir” and “Ma’am?” That’s a tough one. Many people feel that “Sir” and “Ma’am” are terms of respect. Others, however, feel that they’re overly formal and old-fashioned.

You may be thinking it doesn’t bother you when someone calls you “Sugar” or “Dude” or some other name, but this isn’t about you and me. It’s about your customer and their needs. It’s also, frankly, about their quirks. There’s no benefit to anyone in using such names and they may create barriers to your ability to communicate interpersonally with your customers.

You may also be thinking this is much ado about nothing. Good point, but if there’s no reason to do something and it has the potential to create a communication barrier, what’s the harm in dropping it? The legendary American college football coach Bear Bryant reminded himself that “It’s the itty bitty, teeny tiny things that get you beat.

So, what’s a person to do? I have two suggestions for you. The first is to use your eyes and ears to learn what’s customary and appropriate where you are. Be sensitive to your environment and the ways others speak and act. My second suggestion is to learn the other person’s name whenever you can and use it. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m terrible with names, but I never forget a face.” You can learn to remember names. The best tip I can give you to help you remember someone’s name is to use it right after you learn it or write it down.

Remember, communication styles are frequently different at work than when you’re with your friends. They’re different in different parts of the country. They’re different in various sub-cultures. They’re different among generations. Pay attention to the ways others communicate and follow their lead while also being authentic. (In other words, if you’re a Gen X-er, don’t try to talk like a Gen Z-er.) That way, you’ll ensure you’re heard and understood and that’s how you communicate interpersonally.

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