Back to: Opinion
September 17, 2013
Follow Opinion

Guest column: Hospitality workers should address customers appropriately

Light years ago when I lived near a large metro area, I occasionally treated myself by stopping by a coffee store called The Red Wagon. I knew that I would spend more per pound for the same coffee than I would at a bigger box store. The coffee wasn’t really why I stopped; I stopped for the experience.

Nothing gave me a lift like walking into a store where employees would greet me with, “Hi Paula, it’s good to see you.” If a new employee didn’t know me, I would be greeted with some other appropriate address such as “Madam,” “Miss,” or Ms.”

Often I would walk out with far more purchases than I originally intended to make. Yet I was a happy shopper because I left feeling valued and respected. Guess where I took out-of-town guests?

I don’t think we have a Red Wagon Coffee Store in Douglas County. However, we do have a lot of amazing wineries that offer delightful experiences for visitors. Many of our local wineries demonstrate an uncommon amount of hospitality, information, and direct access to the winemakers. I will confess that there is at least one local winery owner who knows me by name. Still, when I go to any of the other great local wineries, I am always addressed appropriately and respectfully. By the way, I’m having out-of-town company this week. Guess where I’ll be taking them?

In this era of convenient, hassle-free online shopping, my decision to shop locally is generally based on how I feel about the experience. When I first moved to Douglas County more than nine years ago, I thought I was just being rigid whenever I’d cringe after a local sales associate, a receptionist, or someone else representing a business would call me “dear” or “sweetie.” After all, I am old enough to remember a time when it was common to keep women in their place by calling them “girlie,” “sweetheart,” or “hon.”

Yet in talking with many other women and men in our community of all ages, and after posing the issue about preferred address on Facebook, I have discovered it isn’t just me. Though more women seem to be disturbed by the overly familiar “sweetie,” than men, it does suggest we are missing an opportunity to improve our community-business relationships.

I really don’t mind being called “dear” or “sweetheart” by people who know me well and have a personal relationship with me. I do still have a knee-jerk reaction when the context is not appropriate.

Recently, I started responding to inappropriate addresses by saying, “I’d prefer ma’am, or …” and then I offer a genuine, hopefully disarming smile. So far, I don’t think I have offended anyone.

If you are an employee who survives on tips or commission, please consider how your customers prefer to be addressed. Ask if you are not sure. If you don’t know us personally, it is probably safer to refer to elder women like me as “madam” rather than “sweetie.” My guess is that it will please more of your customers and benefit you in the long run. By the way, I believe in tipping generously when appropriate.

If you are a business owner, please encourage your employees to continue being friendly but maybe a bit more flexible in terms of how they address customers. I think you’ll find it is a win-win.

Paula Marie Usrey is an associate professor of communication at Umpqua Community College. She also teaches gender communication and has conducted workshops on generational communication. She is working on a book called “The Secret Suffragist Diary,” which can be viewed at She can be reached at

Stories you may be interested in

The News-Review Updated Sep 17, 2013 10:56AM Published Sep 17, 2013 10:56AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.