Molly Fisk: Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Yesterday a young man called me sweetheart and then widened his eyes and asked “Is that OK, to call you sweetheart? I call everyone I like sweetheart, even the men.” To prove this, he raised his voice from behind the counter, aiming at another young man sitting at a nearby table, “Good morning, sweetheart!” The guy grinned, removed his ear buds, and waved at us. I don’t believe he had heard a word. This is what it’s like right now in my life: people are thinking more about what they’re saying and doing, questioning whether habitual responses are valid.

I grew up in a family that hugged a lot, and I just continued the hugging with everyone else automatically. Also, it was the ’60s. Then I went through a phase of not wanting to be touched by strangers myself, and suddenly saw, with horror, how unaware my own behavior was. Now, I try to remember to ask people before I touch them, and stay out of range until I get an answer. I sometimes also exaggerate, holding my arms out like a frigate bird’s wingspan so no one will mistake that a hug is being offered — an impromptu game of charades.

Have you ever said “no” when someone asked for a hug? It’s not that easy. Our culture pressures us in so many ways to go along and not rock the boat. I’m not even talking about instances where desire might be involved.

As an exercise, you could try this. It’s a great warm-up for the touchy-feely unconsciousness of the holidays. Figure out a phrase you can say and then rehearse a few times — in front of a mirror or with a close person. This is good modeling for kids, too, if you’re raising any. “Thanks, but it’s a no-hug day for me,” or “I’m not taking hugs right now.” You can also fib until you’ve worked up your courage: “Stop! I’m coming down with something!” People are often on auto-pilot, so sometimes I’ve had to back up or put my hands out in front of me, which is awkward. The whole darn thing is awkward, of course, and it can get worse. Once an acquaintance burst into tears when I stopped her mid-lunge.

But this is clearly about the other person, not about you. In light of current events, it’s good to remind ourselves that our bodies belong to us and we’re in charge, whether we’re a nine-year-old boy wincing as Aunt Ruth tries to pinch our cheek again or a 28-year-old actor not wanting her hope for a movie role to be misconstrued. Also, when you can say no to a hug, it makes your yesses feel wonderful.

I said to my friend behind the counter, “Sweetheart doesn’t bother me, but I’m only 62. It can sound disrespectful when you say it to 80-year-olds.” He cocked his head and thought for a minute. “It’s not quite the right word. You are sweet, but you’re at least half bad-ass.”

I smiled. It’s so satisfying to be truly known.

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  • Shirley November 18, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Younger people (and sometimes not that much younger) have started calling me “Miss Shirley.” I don’t like it but am not able to come up with a polite correction. Any ideas?

    • Jo Shafer November 18, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      To “Miss” Shirley ~ From a young person, or a child, “Miss Shirley” is showing respect to a grown-up. From a contemporary, I think it’s rather silly. What would Miss Manners say today, notwithstanding Amy Vanderbuilt?

  • Mickey M. November 18, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Is a virtual hug okay?! Hugs, Molly. As always, you are so right on point of what I am thinking. How about: “I didn’t have a shower today. I don’t want to offend.” No, that’s ridiculous. Just joking. Love you, my dear. May I call you ‘my dear’? May I share that I ‘love’ you and your writing?

  • Karen Donaldson November 18, 2017 at 11:09 am

    Thanks, once again, Molly. Love the “You are sweet, but you’re at least half bad-ass.” So good.