Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Death of the Waitress

I come to this blog with the sole inference I can draw, namely, that I have been invited to taint the textual lines herein with a splash of devil’s advocacy and to provoke – perhaps unwittingly – conversation among the like-minded and good natured gentle membership of this site. I write today with a purely inquisitive frame of mind, and do not intend to toe the line of rhetoric- no matter how seeming it may be to the subjective mind of the reader.

Whether one agrees with the central aims of the post-modern movement toward what many identify as “political correctness,” no one can deny without losing all standing for intellectual honesty that the movement was largely, and continues to be, driven by feministic thought. I often find myself committing that fatal error of pronouncing some un-PC utterance, but after all, I am admittedly antiquated in my notions; perhaps I’m just too lazy to stay abreast of the evolutions our language undergoes. One day its “waitress” the next its “server.” It really is too much for me. Yet, must it be?

I pose this question in the hope that someone might enlighten me, for I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation for the alterations made to my beloved linguistic fabric. My quandary is perhaps best analyzed by anecdote. I was out to dinner with a female friend of mine. In an offhand remark, I queried as to what my date would like to drink “when the waitress gets back.” By the look on the face across the table from me I thought I had unknowingly desecrated her family’s ancient scrolls. ‘Twas not the scrolls however, it was my use of “waitress.” I was frankly puzzled, I was at a positive loss for words. I was also three sheets to the wind.

I still have yet to understand why “server” is somehow inherently better, and thus preferred, over “waitress”. The only explanation I have ever received is that “waitress” is not politically correct. But why? And says who? If the word is deconstructed to its syntactic components, is it because “waitress” somehow sounds like someone is waiting on me and is thus my subordinate? This can’t be so, because “server” is much more similar – both linguistically and phonetically to “servant”, and surely servant is far worse than the impliedly demeaning nature of one who waits.

The same goes for “steward” and “stewardess.” My last flight would’ve been pleasant but for the uncomfortable correction at the gate to the effect that: “Sir, it’s flight attendant, not stewardess.” I felt shame. But why? Why is “flight attendant” the preferred jargon? Is it because it abolishes sexual (sorry, gender-based) distinctions? Both men and women (and other?) can now fall under the all-inclusive umbrella of “flight attendant?” I fail to see the virtue in that. All it does is strip our language of its enticing diversity. It also threatens, in the long-haul to reduce the pages necessary in dictionaries, and after all, this site is in part sponsored by Merriam Webster. But I digress...

In the totality of the world’s ills, my point seems miniscule, flippant even. But I am weary of the English language losing its color and clarity, and the exactitude I've come to love. I hope someone might set me right and satisfy my desire for an explanation.

And in the spirit of blogging, I cannot take leave without linking to at least one site in support. See Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D for a brief essay on this topic.


Venture Capitalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy said...

Thanks for raising the topic, Adam. In response to venture capitalist, I think acknowledging and discussing language is an important part of changing notions of gender and sexuality. Language is a powerful tool that affects perception.

Job titles are labels that carry numerous connotations. I think our society has moved in the direction of gender-neutral titles such as flight attendant because it sends the respectful message that whether male or female, these individuals are doing the same work (which becomes significant when you consider issues such as wage discrepancies between genders). For this reason, I think it's appropriate for employers to use the more gender neutral term. I also think when addressing a mass audience or someone you don't know, it's better to use the gender-neutral term (e.g.: the AP Style Guide recommends using the term comedian to cover both male and female performers, rather than comedienne...seems better, doesn't it?).

On the flip side, I completely understand your point about losing the "enticing diversity" of the language. If I'm chatting with some friends or writing a piece of fiction, for instance, I certainly wouldn't feel guilty about using the word waitress. So basically, my opinion is that we simply need to use common sense and evaluate the situation when using one term over another.

Derek said...

"So I speak for myself when I state that I lack sympathy for those who can’t cope with this ‘evolving overly P.C. society.’ But I refuse to spend my time researching or engaging in debate about whether or not I should be pissed off about not using the term ‘mail-person.’ In a society that allows for such overt oppression, I’m going to remain pissed off until the oppression ends. And on that day I’m going to find something new to be pissed off about."

Awesome. Thanks Steven, I'll be back to post my own response in a moment.

Derek said...

Assuming you actually don't understand why the language has evolved to be this way I would like to address your question directly. Language evolves to reflect the sensibilities of the times, and in this case I don't see these sensibilities as a mere trend of pop culture but as an awakening by a great many people as to the power and significance of labels. When someone uses a feminized term for a server it implies that the server can be assumed to be female, that women "should" be in that field, and that it would be odd for a male to be operating in that propensity. Its the same as using a pejorative that has its root as a descriptive term for an entire group of people. When someone chooses to refer to something that they find annoying, weak, or generally disagreeable as "gay" they tell everyone around them that gay people are annoying, weak, and generally disagreeable. How does this make the gay people within earshot feel? Like the culture is hostile to them and makes negative assumptions of them. It is wrong to categorize people, professions, or anything in this overly general and assumptive way, it limits us in immeasurable ways.

I would say that our culture's new found sensitivity to the power of labels is actually forcing us to dig a little deeper into the English lexicon and to think more about the language that we choose and how it may affect people. Instead of the reactionary response you have chosen, step up and realize that you are potentially hurting people. Yes my Grandfather is annoyed that he has to step back and correct himself after calling an ornery young relative a "cotton-pickin' stinker" but I think its advisable. Anytime people are forced to think a little deeper about what they are saying and doing I think its a good thing, particularly when it can affect others so profoundly.

Anonymous said...

To Venture Capitalist: I feel equally compelled to reply to your responsive memorandum. The issues you raise are numerous, and it would be a tall order at this literal eleventh hour to attempt a counterpoint to each. As a threshold matter, I would be more than open to a discussion on the limitations imposed on speech in our nation's constitutional jurisprudence, however that would be a taxing exercise in a comments section such as this. Let me just say that the constitutional law class that I took at law school would not demarcate between my use of "waitress" and your so-called right to "bitch" (excuse my break with decorum) about those who offend you. Please do cite the decision in which a majority of the Court has legitimized your assertion (it has not).

You begin by painting "this very conversation" as an attempt to marginalize the feminist movement. I harbored no such intent. In fact, I would say that the claim of marginalization is more often employed against a person one disagrees with to avoid the substantive merits of any given discussion. In short, I believe your plaintively-stated marginalization claim accomplishes the same effect as you wish to avoid.

Regarding your invocation of (and startling self-identification with) Malcolm X, I really don't have much to say. We agree that he was radical. I however, don't share his fury. I also don't share his belief that white-devils were created in a misguided breeding program by a black scientist. But we all have our role models in life. I respect your freedom of choice.

Skipping lastly to your assertion that ours is a society that so overtly permits oppression, I am curious as to whether your frustration is leveled at America alone or of trans-continental proportions. The reason I raise this question derives simply from my observations that around the world there is vastly worse oppression, and to seemingly single out the United States as the protagonist, is to me, unwarranted. I guess I'm requesting of you a few examples of "such overt oppression."

Your apology is duly noted, but unnecessary. I appreciate your point of view and willingness for a frank discussion.

Anonymous said...

To Derek: Indeed I do understand - as a general proposition - the evolution of language. However, "evolution" necessarily implies the natural process of change, not the forced alteration by a minority in an abrupt and altogether incoherent manner.

We agree, language evolves to reflect the sensibilities of the times. I would posit however, that yours (and others) demand for genderically neutral linguistic applications is anything but sensible.

You assert that when someone uses a "feminized term" for a server it implies that the server can be "presumed female." No such presumption is made. In fact, there is no presumption whatsoever. If I see a human form with breasts and long hair, I can fairly conclude that the being is female. I do not need to presume the sex of the human by means of job title. He/she either is a woman or not (in which case he would, by logical deduction, be a man). Such a conclusion carries no connotation at all that the woman "should" be in that field; she simply is in that field, and there is no denying that if one accepts what is before one's eyes. If a male occupied that role the same conclusion would be drawn. Your analysis assumes a logically fallacious theory of perception and implication. It need not be so.

As a final matter, I take issue with your assertion that it is wrong to categorize people. There is nothing inherently wrong with categorization, just as there is nothing wrong with meaningful discrimination. I discriminate on a daily basis. Between the laundry detergent and orange juice each morning I discriminate against the detergent. I drink the OJ. Hence, I discriminate against my bottle of detergent. Likewise, I can distinguish a waitress from the manager and bus-boy (sorry, bus-person). It is not an evil generalization to draw such distinctions in our daily goings-on. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I do not limit myself or society at large in doing so. Your version of sexually androgenous terminology poses a much greater threat of linguistic limitation (not to mention confusion).

You ask me to think deeply about this issue. I have, and ask you to do the same. The implications are indeed profound.