Don't Call Me Sweetie! Terms of endearment can undermine your service to families & guests

"Happy New Year, Sweetie! What can I get you?"

"Hey Honey, let me help you with that."

"Let me put you on hold, Doll, while I check for you."

Aaaaggghhh! I don't know these people! Do they think they know me well enough to forego all formalities? Why are they using such familiar terms upon our first encounter? I can actually feel the hairs on my neck stand up one by one when I hear these names. In a society that is often much less personal than it used to be, this is the other extreme - way more personal than appropriate.

"Terms of Endearment" was a fantastic movie and emotionally riveting. Terms of endearment from my husband or son are meaningful and touching. Terms of endearment from a waitress, valet, or employee of a hotel, funeral home or cemetery are not any of these and in fact, are annoying, inappropriate and sometimes offensive. Why do employees use familiar or intimate terms with those with whom they are not familiar or intimate? The way employees address a guest can make such a positive or negative first, last and middle impression.

When employees serving guests and customers use these terms, they risk creating "uncomfortableness" and uncertainty. In some cases, while attempting to be friendly, they may instead offend the guest. Instead, focus on other options that universally will be accepted and positive and get the experience started on the right foot with the words to follow.

Greeting a guest is the first powerful moment to make an impression. When a cheerful hello or welcome is made, followed by that employee's own name, the guest experience can begin to flow, and both guest and employee are on sure footing. If a promiscuous greeting is made, the guest may be thrown off and the experience begins with uncertainty and possible discomfort. When employees introduces themselves, they have begun to build a relationship with the guest, versus the one-sided aspect of only calling the guest by name. It also makes it easier for the guest to call upon the employee by name, instead of "waiter" or "bellman." Employees, like guests, also like to hear their own names.

As Letitia Baldrige, the renowned protocol and manners expert, once said, "People like to have their names and titles remembered and stated correctly, it's one of the 'emoluments' to which one feels entitled." I admit I had to look up the word emolument, but I loved its meaning of "a form of compensation" to capture the feeling of recognition and a form of reward from hearing one?s own name.

And though friendliness is one of the most basic guest needs, you have to become friends first! Actually, once a connection is made, knowing the guest's name can make the most personable and appropriate impact. Saying hello to "Mr. Johnson" or "Ms. Smith" shows respect and recognition for loyal patronage. Once a regular guest or customer says, "Please, call me John," or, "You know me by now, please call me Doris," then the employee can make the next less formal move. Now, a gracious approach has been made and gracious permission has been granted. Both guest and employee can feel comfortable and empowered to be on more familiar terms.

However, the employee must still always take care and still use respect and professionalism even on this level. As Ms. Baldrige notes, "if you have to stop and think about whether or not you should use a person's first name when you greet him, the answer is you should not. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt and no one likes to be addressed by his or her first name by someone who does not have the right to do so." I remember this so well as a young girl. A few times, some of my friends would address my mom by her first name, without her permission. She was always Mrs. Nedry, so this completely caught her off guard and I'd notice a red flushness in her cheeks. She was too much of a lady to say anything, but I knew those friends were placed in her own version of a "contempt" box. I made sure never to do the same, knowing how uncomfortable it made my own mother.

In some cases, using "sir" or "ma'am" may be more appropriate. Age and title distinction may warrant more formal salutations. When more senior guests show up, they may appreciate respect for their generation and a time when formality was more common. They may appreciate "Yes Sir" and "No Ma'am" and feel like their longevity has earned them those titles. If those senior guests then request less formality, the employee has permission to do so and has followed a gracious protocol. Dignitaries may also warrant formal salutations by virtue of their positions and titles. Showing deference is important. As Letitia Baldrige states, "Deference is defined as high regard and respect owed an elder or superior and we should pay deference to visitors from the outside (beyond our organization's walls)." Employers should determine standards for greeting guests and better define formal and informal possibilities.

Using nicknames with fellow employees can also undermine a guest or even an employee experiences. Back to "sweetie," "honey" and the plethora of other clever and catchy names: Don't use them in any public environment, especially where the guest is being served. If one looks up the word "sweetie", it actually comes from the word "sweetheart" and one definition is "lover." If taken literally, a lot of eyebrows might go up as unnecessary impressions are formed. And, though fun with fellow employees, a guest or even fellow employees might not understand - or, more important, want to understand - why a nickname came to be. Why leave it to chance and allow guests and employees to ponder? Save the nicknames and fun names for after hours and when with those who know you on a personal level.

Another problem with using nouns other than a person's last name is they can sound patronizing, even without that intention. Perhaps a guest has a lot of questions and the employee is getting frustrated. An employee may attempt to use one of these terms to calm the guest down. Be prepared: They will become less calm. Keep the terms neutral and professional at all times.

Each of these thoughts applies to phone-service delivery as well. Professional salutations are especially important, as are employee-name introductions. Without in-person contact, the opportunity for misunderstanding or miscommunication can be greater. Do not allow that to happen by offending the caller with terms of endearment. Do introduce yourself and ask for permission for how to address the caller. The words and tone of those words will lead the call's effectiveness and impact.

Hospitality leaders and employers need to recognize the difference between using names and HOW to use names. Keep these points in mind when "name calling":

  • Train employees to build relationships at a personal level. While using a guest's name is important, it is more important for the employee to introduce themselves first.
  • Do not use terms of endearment at any point, beginning, middle or end. Risks far outweigh the remote possibility of any rewards.
  • Get permission for using a guest's name and how they prefer it used. Do not make the mistake of informality. With employee name and guests' preferred names in place, the employee now has permission and can engage the guest and build the relationship and experience.
  • Show deference where appropriate. Define the standards for these situations and make greetings and introductions a part of any employee's initial training. Monitor these standards and reinforce them consistently.
  • Apply these standards and name points in phone etiquette as well. Make sure professional reference to a guest takes place throughout the whole phone call.
  • Do not use nicknames with employees or guests. Camaraderie among colleagues is wonderful, but not at expense of guest or other employees.
  • Be aware of how jargon can "jar" guests into being gone! Understand how little words make big impressions and focus on the ones that make the guest experience difference.

Roberta Nedry is President of Hospitality Excellence, consultants in guest-experience management and audits, service-excellence training for management and frontline employees and concierge development. To learn more about the programs her firm offers and their service expertise, visit She can also be reached at (954) 739-5299 or