Breaking Through
Author : Véronique Vienne    -   Subject : Relationships

    Young people and I spoke different languages—until I learned the rules of engagement

    by Véronique Vienne

    Oh, thank you, sweetie," I told the young woman who handed me a glove I had dropped on the sidewalk. "How nice of you." Without breaking her stride she smiled at me politely and disappeared around the corner. I would have thought nothing of the incident if that same evening, while waiting to pick up my Chinese food takeout order, I hadn't run into a college friend of my daughter. "How are you, honey?" I asked her. "And how are your darling parents?"

    Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my mind, an alarm bell went off. Darling? Honey? Sweetie? Was I on a sugar high? Or could it be that I had become the kind of feeble fool who dispenses terms of endearment indiscriminately? "I've got to run," I blurted out, not giving the girl a chance to answer my question. I grabbed my food and headed out as fast as I could.

    'I have made it a rule only to sweetie-pie people who can sweetie-pie me in return.'

    Hardly a breach of etiquette by popular standards, my saccharine remarks were nonetheless particularly disturbing to me. In France, where I grew up, we don't take lightly matters of verbal misuse. In everyday conversation, we constantly have to decide which form of speech is most suited for the situation—the formal "vous" or the casual "tu." Being too friendly can be interpreted as evidence of poor upbringing; being too ceremonial can also be a social gaffe, a sign of class insecurity. Only as people get older—and as their mental acuity presumably diminishes—are they given some leeway. White hair allows you to treat government officials and flower girls in the same affectionate manner. French senior citizens take full advantage of this cultural loophole, cheerfully calling everyone mon chéri, mon amour, or mon petit chou.

    Both my grandmother and my mother had mellowed into lovely people who infantilize young adults with slightly condescending compliments. But now it looked as though I, too, was well on my way to becoming delightfully corny, a "distinguished" old lady. Me—of all people! Though I'd always taken pride in feeling younger than my 59 years, here I was talking like someone who should voluntarily surrender her driver's license.

    The problem with bestowing endearing expressions on the younger set is that not only do they mark you as frivolous, but they're also subtle putdowns. I still remember my annoyance when, as an ambitious young magazine art director, I had to stand still while the éminence grise of the art department—a suave gentleman more than twice my age—showed me with great ceremony the correct way to use a pair of scissors! (Only now does it occur to me that he sincerely might have wanted to teach me something rather than just humiliate me.)

    Truth be told, young adults are unnerving to us precisely because they don't welcome our advice. What they would probably like more than anything is for us to listen, not lecture.

    In a concerted effort not to feel that I had reached my dotage, I decided to sketch out a few rules to rein in my saccharine inclinations. I recommend these practices for all who would have intelligent verbal exchanges with people under 50:

    I have made it a rule only to sweetie-pie people who can sweetie-pie me in return: 'I have to keep reminding myself that the entire Generation X is not fair game for my doting impulses.'

    my dad, my daughter, my 55-plus girlfriends, my husband's ex-wives, and my former mother-in-law. With everyone else, I use proper names and speak in full sentences. I am even polite with teenagers. And though I still speak "motherese" with infants, I no longer baby-talk with any children who can walk unaided.

    God help us if we attempt to start a conversation with a well-intentioned "when I was your age," or "when I lived in Japan," or "when I played drums for Country Joe and the Fish." Young people have a secret word for those of us for whom any conversational gambit serves as a launching pad for windy reminiscence. They call us "when-I's." (This is no compliment.)

    If conjuring up the good old days is bad, evoking our future demise is worse. So, even in a jest, never complain about your health. A long litany of aches and pains and deteriorating body parts—the organ recital—is a sure way to shorten the attention span of anyone with good teeth and strong knees.

    To keep from talking down, always begin with the presumption that those under 50 are as smart as you are. As the work force ages, it's becoming ever more common to find yourself tilling the same field with young upstarts. Working together means communicating as equals. Twenty-eight-year-olds now have the authority to initiate or cancel contracts with me. I make every effort not to flaunt my years of wisdom to give me a professional edge. This is not always easy.

    I find I can accept direction. My greatest challenge when working with young people is curbing my maternal instincts. I am the rescuing type, always ready to help people I deem vulnerable, from stroller-pushing moms to lost tourists. So I have to keep reminding myself that the entire Generation X is not fair game for my doting impulses. Leave the kids alone, lady. They are not up for adoption!

    The payoff for all my self-restraint is that I get to have a larger pool of friends. The first time I realized that it was actually possible to converse with a twentysomething wearing camouflage pants and an ankle tattoo, I felt like an astrophysicist who had just deciphered a message from outer space. Young adults will keep me off the granny track, though I do sometimes wish they would lighten up a bit. One young man recently admonished me for referring to his live-in girlfriend as his partner. "Please, don't be politically correct, it's so naïve," he said. I had to chuckle—young people take themselves so seriously!

    But then, just as I was about to tone down my PC remarks, a fresh-faced feminist gave me a hard time because I casually remarked that I like Renoir. "Renoir? How can you?" she exclaimed. "Paintings of placid women posing naked for the benefit of male viewers are simply insulting to anyone with a mind." Well, I thought, there's a point to consider. I guess I stand corrected.

    It's all in good cheer. If I am slightly befuddled by their plug-'n'-play world, I am ultimately flattered to be considered one of the players. And in the end, it helps to remember that the main difference between us is not age, but style.

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