Some young people automatically slip into the habit of speaking in a patronising way to anyone they consider to be elderly and presumably, in their opinion, past it. But why? What makes them think that grey hair and a few wrinkles warrant a different tone of voice to the rest of humanity?
It can be a bit a shock when it first happens to you, almost confusing as you come to terms with the fact that someone is looking at you and making a value judgment…one you are not likely to appreciate.
It first happened to me one summer’s afternoon. The young shop assistant was only being friendly in her naive way…but her innocent comment aged me 10 years.
It just shows how time creeps up on you. There you are, breezing your way through life thinking you’re still young and bright, not noticing how the slowly declining hairline is merging with quickly increasing wrinkle line…then suddenly someone says something seemingly harmless that stops you in your tracks.
My bruising encounter with the reality of how young people perceived me happened one afternoon at my gym. I’d finished my session and was ordering a coffee in the bar.
I’d got pocketful of coins, so I took the opportunity to get rid of some of them. Unfortunately, no one had told me that this was apparently an ‘old man’ kind of thing to do or I might have spared myself some embarrassment!
I counted out six or seven coins and handed them over to the assistant, a very helpful girl of about 18 or 19. “You better check the amount to make sure I got it right,” I said, knowing she’d have to check it anyway, and so sparing her the embarrassment of making it seem as if she didn’t trust me.
She quickly calculated I’d got it right and then in the sweetest of voices, delivered the hammer blow with just two sweet, patronising, condescending deadly words: “Ah bless…” she said as she looked at me with a sweet, saintlike smile.
I must have looked startled or confused because she pointed to an empty table and said in the louder than necessary tone of a care worker addressing a patient. “You go and sit over there and I’ll bring your coffee to you…save you standing and waiting.”
Maybe I was like a patient in a care home because I nodded obediently and started walking to the table as instructed, in a bit of a daze, almost wondering whether I ought to be using a zimmer frame.
It was strangely disorientating. I hadn’t been so confused since trying to follow the plot of Lost on TV 10 years earlier.
What had just happened? Seconds before ordering that coffee, I’d been congratulating myself on getting through a tough session, doing five miles on the bike, lots of weights and stretches and a quick swim to cool off…and looking pretty darn cool in the process. Now, I was being addressed as doddering old-timer, whose capabilities were so limited that I was to be congratulated for managing to count out the correct coins to pay for my coffee.
As I sat down, I found myself smiling in amusement…or was it bemusement, I wasn’t sure. Partly annoyed…hey, I wasn’t helping to make Richard Branson a billionaire with my Virgin gym fees just to be patronised…but mostly I was amused.
After all, she was only being nice in her own way, although it spoke volumes as to how her assessment of me was very different to my own. There I was, walking through this world with confidence like I always did without any concept of age, yet to her, I was a sweet old man who was so clever he could still count.
You could say she was being patronising but it’s equally true that she meant no harm. I’m sure she’s a lovely and charming young woman with no clue how her condescending comment came across.
The thing is what to do about it. How to view it. I could have been offended and said something, but that would surely be an overreaction and the young girl would have been mortified to think that she might have caused offence.
In any case, there’s a lot of truth in the saying that age is a state of mind, as I know from my own experience because this wasn’t the first time I’d been made to feel old before my time. It can happen at any age because it’s all relative.
The poet Allan Ginsberg spoke about the impact of seeing Bob Dylan for the first time in the early 1960s. Ginsberg was part of the beatnik generation, the cool kids who were shaking up society in the 50s. But by the 60s they were looking a little stale. Then came Dylan and the folk revival. Ginsberg watched him perform with a sense of admiration but also sadness, as he realised he was no longer the cool young upstart; the torch was being passed to a new generation.
I could sympathise with Ginsberg because I has similar negative epiphany myself. One of my first jobs in journalism was writing a pop column for my newspaper. I’d come of age in the 1970s, brought up on the Beatles, Dylan and Bowie. I took it for granted that I was young and cool…and then, punk rock exploded. It wasn’t my music, yet my job meant I had to go to concerts to review this new brand of brash, anarchic noise.
Young 16-year-olds emerged wearing rags tied with safety pins, Mohican haircuts and painted faces, listening to music with no melodies, jumping up and down and calling it dancing. This was the exciting dangerous new thing blowing the old ‘dinosaur’ bands away and I wasn’t part of it. My long hair and flared trousers were suddenly out of date. I was no longer part of youth culture. I felt old at 21.
This young girl’s “ah bless” took me right back to that moment.
In reality, I was neither young nor old in either of these examples, only in my perceptions. But although perceptions aren’t real, they may as well be if you let them determine what you do and how you see yourself.
With that in mind, it was time to restore some normality and reset my relationship with this young woman. I swung my gym bag on my shoulder and marched confidently towards the exit, determined not to give away that my body was stiffening up and creaking after all that exercise.
I glanced over to her as I put my card in the slot to open the exit gate but she wasn’t looking. My showpiece departure had gone to waste…except I wasn’t departing. The barrier didn’t open. I pulled my card out and put it back in again…still nothing. I tried again…still nothing.
Then the ultimate shame. The young assistant came over to help, took out my card and put it back in the other way round. “Oh thank you,” I said, realising I’d blown my chance to look competent and only made matters worse. “Silly me. Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” she said with that saintlike smile, and then, slightly louder than necessary. “Don’t worry. It happens all the time. Have a nice day.”
That voice turned the gym back into a care home again. It was such a relief to get out; I wasn’t looking forward to returning.