Explain being called "boss."

I’m a middle-aged white guy. Last year I moved from a mostly white area to a place where blacks and Latinos make up a lot more of the population.

Among young men in retail and service jobs – mechanics, counter clerks, etc. – I’ve noticed a lot of the young black and Latino men call me “boss” as a greeting, e.g., “Your car’s ready to go, boss.” A few young white men do this, too, but no women and no men closer to my own age.

Is this …[ul]
[li]Just a thing young men do these days, maybe more popular with POC than whites – a slangy, millennial way of saying “sir”?[/li][li]An ironic-yet-not-unfriendly joke about our perceived power differential?[/li][li]A snarky-yet-subtle way of saying “fuck you, white boomer”?[/li][li]Something completely different?[/li][/ul]
With cities burning and racial tensions as high as they’ve ever been, this may be a weird time to ask this question, but I’m a little paranoid that maybe I’m coming across as some kind of privileged white asshole. Thoughts?

I would think it’s a throwback to when it was more common, probably 1930s-50s.

My completely uninformed guess is that the servicepeople you deal with are used to dealing with middle-aged white guys who sort of expect some kind of casual-but-still-deferential form of address from people like them. It may not have anything at all to do with you personally or the attitude you project.

An alternative view of the term “boss” as used to customers by servicepeople when the racial dynamic is reversed, which interprets the term as superficially-deferential-but-actually-condescending, as opposed to superficially-familiar-but-still-deferential, is here.

Wow, that’s eye-opening. When I was a server 30-some years ago, I would never have dared to call any man twice my age anything but “sir.”

But it got me thinking … what do I *want *to be called? “Sir” just makes me feel old. “Dude” is absurd. “Man” only works in head shops. That might actually be a better thread …

One of the techs in the data center I worked in called everyone “boss”; he was from the Philippines. I took it to be his version of “dude”.

I, personally, don’t want to be called anything. I’m capable of understanding that I’m being talked to without having anything attached to the end of the sentence.

This was my thought too, right down to Cool Hand Luke although that boss was actually a boss (of the chain gang). I wouldn’t say it’s a deferential term unless used with a certain tone towards an authority figure, it’s more of a convivial thing.

“Hey boss, how’s it going?” could work from parent to child, from friend to friend, from employee to customer, from customer to employee, from employee to employer, or sometimes even from employer to employee, all with the same meaning.


There’s not a single right answer to this. This guy ran a poll of some friends, and 8% thought it was deferential, 49% thought it was chummy, and 43% thought it was condescending. He gets into a good discussion of what can contribute to it being nice or asshole-ish.

Maybe you should start one, Bro.

Since there’s no single factual answer to this, let’s move it to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

Since there’s no single factual answer to this, let’s move it to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

I see what you did there …

It sounds a bit like an American version of the English “guv’nah”.

Great article – thanks!

“… of course, you should always ask yourself whether you’re Bruce Springsteen.”

Relevant meme: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2929793003778920

Well, you are old, from a young retail/service worker’s point of view. Trying to duck away from the classic and standard respectful form of address for an unknown male person in American English, namely “sir”, will not change that fact. And it doesn’t make sense to abandon useful standard forms of address because of some individuals’ personal anxieties about aging.

If we didn’t have so many middle-aged people lamenting that standard respectful forms of address from strangers “make them feel old”, we could all be going about our business respectfully addressing strangers as “sir” and “ma’am” without having to anxiously rack our brains trying to solve impossible conundrums about what honorific some unknown random individual might personally prefer. And managers could just train employees to address unknown random individuals as “sir” and “ma’am” without worrying about indignant complaints that it makes the addressee “feel old”.

In the meantime, I recommend not worrying about how strangers are addressing you unless it’s something outright rude or uncomfortably intimate, e.g., “sweetie”.

This is the way it usually strikes me when I am addressed this way, although I wouldn’t call it condescending so much as salted with a touch of “up yours.” I am always taken aback, but I have never said anything, because what can you say? I don’t mind at all when much younger service people call me by my first name (it’s a lot easier than my last name) and "Sir’ is ok too, if they want to show a respect that I hope I’m not demanding. I only ever think of myself as a customer who is, I hope, understanding and accommodating to things that happen that aren’t perfect. Maybe I just look cranky, I don’t know. I wish someone would tell me what it’s about.

I cook out sometimes with a neighbor that while not old enough to be my Father is significantly older than me >10 years. I find it strange cause I’m younger but he will call me “boss” and “big daddy”, I think he calls everybody that, it’s actually kind of endearing.

You know, I don’t want to read too much into a sample size of two, but it’s interesting to me that both the OP and now Roderick Femm have expressed discomfort with this practice, to the point that they’re somewhat worried that they’re inadvertently doing something to provoke it.

Is this, for want of a better term, a “guy thing”? My initial reaction was basically just to shrug it off with “what a small unremarkable thing, who cares what people call you”, but on thinking about it I wonder if that reflects a gendered difference in expectations about interactions with strangers.

Like a lot of women, I’m thoroughly accustomed to being on the receiving end of all kinds of forms of address from strangers ranging in tone from simple courtesy to attempted flattery to condescending disrespect to deliberate intimidation. “Miss” from people concerned that a middle-aged woman will complain that being called “ma’am” makes her “feel old”. “Lady” from people intending confrontation but not the menacing kind. “Hon” or “sweetie” to signify either “look how friendly my customer-service affect is even though my feet hurt and I hate you”, or “ha ha the silly female thinks it’s people”, or “pay attention to me, bitch”. And so forth. If somebody called me “boss” I might not even notice it.

It sounds as though men’s typical experience in this regard may be somewhat different. Is being addressed with some more-or-less subtly implied disrespect a sufficiently unusual phenomenon for you that it makes you wonder if it’s something in your own individual behavior that’s indirectly causing it?

Well, that’s more-or-less disrespectful, since he told you exactly the opposite: that being treated with implied respect is a sufficiently unusual phenomenon for him that it makes him wonder if it’s something in his own individual behavior that’s indirectly causing it.

In my life, the only time I’ve been treated with obvious respect by was when I was wearing a tie on the factory floor. That was embarrassing.

Of course, that was blokes. In my town, women expect blokes to stand back for service, and to step off the footpath to give way when walking, so being treated with deference by a woman would be doubly odd. I understand that it’s different in other cultures, although that’s not obvious on the SDMB.