All children in England and America are taught to start letters with the salutation, “Dear So-and-So.” As children, we all wonder where this strange salutation came from, and what it means, but generally, no one knows. We just use it. Surprisingly, living abroad, I have discovered where it came from, through it’s usage by foreign friends.
With the internet, I have had a much greater opportunity to meet and correspond with people from other countries. It seemed so strange to me when people I hardly knew, particularly men, in the middle of a conversation, would say things like, “Lynne, dear …” or “My dear, Lynne…” At first, I was confused, and highly offended! I thought, “WHO are these people to speak to me as if we have an intimate relationship?”
Modern English usage in England and America now reserves the term “dear” for immediate family members, husband and wife, or serious boyfriend/girlfriend. I felt offended when men spoke to me with this term, wondering why they were doing it, and wondering if, in fact, they were trying to initiate an inappropriate relationship! Later, as I got to know some foreign women on line, I found them speaking to me in the same manner. I again felt offended, wondering what they meant by it. Over time, it began to dawn on me that women were speaking to each other this way, as well, and that the term was being used as a politeness, as in, “you are my dear friend.”
There are two types of societies with regard to how others are treated. In English-speaking North America, we generally try to treat everyone “the same,” whether they are family members, friends, or strangers. Nepotism does exist, but it is highly frowned on.
Conversely, in many societies, your own treatment depends upon whether you belong to the “in-group” or “out-group.” In these societies, strangers are either ignored, treated with suspicion, or even taken advantage of. In order to do business or become friends, one has to become a member of the “in-group.” In these societies, in particular, I find that non-Westerners, speaking in English, tend to use the salutation “dear” both in correspondence, and in conversation, such as on Facebook, and even in the middle of text messaging. I believe it is their way of showing a person respect, esteem, and an indication to confer “in-group” status. It is not to be interpreted, after all, as an attempt to force unwanted intimacies.
I realized, then, that this was why I had been taking offense. I realized that, seeing the current usage from places as diverse as India, Egypt, and Morocco, that perhaps this was an OLDER English/French usage of the term, that was no doubt used to indicate friendship. These other countries, outside of the West, are continuing to use the term in this way. My friends are merely translating this politeness from their own cultures, and older usage, into current English speech.
So now, when I am addressed with the term “dear” by foreign-speaking friends, I am able to overlook the feelings I would have in my own culture, and take it in the spirit of politeness, with which it is intended.