I first came to enjoy iced tea back when I was about 5 years old, my mom would let me have a small glass on a hot afternoon, and she let me load it up with sugar. My favorite part of this little ritual was at the end, when I could take the long spoon and scrape up the undissolved sugar from the bottom of the glass. Yet as time went on, I put less and less sugar in my iced tea, and by the time I was a teen, I didn’t add sugar at all; ever since that time, the idea of adding sugar to tea has sounded patently ridiculous to me… what’s the point?
OK, maybe I just lost my sweet tooth.
Recently my wife and I were in a restaurant. As I usually do, I ordered iced tea with my meal, and the nice waitress asked me an odd question: “Regular or unsweetened?”
I have a nasty habit of responding to what people say rather than to what they mean, so without thinking I said, “Oh I want regular tea, but without any sugar in it.”
“He means unsweetened,” my wife added, being helpful.
“Sir, I hope you understand that tea has to be processed to take the sweetness out it and it’s very unhealthy,” said our nice waitress in all seriousness. ”I can’t recommend it.”
My jaw dropped.
I understand that in many parts of the southern U.S. sweet tea is a regular part of the cuisine, but this young lady was in Northern Illinois and her accent was very Chicago… Perhaps she was confusing iced tea with decaf coffee and the arsenic used in that process, I don’t know, but I felt like I was in an episode of the “Twilight Zone” for just a moment.
The words we choose can have interesting implications, interesting connotations. When we refer to brewed tea in its natural state as “unsweetened” we run the risk of giving the false impression that tea comes with sugar, even though anyone who has ever brewed tea knows otherwise. To be quite fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with using the word “unsweetened” for it means that no sweetening agent has been added, but when you pair it with “regular” or even “sweet” there is another meaning that many people, in spite of knowing better, will pick up, and that is the idea that it has somehow been made irregular or altered to remove its sweetness.
Here’s another example of this process: Many years ago a man who owned a fast food franchise told me that he could increase his profit margin by having his employees change the way they ask what size of fries or drinks their customers wanted. If they simply ask what size people want, they will usually say “medium”. If they ask whether the customer wants “small or large” the customer will normally say “small”. But, if they are trained to simply say “regular or small” the customer will go for “regular” almost every time… cha-ching!
Just think, what kind of mischief can a politician create if he or she is clever with words…?
As for me, I think I’ll take my tea the way it comes, no sugar, zero calories. You are free to enjoy the sweetened stuff with a few hundred empty sugar calories added if you like…