Hey Barack, Sweetie…

// 16 May 2008

I guess it won’t have passed you all by that US presidential hopeful Barack Obama took the unwise PR decision to fob off a female reporter with the phrase “Hold on one second, sweetie”. The reaction has been unsurprising – he has apologised and described it as a “bad habit”, insisting he “meant no disrespect”, she responded saying she “had been called worse”.

I’m the last person who wants a big fuss made about one teeny little unscripted word. And a part of my head is warning me not to say anything on the subject in case I hear myself being quoted on Fox News in a special “International Reaction To Obama’s Career-Ending Insult”. First of all remember Mr Obama is likely to be standing for election against John McCain – a man whose election would undoubtedly see US gender equality sent packing back to the dark ages. This is a man who voted AGAINST the equal pay act. This is a man who has openly said he thinks Roe vs Wade should be overturned. Obama is undoubtedly the more woman-friendly candidate.

However it does really annoy me when guys I’m dealing with professionally call me sweetie or darling or love or pet or other patronising terms of endearment? Of course I don’t mind, in fact I quite like some cute nick-names from my boyfriend or really close friends. But I often stop people and ask them not to use the term.

Of course I only make a fuss when it’s not going to affect my career – it would be professional suicide not to be a bit thick-skinned from time to time. But I do object to it regularly from shop-keepers, tradesmen, taxi drivers, those kinds of people. And the reaction varies – of course every individual is different:

1) Some (very few, mostly shop-keepers while the money is still in my hand!) apologise. One even said “sorry darling”!?

2) Some try to engage with me in a discussion about feminism, usually with an opening gambit like “oh, so you’re one of them are you”. And usually end up going on about Heather Mills and women receiving large divorce payouts resulting in giving the rest of us “a bad name”, and things having “gone too far”, or potentially about how there’s a “girl in our office who doesn’t mind it at all”.

3) Some argue it. I’ve been told – less politely than this – that I should put up with it because it’s either (a) a traditional local term, (b) a traditional working class term. To which I can only respond that if we insisted on sticking to traditions at the expense of all else we’d have to bring back witch-dunking and burning heathens at the stake.

4) Some really make a fuss. I’ve been spat at, called “lesbian” and “dyke” (not of course insults in my world, but clearly intended as such) and “bitch”, etc. One guy went out in to the street and loudly told his colleague that I was “one of those uptight cows”.

On the other hand I was on a train the other day and they guy in front of me called the woman behind the buffet car counter “sweetheart” – she asked him not to to which he responded that women like being called sweetheart. So I unexpectedly chipped in and said “No they don’t” and he skulked off looking miserable and she and I had a good laugh about it.

I consider correcting people who address women with these patronising terms a cumulative act of feminism. Each individual time makes very little difference but if we all do it whenever we reasonably can, we will make a difference. Please add a comment if you’ve corrected someone recently and let me know what happened!

Photo by Graciepoo, shared under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

Tom // Posted 16 May 2008 at 8:13 pm

Er, so, it’s back now in the US elections to racism vs. sexism. gobshite. As for terms like “sweetie”, really, is it that big a deal? Maybe in the UK they are only directed at women, but here, in Ireland, it swings both ways. Traders on Moore Street, shop workers, tend to be female. It’s the most common sound on any north side working class to be approached by the traders “howaya there love.. would you like some (whatever she is selling) now there love, only (whatever the price is).” Men and women get the similar tretament in this respect, and I got to say I prefer being called “Love”, or whatever, than “Mister”, “yunfella”, “yer man” or most other things. Removing these cultural expressions.. well it’s not something I would support. I like hearing the expression “duck” thrown around in Leicester. I really don’t think we should take inoffensive patter from the streets. It’s utterly inappropriate in a workplace, where it can be used to demean, but removing it completely, I think, would be detrimental

a. brown // Posted 16 May 2008 at 8:27 pm

I’m from the states (from the South, specifically). I’m 25 and work as a supervisor in an academic library. I was recently sent over to another department (with some ties to ours) to pick up a piece of equipment that was accidentally sent there. Having lost the packing slip (which told us how much we would be charged), I asked him if he would call the company and find out the price. He reached the company and said:

“I’ve got a girl here…”

I waited until he was done with the call and I had the price (on a post-it note for christ’s sake) to politely inform him that I was not a “girl” but the supervisor of the Media library. Woman, person, young woman, young person– but girl? I was not rude about it, but I let him know that wasn’t a very respectful way to refer to someone, especially a co-worker (no matter how young I looked).

Anna // Posted 16 May 2008 at 9:14 pm

urgh.. I remember working the tills at Morrisons and was continually called ‘love’ ‘sweetie’ ‘sweetheart’ ‘darling’.. you get the picture.. to which I would inevitably respond “I am not your

Miriam // Posted 16 May 2008 at 10:55 pm

I don’t have a problem with “sweetie” but then where I’m from the term was equal opportunities – I heard all sorts of people using it…

shatterboxx // Posted 17 May 2008 at 12:24 am

I tend to just call them whatever they called me right back and raise my eyebrows… Actually, a lot of the time I get called ‘mate’ which is absolutely fine by me. As far as Obama goes, maybe it IS just a habit? It’s not one he should keep, obviously.

Seph // Posted 17 May 2008 at 2:21 am

I think wether you get offended by certain terms depends on where you’re from, where i’m from it’s common for people of both genders to call each other ‘duck’.

Renee // Posted 17 May 2008 at 4:48 am

Recently the snob in me decided to update our cracked dishware. I went into a store and was looking over a set that actually was not really all that expensive. I was asking the saleslady to give me a total price as I wanted all the extras (butter dish, sugar bowl) when her manager piped up with “you can tell the gal that we have layaway”. I decided to ignore her as the woman actually helping me was really nice. When neither of us responded she pipped up even louder, “I, said to tell the gal we have layaway.” I asked the saleslady if she worked on commission and she said no. ( BTW I do believe the layaway gal thing has everything to do with the fact that I am a WOC) At any rate I informed the woman I had intended to pay for my purchases in cash and did not need layaway. I also informed her that she was rude and ignorant and had just lost her company a sale as well as the recommendation to anyone else I would meet. I have since written a letter to their head office and am awaiting response.

Amanda // Posted 17 May 2008 at 10:54 am

Hmm, Having moved to the North East I find myself much more tolerant of the word ‘pet’ than I ever was before. But I think it is actually a fairly gender neutral term. Older people of either gender call younger people ‘pet’ again regardless of gender. I have never been called ‘pet’ by a man or woman of my own age. Although this might still be objectionable on ageist grounds I cant object to it. People up here use ‘pet’ where peple down south might use sir/madam or not address people at all. I would distinguish between that and the aggressive and demeaning way that sweetie/darling/pet can be used by someone who wants to put you in your place.

Anyone’s thoughts?

Emily // Posted 17 May 2008 at 11:48 am

I come from northwest England and it’s entirely normal there for practically everybody to call each other ‘love’, women to other women, women to men as well, so I regard it mostly as a term of affection and it makes me feel at home. Having said that, it does depend on the circumstances. If I was called ‘love’ by a doctor during a consultation, for instance, that would of course be totally inappropriate.

MariaS // Posted 17 May 2008 at 1:37 pm

Older men and women alike tend to use affectionate terms to young women they are dealing with but that they don’t know. Older women will also use them to young men as well.

I have never heard (presumed straight) men of any age use a term like “sweetie” or “dear” or “darlin'” to any other man when dealing with him.

Why is that I wonder? Homophobic anxiety of course, but also it betrays that they regard other men as equals or rivals (I guess they would fear to use these affectionate diminutives to other men), but do not regard women as equal or rivals – but as other, as inferior, harmless, not worthy of respect. The unthinking use of these terms by men towards women also betrays (as the library comment above shows) the fact that they do not even think of the possibility that the woman may have some sort of professional or other important status in that particular situation. The use of “affectionate” terms by men to women they don’t know can also be invasive, a face-to-face objectification, especially with terms like “babe” or “doll”. It tells you they’ve clocked you are a woman, therefore they feel an unconscious patriarchal entitlement to you & your attention. (Especially in a customer service situation, when you are expect to smile and act nice to people. Plus as a woman there’s a lot of social pressure to smile and act nice, so when you go against that and call them out, their hostile reaction unconsciously aims to intimidate you back into being ‘nice’ and not ‘uptight’. Grrr.)

Saranga // Posted 17 May 2008 at 2:34 pm

I really really hate it when I get called love, sweetie, darling, pet etc by strangers. It is always men who call me by these terms and usually older men. I work for a feminist organisation providing training opportunities for women (sometimes men) and we’ve had men ring up and refer to us by darling, love etc. Not a way to get on our good side! I don’t usually correct anyone because I’m shy and fear confrontations, but I’m working on plucking up the courage to do so. It’s so lame that I feel I can’t do so at the moment.

yeomanpip // Posted 17 May 2008 at 3:08 pm

Although I generally agree, there are times that you need to be careful of.

Sometimes the word is purely dialect.

I remember when My Mum lived in Devon and she got quite upset when the old man at the shop called her “My dear”

She was a bit more happy about it when I told her that he had said the same to Me and My Stepfather.

After she had lived there for a while, it became obvious that this man said “My dear” to everyone regardless of gender or age.

But I don’t think “Sweetie” is dialect.

Nicola // Posted 17 May 2008 at 3:18 pm

I work in retail and constantly get called love, sweetheart, darling, etc., mostly by middle-aged men. It really irritates me but I don’t quite have the guts to ask them not to call me it. I guess some part of me thinks they’ll either get arsey or one of my managers will overhear and say something.

Occasionally I’m tempted to say “would you call me that if I was either male or twenty years older?”, but again, I don’t have the guts. Wish I did!

Nina // Posted 17 May 2008 at 3:40 pm

It’s never bothered me too much, strikes me as an irritating colloquialism rather than a problem, a bit like “mate”. I’m not too bothered that some people think I look female, since I choose quite a few of the trappings of femininity.

Anna // Posted 17 May 2008 at 4:26 pm

Nicola – you’ll probably get fired if you do.. I did. (my post got cut off!)

Virtuella // Posted 17 May 2008 at 4:38 pm

I’m not too sure about this issue. Here in Scotland, it is not so much men using such terms for women, but older people using them for younger ones. Often the little old ladies call people “love” or “dear”. I object to being called “hen”, but I don’t necessarily think it is a gender issue, given that men have to put up with being addresses as “Oi, Jimmy!”

jody // Posted 17 May 2008 at 6:04 pm

Renee…you typed “saleslady”….you should have typed salesperson.I’m shocked by your total lack of polital correctness.

Labeling yourself can play into a mulitude of self deprecating habits.

Anne Onne // Posted 17 May 2008 at 6:32 pm

I think it is a gender issue, albeit a complicated one.

Women are more likely to address members of both sexes with these terms, and men who use them only address women, therefore overall women are much more likely to be addressed with these kinds of terms than men.

My experience is only based on London, where it’s not as common for everybody to use the terms, and there does seem to be more of a skew for it mainly being used to refer to women. I can’t talk for the North, not having been there, but my gut instinct is that since overall women do experience the use of these terms more, and since the context is that women do always have their gender pointed out to them (‘ blah blah, woman!’) in many ways that men don’t, there is a very real gender difference in the level of respect both genders give men and women.

Personally, the words bug me, but I chalk that down to not experiencing it much growing up, living in a pretty multicultural city, and having mostly non-Anglo-Saxon aquaintances. In many cultures it’s just plain strange to be so informal with people you don’t know, and I can’t quite get my head past it, because it seems so pointless to me, and the risk of offense a needless one.

Not being brought up with that kind of colloquialism makes it very strange to me, because it just seems like far too much of an assumption to make when talking to someone you don’t know. I theoretically wouldn’t mind it if a friend used it (they just don’t), but for someone who doesn’t know you at all to assume a level of ‘closeness’ they haven’t earned bugs me. I wouldn’t like it if some random stranger hugged me when I had only just met them, and to me, calling everyone ‘love’ is something similar, an assumption I’d rather they didn’t make. Luckily it’s not much of an occurrence for me, but it must be maddening for some people!

And I abhor babe, baby, doll, chick, gal, or whatever. Clearly men and women don’t call every man they’ve just met dude/geezer/bruv/whatever, and don’t act like they own men, or that if the man is offended, it’s his own fault, unlike women. People go out of their way to not offend men, because they respect and/or fear them, but women are fair game, and if they complain they are uptight.

Of course saying it’s traditional and therefore sacrosanct is the stupidest argument one can make, since being traditional does not something make something right, and normally is a very good reason to not do it. But people don’t actually like confronting their own weaknesses, or trying to be better people, and would much rather like to chalk up any offense to the other person being oversensitive, than that they might have overstepped it. The selfishness of being too lazy to examine oneself, perhaps borne of a fear of what we really might find is behind a lot of problems we reminists fight against.

David // Posted 18 May 2008 at 1:11 am

I attend social service groups and one of the staff often addresses me as “dear” and sometimes i have been called “doll” but i like it because its a recognision that i am not a macho type especially as i always have one of my Teddy bears with me, and its unfair that only women get nice names.

There is nothing wrong with being addressed with nice names. I have suffered a lot of insults all my life because of my disabilitys and insults are meant to harm i wish more women called me dear or sweetie its better than being called him which is sick and cruel and and the sort of horrible names i have had from women, and thats beside al the viscouse insults from yobs and the sluts who support them.

Anna // Posted 18 May 2008 at 8:50 am

David, would you prefer it if I called you ‘bastard’ or ‘asshole’ instead? Because honestly, that’s what you’re coming across as.

Sweetheart, love, and such coming off men I don’t know, especially when I was working, were demeaning, more than a small annoyance and only a small step up from ‘sexy’ [which unfortunately I got a few times too]. I’m not their sweetheart, their darling, and certainly not their love, so they can piss right off.

Hannah // Posted 18 May 2008 at 5:56 pm

I never liked these terms when I lived in the south, because it seemed that it was very gendered, but since moving to Newcastle I find it far more friendly as it’s applied to men and women far more. That said, my best friend has noticed the opposite, he comes from leicestershire and says that at home blokes all call each other love and duck, but that he has had to stop the habit here for fear of offending men.

I think there is a huge difference between love, duck, pet and dear and sweetie, cutie, babe etc. The first lot I find perfectly acceptable most of the time, the second never are. Obviously at work/situations where you should be taken seriously it it out of place, but the majority of the time I think it depends on how it’s said – small things make all the difference, for example a man who says ‘there’s your change m’dear, bye!’ in a friendly way in a shop is very different to the man who opens the door for me, looks me up and down and says ‘there you go m’dear’ with one of those ‘aren’t you glad I find you attractive’ grins. The first man I would probably say thanks, pet to, whereas the second would definitely get I am NOT your dear, and I am capable of opening doors.

I guess it depends on context for me, I think we can all tell when we’re being belittled or when someone is being polite, as can people who use the terms.

Hannah // Posted 18 May 2008 at 6:10 pm

I never liked these terms when I lived in the south, because it seemed that it was very gendered, but since moving to Newcastle I find it far more friendly as it’s applied to men and women far more. That said, my best friend has noticed the opposite, he comes from leicestershire and says that at home

Paul Whitehouse // Posted 18 May 2008 at 6:15 pm

I use two particular words a lot. It is the word babes and bruv. I find it very difficult to say goodbye to anyone without some extra word such as babes because its so built in. Very once in a while somebody has said something against it, but I can not remember the last time because it has been so long and to be honest I forget that it may cause offense. However when I ask directly as a topic of conversation, more women conclude that it is offensive. So I try to swap words as I try to do with swear words also. My mother is Brazilian and I copied my mother with the words ‘querida’/darling, ‘cara’ /dude (although you can use for different sexes and for children) or a kiss blown over the phone to say goodbye, but then i realised that it is not only the same, but even if my mother says these words, that it’s rooted in South America’s deeply masochistic culture.

So I now find myself trying to “de-sexualise” these words instead. The polite alternative is sex based such as Sir and Madamn (people my age may be slightly confused though) or what I am more retreating to is to call everybody the word “cara”, dude, which is literally calling somebody “face” and people use it for women also, so its losing a gender usuage.

The other alternative is to learn to just say ‘bye,’ but seeing as culturally, for me greetings symbolise less “distance” and calling somebody “something,” “anything” is a part of that, I’d rather desexualise the words, perhaps the way Communists call each other “comrades.”

Lastly though regardless of what to say or not to say, I wish that my words never convey offence.

Danielle // Posted 18 May 2008 at 9:45 pm

I went to Bassingbourne once for basic training, and I got offered a lift from the front gate to my accomodation by a minibus full of recruits from somewhere or other. (The accomodation area was a fair trek and I had a lot of kit with me.)

A man in the minivan instantly addressed me as “sweetie”, and at first I was confused; my first thought was that this must be someone I’d met before, surely?

But after a while I realised that, being the only woman on the bus, he’d decided to mark me as his own, alpha male style, but using a term of endearment in lieu of urine.

The initial confusion, however, had robbed me of the chance to retalitate with a pithy come back.

Although saying that, I put up with a lot of patronisation during those two weeks, because along with it came men willing to do my share of the work as well as their own, somehow proving their masculinity in the process.

Normally I wouldn’t stoop to such manipulation at the cost of my integrity, but hey, it’s the British Army, and hell would freeze over before I could change their attitudes. Had I spoke up against everything that offended me, I doubt I would have passed the course. To my credit though, I did draw the line at flirting with my section commander…

Seph // Posted 19 May 2008 at 4:05 am

I tend to call everyone ‘dude’ but I think that’s because I watched far too much Bill & Ted and Ninja Turtles as a kid.

V // Posted 19 May 2008 at 9:39 am

So, let me get this right…

1) Big, presidential candidate comfortable with media attention and seen to set a standard for a nation – no problem when he calls women sweetie (which wasn’t a once-off, he’s done it quite a lot)

2) Everyone – have a problem of varying degrees…

I’ve been called sweetie, pet, darling by loads of different types of people: men, women, young or old. Whether they are being friendly, patronising, condescending, etc has dictated my reaction – nothing else.

Soirore // Posted 19 May 2008 at 1:02 pm

I live in the south now but spent my childhood in the midlands where ‘duck’ was preferred for everyone. There it seemed to be friendly and I liked it. When I moved south I only get the love, darling, gender specific terms and am less keen. I do draw attention to it and people are generally ok but as Kate said, they tend to apologise by saying “sorry darlin'”.

My work place has more women than men although our customers are both. We as a group get referred to by some as girls which annoys me as I’m the youngest at 30 so it is terribly inappropriate.

However what annoys me the most is the emails I get to Dear Sir. Sometimes I get Sir/ Madame (notice the misspelling) but when I reply to an email with my very feminine forename there is the intimation from the customer that I am dealing with the “sir”‘s email. No. It was for me. I am a woman. Stop being confused and address things properly. And when you discover I am female don’t talk slower or patronise me or use informal, chummy language. It is weird how language changes from when someone is writing an email to an anonymous person to when writing to a gendered individual.

Kuja // Posted 19 May 2008 at 3:17 pm

lol @ Seph ^_~

I call people by their names. Weird, huh?

All the men in our office refer to each other as “mate”, and the women refer to each other as “chick”. And I mean at the end of every sentence, like “Yes mate, what can I do for you mate? I sure do think so mate, how about you mate?”

Nicknames become so very redundant!

Rose // Posted 21 May 2008 at 6:23 pm

Personally, I’m all up for universalising the term ‘duck’, or rather, ‘me duck’.

There is nothing that warms the cockles quite so much as the sight (or should that be sound?) of big, middle-aged blokey market-traders in Derbyshire calling each other ‘me duck’.

a // Posted 21 May 2008 at 7:11 pm

“I have never heard (presumed straight) men of any age use a term like “sweetie” or “dear” or “darlin'” to any other man when dealing with him.”

It must be incredibly odd to go through life as a man, where everyone is either a “rival” or “equal” — or someone they don’t respect.

I use endearments often, for men and women alike. Perhaps it is because I don’t respect those around me, or because I want to put perceived rivals in a diminutive position (linguistically of course). Often, I think I would like to convey, very simply, a sense of good will and appreciation.

… no one has ever asked me to stop (and if they did, I would be mortified and stop immediately). It is a person’s intent that matters and should be respected – that and a person’s reaction.

Of course, as a woman, I am extremely sensitive and inherently know who would not like to be so addressed.

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