I'm not your honey, darling, sweetheart, dear, ducky, or any other diminutive creature

Ever been called "honey" or "darling" by a salesperson while out running errands or shopping? You were having a pleasant interaction until they tacked on a condescending honey. It hardly seems worth the trouble saying, "I prefer not to be called that," because your two-minute interaction is probably the last time you'll ever see that stranger, and you risk offending them by responding in this way. Why is such a simple interaction so fraught with pitfalls and difficulties? This essay explores this topic.

It's not an accident, and it ain't so innocent

FemaleScienceProfessor got me thinking about gendered nicknames when she wrote about her dislike of the label "academic starlette":

"I suppose I am being ungrateful, oversensitive, and overanalytical, but what does that mean? Is that one of those 'you're a good female scientist' kinds of comments?"

She has a right to object. It's a perfectly legitimate response to:

a) feel repelled by certain forms of address, and
b) want to change how you are addressed and, by extension, how you are seen.

As FemaleScienceProfessor goes on to say: "I am constantly reminded that I am a 'female scientist' and not a regular scientist like all the men."

So, one of the functions of gender-specific appellations is:

To remind the subject that she is viewed as a gender first, not a person.

Unfortunately, for women this means a step down, for men, a step up.

Consider the equivalent form of address for men used in public contexts: Sir.

This term does not condescend to its subject, nor does it assume an unearned familiarity, nor does it sexualize. If anything, it confers authority. The equivalent term for women, Madam, is seldom used because of its implication of age. Furthermore, it carries a euphemistic taint for a woman who manages a brothel.

You're getting smaller…

The second function of these names is to make the subject smaller and less threatening.

As a commenter points out at FemaleScienceProfessor's blog, the "-ette" in "starlette" is diminutive. It's function is to decrease in size and by association, power, of its subject.

Similarly, terms like honey, dear, and sweetheart serve this function:

To make its subject appear smaller and/or familiar and therefore less threatening.

While sir augments its target, a term like honey stubbornly insists you are afforded less status and respect.

What's not in the dictionary

Words carry histories. These histories expand the meaning of words, making them larger than their rudimentary selves. "Honey", for example, carries with it meaning that extends beyond its rudimentary definition of "term of endearment".

"Honey", "dear", and similar terms are also employed in a passive-aggressive way; I'm sure we've all witnessed this or been on the receiving end. And, as passive-aggressive as it is, it does provide a satisfying outlet for many men (and women) who choose to use it this way. For women there is no similar option, no sarcastically spat "gent".

No expression for dissent

There exists no way to politely issue a rejection of these names. And that makes it worse.

Think of the short, useful phrase, excuse me. It's a flexible, brief and above all, neutral phrase that is appropriate in many contexts. It is understood as a neutral address which nobody takes personally when they're on the receiving end.

A short, utilitarian phrase such as "excuse me" needs to be invented for those circumstances where someone tries to "honey" you and you want to let them know you don't want to be addressed that way.

The absence of a socially approved script for declining "dear", "honey", "sweetheart", and other gender-specific names, points to a gross power imbalance.

Nothing personal—it's just not for me.

Now, why would someone take it personally when their "dear" is refused? If anything, the "term of endearment" is inappropriate—logically, wouldn't the person on the receiving end have more of a right to object?

The answer is very simple: because a rejection of the name is also a rejection of traditional way of seeing women. You're not only rejecting the word, you're shaking up the gender status quo. This can be very threatening to people. In effect, you're saying, "I don't like the way you're condescending to me, and I'm refusing your old-fashioned ideas about me based on my gender."

Conclusion

These are old-fashioned words, and wrapped up in these old-fashioned words are old-fashioned notions about women and gender. The power dynamics driving this custom are antithetical to promoting an egalitarian society.

Let's dump these asinine names into the trash.


Contributing Editor Melinda Casino also writes at Sour Duck.

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