Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Excuse me, Sweetie?

Lately, for one reason or another, I have been keenly aware of women’s issues in my personal life, my professional life, and society generally -- as if I have been primed for them. I’m not sure whether it was enrolling in this class or whether I had already started becoming more sensitive to them (given, perhaps, that I am in my mid-twenties and on about to begin a career in law?), but it seems that every day something new, different, and often troublesome arises. This past week, in particular, I’ve noticed, mentally catalogued, and critically reflected on the various ways in which people address me. Am I a Miss? Mrs.? Ms.? Ma’am? Evidently, all of the above. And then some.

The event that triggered my interest was an encounter with a barista at Starbucks. She was a middle-aged, apparently happy woman, and in terms of customer service, she excelled. (My second pumpkin spice latte of the season, incidentally, was perfect.) There was one thing, however, I didn’t appreciate: she initially addressed me as “sweetie.” She then addressed me as “hun.” And as I left, she addressed me as “dear.” Granted, I probably look young for my age. Even still, I’m not a child -- or a doll. The entire exchange lasted about two minutes, and using three terms of endearment in that period of time, I thought, was a little excessive. And, quite frankly, it irritated me.

But why? I was by myself, and only she and I were privy to the conversation, so I can’t say that I was embarrassed. Further, I certainly wasn’t professionally dressed, so I’m sure I looked much less like a “Ms.” than I’d like to think. Finally, and most importantly, she was so nice. Really -- just trying to do her job well. Likely, she thought she was complimenting me or making me feel welcome. Who am I to step on her attempts at friendliness? What kind of a jerk calls someone out on that? And what could I even say? That she was being sexist? If I did, it would seem, I would be doing far more harm than good for Feminism. Inevitably, I would come off as rude and angry and reinforce a stereotype I don’t really care to embrace. But then, what is the alternative?

As I contemplated those issues, I began to ponder language and feminism, generally. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent, concise overview of feminism and linguistics.) Here, I think, was a prime example of simple, subtle sexism digging its heels deeper and deeper into our collective subconscious. With every use, “sweetie,” “honey,” “dear,” and the like reinforce negative gender stereotypes in our cultural lexicon. These, of course, are some of the more egregious examples. Others, however, are perhaps less conspicuous: “forefathers,” “mankind,” “manpower,” etc.

Of course, this isn’t a novel discussion. Scholars have pondered language and feminism for years. The problem is, however, that the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. Perhaps in academia, we favor “he or she,” alternate pronouns, or lazily default to “they,” but our vernacular, arguably, remains heavily gendered. So what do we do? How do we redirect the well-meaning baristas, the doting aunts, the talking heads, the teachers, congresspersons, and parents? And how do we do so without further alienating (enraging?) certain groups resistant to change? Is it worth conforming to certain stereotypes (e.g., the “angry” feminist) to stifle others? Is it necessary?

I can’t pretend to have the answer to any of these questions, but I can say that I am not convinced language merely reflects reality. Language, I think, is much more fluid and not so passive, and we must be vigilant and aware of the great effect even the smallest words can have… Yet still, what to say to the barista?


Jihan A. Kahssay said...

I have encountered the same experience with tags like "hun" and "sweetie." Although, the extent to which I take offense to such tags depends upon who is addressing me. For example, when my partner calls me "dear," I definitely don't take offense. Similarly, if my mother uses such words, then I feel great! But, of course, if a stranger -- and particularly a strange man -- calls me "sweetie" in casual conversation, then I become livid.

I think the positive power of the words is in their ability to bind you to the people you love. These words are tender and are used affectionately with the expectation that you'll bind more closely to the speaker. For this reason, between close friends, family and lovers, words like, "hun," "sweetie," and "darling" are used interchangeably between the sexes. For this purpose, these words are incredibly beneficial for companionship and cohesion with closely knit groups.

The problem occurs when a stranger uses these words to address you because the stranger is presuming a tendency in you to bind emotionally to others -- to be nurturing and loving.... even to strangers. This becomes a bigger societal problem when we factor in the almost exclusive use of these words on women. It's rare that a barrista would refer to a male customer as "dear."

The societal implication seems to be people would believe that women, generally, are more likely to be nurturing, trusting, and caring towards others -- even towards complete strangers. The perpetuation of such a stereotype is problematic because it contributes to the naivety narrative that colors femininity. And it is particularly problematic when women who are in fact competent, competitive and who do not want to appear overly trusting are nonetheless presumed to be nurturing, naive, and non-combative.

Great blog!

Sam said...

On the subject of gender and language, Swedish feminists have recently tried to launch a gender neutral pronoun, “hen,” into the Swedish language. There have even been children’s books published where the main character is described with this pronoun. Detractors have tried arguing that this is “feminist social engineering” and that it will just confuse kids.

I realize that nobody will understand any articles that I link to, so here is a bad Google translate version of a few of them.


KRB said...

I am also particularly sensitive to being called "sweetie" and "hun" by strangers. I too was assaulted by the "sweetie" in the Starbucks drive-through just a couple of weeks ago.

I agree with Jihan that the effect that is felt depends on who the speaker is. If my boyfriend or a family member calls me "sweetie," the term seems endearing or flattering. When it is a stranger, it seems degrading.

For some reason, I find that I am especially offended when it is another woman that calls me by one of these names. As women, I feel that we should be more sensitive to the potential impact of this practice. That being said, I think I would be equally offended if a male superior did the same (that just hasn't happened to me thus far).

Elizabeth said...

I guess I'm in the minority here. I actually find it kind of charming when an older woman calls me "hun," especially if she is a waitress at a diner. I don't think she means it to be offensive at all, just trying to be friendly (albeit in a decidedly old-fashioned mode of expressing her friendliness).

However, when a man, particularly a man who has some sort of authority over me, calls me "sweetie" or the like, it really burns me. I guess the matronly waitress still seems like she's on my team, whereas coming from a man (other than a partner) it feels demeaning. Traditionally, these types of infantilizing terms were used in a business context to remind women of their "place" (i.e. getting the coffee, not running the meeting). It implies some sort of unbalanced power dynamic when it comes from the lips of a male.

I wonder if men ever feel this way about being called these sorts of names. Undoubtedly, it must happen less often to them. But even when it does, it certainly involves less cultural baggage.

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