Saturday, March 26, 2016

That's "Ms" Sweetie to You

"These always remind me of Easter!" the cashier told the customer in front of me.  He was referring to a bag of bulk Jordan Almonds painted in pastel hues of pink, white, yellow, purple and a color that might equally pass for blue or green.

"Oh, me too!" she replied.

They yakked, and my eyes strayed to the magazines lining the aisle.  "Eating Well" has an attractive picture of peppers on its cover.  "Albuquerque Magazine's" cover has a picture of an attractive person.

"You have a good day, sweetie!"

My head whipped around involuntarily, like a trebuchet flinging a loaded rock at the cashier.  Did he just call that customer "sweetie?"  With dread, I approached the payment kiosk.

I know that not everyone has an aversion to strangers using terms of endearment.  And, if that is the case, I say keep feeling that way!  It is much easier to go through life feeling fine about these things.  To me, however, assuming a level of intimacy with me by using a pet name only my mother and some sexual partners use, is creepy.

Some have asked why I can't just take comments at face value -understand them for the intention behind them- not the words specifically used.  Remember, "it's the thought that counts!"

Let's say for a moment that Mr. Cashier genuinely was offering a nice gift.  Using words is too subject to interpretation, so let's say it was something tangible, like a waffle iron.  I don't want a waffle iron, but I'll be polite about it.  After all, he means well.  A problem occurs though when the next cashier, AND random person on the street, AND casual acquaintance, etc. all also give me a waffle iron I don't want.  And yes, I will try to be polite for the first 100 or so times.   I mean, I like waffles, and they're being nice, right?  After that, I can understand that the individual offering the nice gift genuinely wants me to be pleased, but it's too many waffle irons.  I find it difficult to continue being as polite even though waffle iron giver #101 is just as genuine about the gift as the first giver.*

Intent though, isn't really the best way to make sure everyone is okay.  If someone is helping me nail together some boards and I slip and accidentally push a nail through that person's hand with the nail gun, it's all well and good that I intended to nail the board, but the reality is that someone now needs to go to the hospital and have a tetanus shot.  Maybe that person thinks Jesus was a swell guy but doesn't want to emulate him in that specific way.  It's fair to say that we can use intent to mediate our reactions, but I think it's within the injured person's right to be upset with me and not within my right to tell them "hey, don't blame me!  I meant to nail the board next to your hand! Why can't you accept that?"

But too I question the intent of strangers who call me pet names.  It seems like there is some assumed intimacy in doing so.  Like, what if the person giving me the waffle iron was doing so with strings attached?  What if, I'm expected to smile, whether I feel like it or not, so that the giver feels good?  Or the giver assumes that giving me a waffle iron means that I'll use it and gets mad when I throw it in the nearest dumpster?  Remember, I never wanted the iron in the first place and it wasn't up to me that someone handed it to me.

What we call people defines who we think they are and what our relationship is.  There is power in naming.  When I was in nursing school, the program dictated that we call our instructors by an honorific and their last name.  The pretense of this was respect; and while I thought the practice of bestowing respect through a naming convention was short sighted, galling and a bit militaristic, the point remains that familiar names (and in this case first names specifically) are considered too close for a proper amount of respect between unrelated individuals.

I have rarely heard men calling other men whom they don't know "sweetie," "honey," "dear," or anything like that.  When I have, it's been in overtly sexualized situations where either both people are presumed gay or the person naming the other is being threatening (i.e. gay bashing).  And of course, in the latter example, we see the evidence that it's exceptionally bad for men to be treated as women.  They are "less than" other men, and thus, women themselves too are less than men.  So maybe assigning me a pet name also assigns me a "less than" status because he wouldn't do that to a man he respects.  And maybe it sexualizes me by decreeing some kind of closer relationship between us than really exists.

It's true that it is not fair to say that this action done by this person makes him a misogynist.  We can not logically apply evidence of systems to individual behavior and call the conclusion necessarily accurate.  However, we can say that someone's acting in line with a system, in this case, misogyny.  And we're all responsible for creating the kind of systems we want functioning in the communities of which we are part.

I mean, I've cleaned the mucous out of a tracheostomy humidifier mask.  I've stood on top of a telephone pole and jumped off into a harness.  I moved across the country without knowing anyone where I was headed, having no job and no vehicle.  And you call me "sweetie?"

I keep my gaze decidedly neutral during the checkout process.  "My day is fine, thanks.  How's yours?"  What was I going to do if he called me "sweetie?"  "Yes, the number for those bulk pecans is 6593."

"Here's your receipt.  Have a good day, sweetie!"

He did it.  Really.  I am ill and nervous and angry all at once.  Someday I hope I can deliver this with a stunning smile, but for now, the best I can do, my heart pounding in my throat, is say, "You too, baby cakes" and turn and run.

*This analogy is illustrated really well by Tess Paras, only she uses the gift of cheeseburgers and likens it to cat calling.  If you haven't watched this before, really take a few minutes to do so.  It really captures what we're talking about here.  Click to watch Tess's video.


  1. I have a data point to add. When Cat and I were visiting England in 2003 we were trying to navigate the bus systems to get from hither to yon. After I got completely confused I went up and asked the driver. He said "This bus doesn't go there, love. You'll need to catch the XYZ instead."

    It didn't seem at all strange. I can articulate three relevant aspects of my state of mind at the time. (1) "I am in a foreign country. I will be on my best manners and I will assume people are being polite to me." and (2) "I feel secure in my sense of self (or position of privilege, you choose) and thus do not interpret informal or familiar terms of address as demeaning."
    and (3) "I'm lost. I'm anxious. I don't really care what he calls me as long as he helps me get less lost." This was also a long time ago, before I started hanging around with folks who broadened my perspectives.

    Let me make it clear that I totally, completely get the outrage you describe. There is a very small set of people who might be entitled to use familiar terms of address with you and Mr. Cashier is not among them. I seldom if ever get addressed like that. He may be assuming more familiarity with you than he's entitled to, which is creepy and not OK. He may be assuming that you'll be flattered by his expressions of affection, which is equally creepy and not OK. He may think that he's just being nice, which might be a little less creepy but is still not OK.

    It seems like it should be such a simple thing to get right and yet... and yet... so many people don't.

    1. Yes, I think if my track record was once (or a few times) in the UK (or almost anywhere), I might feel differently.