Miss Pearl: Who you calling honey, sugar?

bowl of sugar

"Miss Pearl" is AOA's advice columnist. She offers advice here once a month. Got a question for Miss Pearl? Send it along to MissPearl |at| alloveralbany |dot| com.

Dear Miss Pearl:

I'm a woman in my 30s working in an office setting. Recently, I was partnered with an older guy (maybe in his 50s) to work on a short-term project. He often referred to me as "hon" and occasionally "sweetheart" when he wanted to change it up a little. And when said it he wasn't being condescending or anything like that. He's a nice man, a bit odd, perhaps a bit clueless.

I didn't really mind that much, given his personality and, ummm, oddness.

But here is my question. In your opinion, when should stuff like that be "let go" and when does a conversation need to take place to change someone's language?

I'm also curious what people here at AOA think. I know what I decided to do. But I'm wondering what the AOA ladies would do and what the AOA men have to say!


Dear Forewoman:

These terms of endearment aren't so negative in a way, and by that I mean he clearly doesn't hate you. It's more that he's implying he underestimates your abilities and authority. (You'd never get pulled over by a cop and say to the officer, "Hey, buddy!")

This sort of underestimation, this low-grade sexism, shows up so many places. I have a friend who got her first technical writing job out of college, and was handed a notepad to use that had her boss's notes from her interview still in it. It said: "She's smart, single, and I think we can get her for cheap."

I experience it, too -- even after a master's degree, years of work experience, and my boss calling me "a strong person" (something that felt like a huge compliment). I recently had a manly, rural contractor stare me down skeptically and say, "So you're the boss now?" -- as if that were the most insane concept he'd ever heard.

Some young women might even want people to think they're sweet as honey and a supportive presence in their coworkers' lives, and in some way this perception could be useful when collaborating with others and building strong business relationships. But you also have to actively advocate for what you want at a job. For all sorts of historical and cultural reasons, men tend to do this more often, negotiating for a better salary, pushing for a promotion or an interesting project. Maybe they do this because they expect it to happen. There's no reason you shouldn't expect it, too.

I think what young women really want in the workplace is to have rewarding work, an atmosphere of growth, recognition of their efforts, and to not be underestimated because they don't have big, booming voices.
Do we have to yell to be respected? Would that even help?

I think what young women really want in the workplace is to have rewarding work, an atmosphere of growth, recognition of their efforts, and to not be underestimated because they don't have big, booming voices.

Do we have to yell to be respected? Would that even help?

Our society raises women to have cotton candy exteriors, but that doesn't mean we don't have steel underneath.

Choice of language reveals intention, and in your case it's that he doesn't take you seriously as a professional. Letting things go allows for smooth, civil relationships, but sometimes you really don't want a behavior to continue.

If you do decide to say something to your coworker -- and who knows, maybe he's not sexist so much as just clueless -- I'd frame it in a helpful way. You could say, "Some people might find that offensive, even if you have good intentions."

And don't apologize. Go through your emails and delete all the "maybes" and "perhaps" before you send them. Present well-formed arguments instead of asking for permission.

I'm sure there are people who will say that every game is won in the smallest of moments, but you want your team to play so much better that it isn't about one call or play. Young women in the workplace have to be so strong, clear, and confident that calling us your sweetheart would seem as crazy as it is.

-Miss Pearl

Miss Pearl is Ms. Emily Lemieux. She makes a living taking care of artwork and often imagines her friends as a Real Housewives franchise.

Got a question for Miss Pearl? Send it along to MissPearl |at| alloveralbany |dot| com.

More Miss Pearl: An eye toward Bethlehem, and not feeling friendly


wow...that's reading alot into it. Maybe he calls every female hon or sweetheart, some guys are old school like that. What about doll? dame? Any of those acceptable?
What if the letter writer were male and it was an older woman who called him that. What then?

"Some people might find that offensive..."

Sorry, that's weak. If you are offended by something, own it. You can still express that feeling in a constructive, non-confrontational way, but don't act like the offense is something abstract that other people might be offended by.

And -- fyi -- this doesn't just happen to young women. I'm a 60+ female and recently was assigned to train a 60+ male in a work situation. He clearly resents it (thinks he already knows everything) and has called me "sweetheart" twice in a dismissive way. Next time I'll call him on it, for being an old dinosaur.

Not a workplace thing, but i had a similar situation happen lately.

I'm a horsewoman. I haul a horse trailer with a big-a$$ truck, sling hay, huff around 50 lb bags of grain, and shove a 1000 lb animal when he steps on my foot. I get pretty sometimes too :)

I was recently pulling the trailer down the road when an accident closed the road in front of me. It forced me to make a clever turn-around in an intersection, one I've been practicing for at every event I haul to and which I do in my own driveway on a regular basis. Apparently it looked pretty good to the fireman directing traffic. He commented "Wow, great job with that turn!" which was fabulous until he followed it up with


Ug, I didn't know the truck acted differently based on the equipment sitting in the driver seat.

I get this all the time. When dealing with any isms (in this case sexism), I tend to ask questions that make the person think about what they just said. I ask it sweetly and in a tone that notes confusion on my part. I have been called honey in the office and asked the person, " Can I ask what you mean when you call me honey? Because you don't call John honey." It calls out that he's treating you differently for being a woman. If he still doesn't get it, you can be more direct: "I appreciate that you respect my work and treat me equally, but I wouldn't want others to think otherwise based on how you address me."

I'd love to know how this turned out.

I'm a guy so maybe it doesn't impact me as much, but whenever anyone calls me "hun" or "sweetie" I just try to out-obnoxious them by dropping a "sure thing sugar pie" or "you got it snuggles" on them and they usually get the hint.

An excellent analysis there of one of my biggest peeves.

I'm a 50 year old male and had a 60 year old male call me sweetie - and no - he's not gay - and yes, he was being condescending. I ignored it because he isn't worth my time.

I find it somewhat condescending regardless of who says it. I actually find it more annoying coming from a woman my own age.

I feel like Alisa has some solid advice. It addresses the issue in a tactful way. You could also laugh it off the first time and say "There's nothing honey/sweetheart about me" and try to play it off that way, but some folks may not pick up on that clue.

If he's not being condescending, he probably has no idea he's offending you. Just tactfully tell him. Problem solved.

Incidentally, If anyone (male or female) is looking for more respect in the workplace, demonstrate and articulate your value and adapt your communication style.

"I appreciate if you would call me by name...thank you". Done.

Nice advice. My boss (68 yo male) calls me (28 yo female) "kid" or "spankie". I let him because he genuinely is not being condescending and we have a great working relationship.

@Natalie. Glad to hear your older boss is not being condescending. I guess that means you can in an equally good natured way call him Old Fart and the Geezer.

Whew, must be tough going thru life with all the baggage some of you carry. So sensitive that every conversation has to be scrutinized for the possibility that it may be of offensive. And always presuming your being put-down.

I have the opposite problem, really. My boss condescends to me by calling me by my name. For instance he might say, "let's move on from that, Laura." but to a male co worker asking a similar question he'll say, "Great question, buddy! ok if we take that offline, buddy?"
That means he'll address his "buddy's" question in a closed door private meeting while I'm left in the dust; the echo of my name reverberating...

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