Let Me Call You Sweetheart…and Other Workplace Communication No-No’s

Recently I was having an email exchange with a gentleman I had never met before. During the course of our communication, he replied to one of my questions by writing, “Well of course, silly.” “Silly”? I’m sure he meant no disrespect in his word choice, so I brushed the incident off. However, it got me thinking about all the times I’ve heard men (bosses, clients, vendors, and co-workers) refer to women in the workplace as “sweetheart,” “darling,” “love,” “honey,” and even “babe.” I know I’ve been called all sorts of pet names on many occasions. Have you?

No matter what type of workplace communication it is—an informal meeting with management, a formal presentation to a client, or a phone inquiry to a vendor—showing professionalism and respect is key. As such, pet names have no place in workplace communication.

So how do you get people to stop calling you “honey” and other such names? The most effective way is to take a compassionate and direct approach. This is one of those communication challenges that require tact and diplomacy so you don’t trigger defensiveness in the other person. Essentially, you’re giving constructive feedback—and that requires skill.

While the issue of pet names in the workplace can be a touchy subject, women have an opportunity to raise awareness. Being called “sweetheart,” “honey,” or any other pet  name can make a woman feel less respected, belittled, undermined, not taken seriously and consequently uncomfortable. And I’ve found that men either don’t even know it’s an issue, or they play it down and think women are making a mountain out of a molehill. So it’s a matter of taking the time to educate and inform men in order to help each other communicate professionally and respectfully.

Here are some pointers to help you navigate this situation.

  • Set boundaries early. Sometimes people perceive a relationship to be casual in nature when it isn’t. That’s why it’s important to set boundaries early on and to maintain those boundaries throughout the relationship. If you let the issue slide and allow someone to call you “sweetheart” for many months, changing that behavior may be a bit more difficult. It’s better to call it out the first time you hear it.
  • Decide if it’s worth the effort. Is being called a pet name a “small annoyance” to you, or is it something that gets in the way of smooth communication and productivity? For me, the “silly” comment was a small annoyance. However, I’ve been in situations where being called a pet name was a bigger, ongoing problem. In many cases, it’s best to overlook and disregard the small annoyances and focus on the bigger challenges.
  • Think about the other person first. If you decide the issue needs to be addressed, first consider the person you’ll be confronting. Does he need a sit-down formal meeting about the issue, or would a short casual comment correct the situation? Sometimes a quick, “Rather than call me ‘sweetheart,’ can you please call me… (insert your name),” works wonders. Other times the person may need more insight into why the pet name is disrespectful.
  • Plan your “script.” If a formal sit-down meeting is warranted, carefully plan what you will say and how you will say it. Include both power words and emotional words to convey sensitivity and certainty. Remember to use “I” sentences so you stay focused on the issue and not the person. For example, “I have noticed that I get called ‘honey’ a lot, and I find that term disrespectful (unprofessional, condescending, etc.). I’d prefer if everyone in the office, including you, call me by my proper name. Can I have your support on that?”
  • Keep the tone light, but don’t make a joke out of it. You want to send the appropriate message and make sure it’s acted upon, so being overly jovial or too stern may not help you get the desired results. If there’s an edge to your voice, the other person may take offense to your words; if there’s too much humor in your voice, the other person may not take you seriously at all. Therefore, keep your tone professional but not too formal.

Of course, any conversation like this hinges on trust. Therefore, before you rush in and state “Don’t call me ‘honey’ anymore,” you need to determine whether you trust the other person enough to give them feedback, and whether they trust you enough to receive it. If trust is lacking in the relationship, you may need to work on it first before addressing other issues.

Ultimately, communication is the key to highly productive and satisfying relationships, and it’s everyone’s job to focus on, improve, and develop effective communication skills. And because women tend to have higher relationship and communication skills than men, it falls on our shoulders to raise the bar, set expectations, and be strong role models so everyone can participate fully, feel included, and bring their best to every communication situation.

Have you been in a situation where someone repeatedly called you a pet name at work? I’d love your comments on how you handled it.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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