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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Today's Slang: Words Without Definition?

In August, I wrote a blog about hippie-era slang that coincided with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock . I explained how speech has always been a principle medium for cultures to define and differentiate themselves. Today, it is clear to linguists and laymen alike that people are incorporating language that reflects their online activity into offline speech. For example, “LOL” or “BRB” have been commonplace in everyday speech for years due to instant and text messaging. Then, social networking officially transformed the word “friend” into a verb. And phrases like, “It was nice to meet you,” are now synonymous with, “I’ll Facebook you.”

With the mass integration of technology into daily communication and omnipresence of the internet, I believe that there is now an inability for this younger generation to truly define their culture via speech.


Slang words that could once define specific geographic origins and subcultures can now find their way to foreign and multigenerational ears and mouths because the internet knows no bounds. Websites such as propagates slang to anyone with an internet connection. For instance, surfer-speak like, “stoked” or “gnarly,” can now be heard regularly in land locked areas like Kansas and New Mexico. 


The world is certainly moving towards an English speaking homogeny, but could it be moving towards a singular English slang as well?

The Woodstock Festival Anniversary: A Far-Out Legacy of Language

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair celebrates its 40th anniversary on August 15th, 2009. The “flower-power” generation was partly-fueled by the message of limitless self-expression, creativity and freedom. Speech has always been a principle medium for younger generations to define and differentiate themselves, and Woodstock not only created timeless music and art, but it also gave us enduring cultural slang and slogans.


The language from the hippie-era is still very much alive today, in words and phrases like “peace,” “cool,” "bummer," “freak out,” and “radical.” And while much of this slang began in the years before Woodstock, the iconic festival of 400,000 was a culmination of music, lifestyle and language that defined a generation.


This morning I spent an hour on the phone with my dear friend Jean Fraschina. She grew up in San Francisco and was on Haight Street during the Summer of Love. She wore her share of Tie-Dye and Patchouli Oil and has a distinct West Coast viewpoint on the cultural impact of the language of the hippie culture. I grew up in Washington DC and lived ten blocks from the White House and one block from the Black Panther headquarters. I had a different experience. Neither of us went to Woodstock but as we were reminiscing we realized that the slang, slogans and phrases which sprung up during that era like mushrooms after a summer rain represented a cultural phenomenon that reached across America.


Here are some examples of our favorite slang, slogans and phrases that represented the hippie movement and were in evidence at that summer weekend in upstate New York in 1969.  


Power to the People: Used as a rallying cry against repression by the ruling class and the government as represented by the Nixon administration.  The Black Panthers used the slogan "All Power to the People" to defy the rich, ruling class domination of society. Idealistic students used it to protest the war in Vietnam. It is still used today by some aging hippies in the greater Bay Area


The Establishment: Referred to the “older” generation, that is, anyone over 30 who held bourgeois values and were in positions of authority including but not limited to government leaders, members of corporate America, parents and teachers.


Pigs: Cops or any law enforcement representative (and also any man or boy who did not understand the need for peace and love in our society) who abused his power and acted with disrespect and sometimes violence to repress youth, women and minorities.


Bourgeois: This French word meaning “middle class” was used by the counter culture to describe and dismiss their conventional, unimaginative and selfishly materialistic parents and others in authority who upheld the interest of the capitalist class-- and paid for their college or prep school tuition and their macramé supplies.


Right On: Voiced by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar and resurfaced as a key phrase in the hippie lexicon—it meant, Yes! Do it. You go, chick/dude.


Chicks and Cats: Guys and gals, girls and boys, ladies and gentleman--this is a beatnik hold-over that became verboten with the rise of the women’s liberation movement known as “women’s lib,” but was in full bloom at festivals like Woodstock.


Square: This word was part of the African American patois and/or the beat period and segued into the word “straight.” It meant un-hip, un-cool and referred to those who were not engaging in the activities of peace and love.


Straight: Was not at all related to its current usage as the opposite of Gay. Straight meant extremely un-hip, up-tight, un- groovy and out of touch with what was happening. Hip was dressing cool with serapes and ethnic jewelry, using patchouli oil ,(also know as Bear Grease) burning incense and candles, checking your daily astrology forecast and throwing the I Ching. Straight people did none of these things.


Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out: Timothy Leary, an icon of the 1960s counterculture, created this adage in hopes of promoting the benefits of psychedelic drugs. His hope was that LSD would assist people in detaching from social convention and explore the inner reaches of their psyche.   


Flipped Out: This phrase was originally used to describe someone who was having a bad acid trip but also referred to someone who was reacting with consternation to a challenging life event. People who flipped out were often told to “smoke a joint and calm down.”


Nam: Everyone knew that “the war” meant Vietnam and Vietnam meant “the war.”


Canada: Was a code word for “If I get a low draft number, I’m getting out of here so I don’t have to fight in a war I don’t believe in.”  


Hell No, We Won’t GO: This slogan was chanted by hundreds of thousands of people who were against the war in Vietnam.


We Shall Overcome: This song could be sung at any moment, by any group about any issue that was potentially oppressive.  Most people knew only one verse of this song.


Back to the Land: Everyone at Woodstock was planning to live on a farm or in a commune. Many wanted to start a commune on some piece of land that someone else owned—usually someone’s father, or girlfriend’s ex-husband.  


What’s Your Sign? This was a commonly asked question and defined how people learned about each other. There was a huge interest in astrology at this time.


My Old Lady: This phrase referred to one’s girlfriend or wife. For instance, “Gotta go, man, I’m meeting my old lady.”  Everyone used this phrase including 15 and 16 year olds kids.


My Old Man – Referred to one’s boyfriend or husband, as in Joni Mitchell’s love song, “My Old Man,” or “I’m making my old man a macramé planter to celebrate the new moon in Leo.”

Make Love, Not War and Drop Acid, Not Bombs - Common phrases and slogans used to protest America’s decades long aggressive military action in Vietnam.


The Man: This was frequently used to describe people who represented the establishment including the police, the government, or corporate power. It referred to a white male.


Free Abortion on Demand – During the Woodstock-era, abortion was illegal in most states other than New York. "Free" meant that the procedure should be a part of Medicaid for women who could not afford it.


Groovy – Originally a musical axiom, this adjective evolved into a general description of anything that was hip, fun, cool and free. “Man, Jimi Hendrix is groovy.”


A number of activities will commemorate the Woodstock festival and the slang and slogans that accompanied it. Some of which include the Summer of Love concert, Woodstock Ventures and Sony Music’s creation of, and the movie entitled Taking Woodstock. Have fun strolling down memory lane and be sure to turn on and tune in to the verbal vibes!


Peace and love,