Don’t Call Me Babe!
There’s an interesting debate on Twitter at the moment
under the hashtag #dontcallmebabe. The question: is it
okay to call a woman you don’t know a pet name?
Can it be brushed off as well-meant affection,
or is it a needling way to demean women, one
we should be speaking out against?
The brouhaha started when a woman named Jo called
her local bus company to politely let them know
she felt uncomfortable with some of their drivers
calling her “babe.” She says she didn’t call in
anger or make a formal complaint — she just wanted
to let the company know that that she didn’t care for it.
She received a polite reply from the company agreeing
it wasn’t appropriate language, and that the bus
drivers would be alerted. She put it out of her mind
until she saw the topic come up on the Facebook page
of a local radio station. And then boy did the shit
hit the proverbial fan.
Arguments began cropping up for both sides. Some it was
political correctness run amok; The editor of The
Contemporary Urban Dictionary of Slang said “It’s
only urban sophisticates — usually under the age of 40
— who choose to find them distasteful.
It is the ‘language hygienists’ who choose to see them
as discrimination. It’s folksy — part of a tradition in
this country, a momentary affection between strangers.
I know people who don’t live here any more and
when they come back they say how much they like
to hear terms of affection, such as ‘babes’.”
The Consultant Editor at Collins Language argues
language is “in the ear of the beholder” and points
out language has shifted over the past century.
A term like “babe,” which might have originally referred
to an innocent baby, has since the 1990s become slang
for an attractive woman, and has sexist overtones
He also pointed out that “in the English language,
most of the terms we can use to address people veer
towards either the deferential or the familiar.
The bus driver or cabbie who uses a pet name is choosing
the familiar in order to avoid uncomfortable formality.
Perhaps, especially in the case of older perpetrators
of the pet name offense, they see it as a way of being
affectionate, rather than demeaning.
Language changes over time –- there are words in common
use 20 years ago that wouldn’t be accepted now.
As a woman, I should not be expected to meekly accept
words from men that make me feel uncomfortable.
In my experience, whether or not I take offense
to being called “hon” or “darling” or whatever is
purely based on the tone and situation.
I don’t think anyone besides my mother has ever called
me “sweetheart” unless they meant it sarcastically.
That being said, when a cab driver I’ve been happily
chatting to for 10 minutes says “Thanks, pet” I feel
quite pleased that we’ve developed such a camaraderie
that he doesn’t feel the need to address me as “Ms.” or “ma’am.”
A social anthropologist responded to the debate by suggesting
the best way to deal with the situation is with humour — if
someone calls you “babe” then say sarcastically, “Thanks, muffin!”