Don't call me honey

August 22nd, 2016

Earlier this month, The American Bar Association revised an ethics rule that now “forbids comments or actions that single out someone on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability and other factors.” The movement behind this national rule came from lawyers who are women, who felt that they were unable to effectively practice their profession while sexist and demeaning remarks and actions were made toward them. This also includes referring to women as “honey” or “darling” in a discriminatory or harassing manner. While nearly two dozen state bars have similar rules in place, this is the first national prohibition of this kind of discrimination and harassment.

For many people, referring to someone as “honey” or “darling” or “sweetie” is a genuine term of endearment, but oftentimes, in a professional context, it turns into a microaggression, a subtle reminder to women that we don’t belong or will always be seen as less-than. These issues become even more complicated depending on local culture. In the Southern United States or rural areas and small towns, it’s not at all unusual for people of both genders to be acknowledged with a term of endearment. Even at the Nashville airport, there are several TSA agents who bid travelers “a blessed day, sweetie,” or “safe travels, honey,” which always lends some genuine human contact during the security screening process.

In the church world, particularly when navigating pastoral encounters, clergywomen (and some men, too) often have to parse whether being called “sweetheart” or “hon” is a microaggression or a genuine term of endearment. I’ve had words like these used to diminish me and keep me at arm’s length, a sign to me that that person did not consider me to be their pastor. I have also had them used in a very appreciative manner by someone who accepted and welcomed the care I was offering. As a pastor, our worlds frequently blend the professional and the personal, and so it would seem overblown to forbid the use of such terms as in a court of law, even if it would be easier if people abstained from using them.

Young (or young-appearing) clergy and women also receive less benign names like “kiddo,” “little lady,” “babe,” or “gorgeous.” Male clergy are referred to with a title that gets dropped when talking about the clergywoman on staff. Or we get more comments on our haircut than on the quality of our sermon. When we speak up about these microaggressions, we’re often told to lighten up, “calm down,” (because women are inherently hysterical) or that it was intended as a compliment. Sometimes, even more than the bigger, systemic issues that face women, dealing with these microaggressions erodes our confidence and our willingness to take risks that our male counterparts handle with ease.

Regional and generational differences all factor into our language, but I would urge both laypeople and fellow clergy to think about what you are communicating when you think you are using a term of endearment or trying to give a compliment. Our words matter, and we can use them to build up or to tear down. Compliment and encourage your clergy on the quality of their work and effort, not what they look like. There are likely better ways to express gratefulness or thanks for a relationship than terms of endearment that might be misread. Speak up when you hear someone say something demeaning or offensive. And if someone asks you to discontinue using a word or phrase, rather than getting defensive, listen to them. Together we can build one another up in love.

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