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 Walters called her local bus company to politely let them know that 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 that it wasn't appropriate language, and that the bus drivers would be alerted. Walters 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 said that this was political correctness run amok; Tony Thorne, 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 in Britain any more and when they come back they say how much they like to hear terms of affection, such as the Essex 'babes'." Don't you love the term "urban sophisticates"? It's like when Sarah Palin talks about Real Americans vs. New Yorkers.

The Consultant Editor at Collins Language, Ian Brooks, argues that language is "in the ear of the beholder" and points out that language has shifted over the past century, so a term like "babe," which might have originally referred to an innocent baby, has since the 1990s become slang for an attractive woman, and therefore has sexist overtones (one could argue that being referred to as a child isn't much better). 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": so the bus driver or cabbie who uses a pet name is choosing the familiar in order to avoid uncomfortable formality. And 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.

Walters thinks that's all well and good, but "I'm not suggesting that bus drivers or other men who say babe to women they don't know are evil misogynistic women-haters and I'm equally not saying that all women should be furious if it happens to them. I am suggesting, however, that language changes over time –- there are words in common use 20 years ago that wouldn't be accepted now -– and that, as a woman, I should not be expected to meekly accept words from men that make me feel uncomfortable. I should also be happy to provide this feedback without being attacked ... I'm not expecting to change the language and behavior of everyone, just as when I contacted the bus company I didn't expect (or want) them to issue a list of 'approved' words and turn the drivers into robots (the latter is an accusation levelled at me by an unnamed driver). I just hoped it might make some people reconsider how their words might be interpreted by others."

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 degradingly; 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." But Walters is right in that if someone feels uncomfortable they should be able to speak up without being accused of sucking all the charm out of life.

Kate Fox, author of Watching English and a social anthropologist, responded to the debate by suggesting the best way to deal with the situation is with humor — if someone calls you "babe" then say sarcastically, "Thanks, stud muffin!" or something along those lines. I'd agree in moments of clearly attempted affection — otherwise I'd probably opt for "Don't call me babe," and throw in an icy stare to boot.

Image via wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock.com.