1. Health

Don't Call Me Honey!

By August 26, 2010

Follow me on:

Last evening, my friend Donna and I met for our too-infrequent girls' night out. Food was good, conversation was great, service was quite good... until....

Donna made a request, and the server (a 20-something) replied,"Sure, I'll be right back with that, honey."


It struck us both -- that we have reached that age where younger people are compelled to talk to us as if we are children. Give me a break!

It reminded me of a couple of studies I have read about, both related to healthcare, that show what happens when younger people address "older" (hey! I'm not THAT old!) people in a baby-talk sort of way. The professionals call it "elderspeak." It is (I hope) a subconcious attempt by a younger person to help us understand something. They slow down their speech (giving our older, feeble minds time to absorb what they've told us.) They sweeten up their words (thus, "Honey", alternatively "Dear" or "Sweetie") and they aren't really concerned about whether we truly understand because, in all actuality, they are being dismissive. Just like with babies. Often accompanied by a "there, there" pat on the hand.

So what does that have to do with patient empowerment?

Those studies I mentioned have shown that such belittling elderspeak can actually have negative health consequences for the older person. It turns out that when people are talked to in such a condescending fashion, they begin to perceive themselves as being less capable - which then affects their decision making and abilities to care for themselves.

We often see it (experience it) in nursing homes, doctor's offices, or in any situation where the person doing the elder-speaking is there to assist the older person in some way. I'm sure most have no idea that's how they are coming across, nor do they wish to be so condescending. But they are.

So what can we do about it? Plenty. It's time to teach them youngins a thingertwo!

Seriously -- if you are old (like I obviously am) -- and someone speaks to you in a condescending fashion -- even if they think they are being "sweet" and helpful..... Or.... if you observe such elderspeak taking place, perhaps as you accompany an older person to a medical appointment or visit or advocate for them in a hospital, then do something about it.

Reply with something like, "Please don't call me honey" or "I know you mean well, but I'm not a child - you may call me Mrs. Smith" - or whatever you think is appropriate to respond. If you can, go on to explain that such elderspeak is condescending and you KNOW he or she can't possibly MEAN to be condescending. Not only will you feel better about it, but you will have taught that youthful offender something important about working with us much-older folks, too.

You don't need to be defensive or belligerent. Just a polite cummupence will do! You'll be empowered by knowing that you are helping not just yourself, but others who might have felt belittled in the future. It's a great way to pay-it-forward.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Learn more or join the conversation!


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Photo Terence Mendoza - Fotolia.com

August 26, 2010 at 10:26 am
(1) Dennis (Investigator/Negotiator) at MedicalBillDog says:

Trisha, this one’s almost too easy.

Server: “I’ll be right back with that, Honey.”

You, “I’ll be right here waiting, Babycakes.”

August 26, 2010 at 11:39 am
(2) Nancy says:

How timely! Yesterday receptionist at MD’s office called me “honey” – Hair on the back of my neck bristled. Unfortunately, my response wasn’t as nice as you suggest.

August 31, 2010 at 10:00 am
(3) Father Daniel says:

In rural Maine, a waiter or waitress my well call a customer dear, pronounced de-ah, or sweetie. No offense meant, none taken. I’ve been called dear and sweetie since I was in my 20s, now I’m getting old.

I just use the term of endearment right back at an appropriate time in the conversation.

In the South, “bless his heart” can be endearment or it can be that this guy or gal needs all the help they can get, including that of the Almighty.

If someone said, Father Daniel, bless his heart, he’s so clueless, it takes a bit of the sting out.

August 31, 2010 at 11:22 am
(4) Rick says:

Actions speak louder than words.

Not everybody using such words as “honey” or “my love” means any harm. In far eastern Canada,for example,it is common to hear the woman behind the counter say the latter to someone she knows or to strangers, regardless of age. Quite often, it feels good to hear those words, however false they may be. What is important,however,is the context and the circumstances. This is what determines whether elderspeak is intended,or having a negative effect.

Many older people have come to like sweet babytalk. Maybe that is because they have become conditioned to it, unaware of the harm to them.

August 31, 2010 at 2:53 pm
(5) Regina Holliday says:

Dear Trisha,

One aspect of this situation not addressed in the post, but somewhat addressed in the comments, is the regional differences of polite behavior. I was taught to say “Excuse me, Dear.”

While passing through crowds of people in a hospital, an elderly woman screamed at me after I said that while I passed her husband in the hall. I turned to her and told her I grew up in Oklahoma, where it was considered the polite way to address someone in passing. Well, she informed me now I live on the east-coast. Having worked in a toy store on the east-coast for 12 years and using this phrase daily with grand parents, adult parents and their children, I was somewhat offended by her vehement response.

I wonder how much of this regional differences rather than elder-speak….

-Regina Holliday

August 31, 2010 at 3:15 pm
(6) Candice says:

Being from the South, I have to admit that I take no offense in being called honey, sweetie, etc. I too have heard these endearing terms my entire life and know that here, no offense is taken since this is part of the Southern heritage and language. If you’re from the South originally, you are used to this but if you are not from the South and move here, you may take offense but try not to; it’s not meant to be taken in any negative tone or way. I am not elderly, but my Grandmother is 97, and she has always used these sweet words/terms in the kindest regards, no matter whom the person is or what age the person is. I am pleased to read that Canada and other parts of America use these endearing terms. -Sometimes people are just trying to be nice in an unkind world we live in.

August 31, 2010 at 9:01 pm
(7) Cindy says:

Hi Trisha,

Speaking from experience as a caregiver, medical personal and long term care educator, I liked what you wrote. From my experience there is plenty of “baby talk/elder speak” that is rather condescending. I believe that if a younger person is going to use the “honey”, “sweetie”, etc. then they should pay attention to see how the elder responds. Of course, their tone of voice can have a positive or negative influence as well.

It is true that using these words can depend on the environment that one was raised and used as a term of endearment. So people should try not to be offended. It requires good communication, no doubt. I think it is important for the elder to respond to how they feel in a kind manner, especially if it is with some younger person they will be dealing with on a regular basis. I also think that to speak this way to a man vs a woman can be very different.

Although, we can’t please everyone it is possible to be nice and treat elders with the respect they “deserve”! It is never harmful to “check in” with the elder and ask them how they feel about being called “honey” as well. I think it is a good reminder to just be aware of our relationships with others and also know that one day the “young-ins” may think differently when they are older.

May 4, 2011 at 8:36 am
(8) Christine says:

What about common respect to a customer? Articles have said that this is a persons “tic” and they aren’t aware of what they are saying; need to be told that it is disrespectfull to use terms of endearments toward customers. I find it HIGHLY offensive

June 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm
(9) Beth Young says:

I am so glad to see that someone else is insulted by being called “honey!” I was at a movie theater where you can pick your seat on a computer monitor after you buy your ticket. I just asked the ticket girl which seat would she recommend, and she acted like I was an idiot. She said “Honey, first you need to pay me. Then you take your finger and press the computer screen. Isn’t that easy? Then you just instantly get your seat. Isn’t that great!” I got mad and said Thank you, doll you did a good job explaining that.

October 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm
(10) sweetie pie says:

I understand how you might be ” offended” but really, you got UPSET BECAUSE A WAITRESS called you honey? get over yourself!
its absurd, as in, the waitress or waiter surely didnt mean it to be demeaning…they make their money from making peopke happy. I think your thoughts are usually spot on, not this one. As many people noted, its a cultural norm many places. and also, part of upbringing….
just Introduce yourself to the person serving your coffee , being your nurse or what ever,,, let them know how you would like to be addressed! How many people actually intro themselves ? ? none ir few.
soooo…. just go with the flow and keep your BP down..btw, you never hear people addressing the waitress as Honey?!

October 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm
(11) gemdiamondintherough says:

I’m glad I’m not the only one that thinks that this is offensive. Way back when, in nursing school I was taught that this was never proper.
Basically, I feel it is demeaning. What’s wrong with saying, “I’ll be right back” and leaving the honey part off!!!!!!
People have in general lost their manners!!!!
IT IS A MATTER OF RESPECT, in my opinion.
To me that is an “intimate” term and should be reserved for that !
Will I have a “stroke” if someone tells me that – NO, but I do bristle momentarily and then figure, they don’t know better!!!!!!!!
I do understand that in different parts of the country or world, this may be acceptable. If you want to use this phrase with your friends, family and perhaps acquaintances- fine.
OK, but as a professional, I would have thought that you had better training than that.
Also, I was trained that you ask the person how they would like to be addressed. This is just common courtesy! and a matter of respect!

April 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm
(12) Erin says:

I have now officially entered into that middle aged area where I am not only given discounts but have started getting the honey and sweetie. I may be uptight and need to get over myself, but the next person who calls me dear, honey, or sweetie is going to get an earful. Sorry, but it is disrespectful to call any stranger anything period. For God’s sake, you are working at McDonald’s. You don’t get tips. Don’t lean through the freakin’ window and say,”Here you go, sweetie.” Respect for all people does not include terms like these. I don’t care where you were raised. It smacks of insincerity and is very patronizing.

September 14, 2013 at 9:31 am
(13) Frank Clark says:

Being called dear, honey, sweetheart, cutie etc has always been a bone of contention with me and more so now that I am a senior citizen. Just this morning while having breakfast in one of the nicer hotel dining rooms in Asheville, NC, the female manager of the dining room referred to me as “my dear”, but called all the other younger patrons in the dining room “guys.” Honestly, it drives me up the wall and proceeded to address the lack of common curtesy on the comment card I left behind with hopes that someone in management authority takes heed. Really, I think all managers of restaurants, doctors offices, etc need to stress to their employees the need to address all customers, patients etc either by their given name or simply by “sir” or “mam.”

January 3, 2014 at 2:43 pm
(14) csczoe says:

I am a 47 y/o female (architect) raised in Atlanta, Georgia and although I did hear these terms of endearment on occasion growing up (from strangers) I never used them myself nor would ever dream of addressing one of my elders with such terms! It’s just common sense to me that it is extremely condescending and disrespectful. Curiously, i began to notice several years ago a trend: very young (mostly) women were using the term “honey” to address me! They do not address my 53 y/o fiance in this manner, nor do they address my 66 y/o mother this way, but for me increasingly I was always addressed as “honey”…and I’m a pretty young looking 47 y/o????
Finally I deduced that this was a trend among youngsters and that it’s roots were on the passive-aggressive side and revealed a general disrespect for older people/authority figures/ or anyone else the young person just wanted to take down a notch or two. In my book it’s “sugar-coated bullying” and now, I always politely ask that they not address in such a manner…to which I am usually met with an angry stare or grunt of acknowledgment, which further reveals the passive-aggressive nature of such behavior.

February 12, 2014 at 9:01 am
(15) Lisa says:

I am so angry about this verbal put-down, especially from store associates @ Walmart, etc. I no longer mutely take it, now I reply “don’t call me ‘honey’ til we’ve slept together”. That always gets their attention.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.