The dust-up over Barack Obama’s calling a reporter “sweetie” seems to have died down. So it’s a good moment to discuss what it means when diminutive forms of address are used in business and professional contexts.
I admit when I first saw the report, I was disturbed. When I was getting my masters in communication, a significant portion of our studies was devoted to gender issues and differences in communication. The long-held habit of addressing women not by name, but by a diminutive substitute and belief that such speech was harmless was being researched and written about by excellent and highly-respected writers (Tannen , Gilligan , Borisoff , Johnson , etc.). The fundamental premise of this writing was that this type of address is, in fact, harmful, a way to diminish women and their achievements, to keep them in their place and paid less than men doing the same jobs. Even today, no serious and informed person believes women have achieved parity with men in the workplace and such speech is a contributing factor in women’s ability to be taken seriously in professional life. (Doubters take note: Women earn about 77 cents to every dollar men earn. So far, in 2008, only 24 women make the list of CEOs of the Fortune 1000.)
I saw this quote from an article in Salon  showing the discussion has been going on for a long time:
The idea that a professional woman might be taken aback by being called an infantilizing or feminizing diminutive is not a news flash. There is a scene from "Tootsie," a movie made more than 25 years ago, in which Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing character, a man, assesses the differences in how men and women are spoken to in professional situations. As Hoffman, dressed as his female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, tells a chauvinist boss, "I have a name. It's Dorothy. It's not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll ... Alan's always Alan, Tom's always Tom, and John's always John. I have a name too."
There isn’t enough space or time to go into it in much more detail here, and I invite and encourage readers to do their own reading and research. Basically, however, when it comes to business, the rule of thumb is this: if you are a man, do not call women by any type of diminutive name that you wouldn’t use on another man. So words like babe, doll, hon, darlin, and, yes, sweetie, are out.
The reasons for it are simple; using these words in a professional context have nothing to do with endearment and everything to do with entitlement and who holds the reins of power. And using terminology like this is especially fraught if the man is the boss. In such cases, extra care must be taken because repeated use can lead to charges of harassment or hostile work environment. That it’s just a “habit” and “I didn’t mean anything by it” are irrelevant.
Women bosses should be careful, too, when addressing men. Hon, darlin, babe, son and, again, sweetie, can also be wielded inappropriately. But, the fact is that my admonition is intended mostly for the male ears of the gender divide.
Unless the speaker and the “sweetie” in question are romantically linked, there is no place in the workplace for such forms of address. Besides, it’s so yesterday.
Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates LLC • High-Stakes Communications • Greenwich, CT