Hey Fuckface, Don’t Call Me “Sweetheart”

July 31, 2017

Hey Fuckface, Don’t Call Me “Sweetheart”

Names are meaningful and significant, and the ability to name is a powerful act.  Names can be inclusive or exclusive.  Consider that “mankind” includes women (in theory, but not name), but that “all men are created equal” doesn’t really include women at all because, and for almost one hundred years, Americans just haven’t been able to pass an equal rights amendment.  Consider also that only women can be “hysterical” because the word is derived from the Greek for “womb”.  Apparently, women feel with their wombs and behave accordingly.  Kind of like saying that men think with their dicks, except the first expression is socially acceptable and the second is not.  Names can be given or uttered with love, respect or honour.  Names can also be derisive, dismissive and oppressive.

Growing up, I called my mother “mummy” – not ma, mum, momma, or mother.  Similarly, my father was not papa, pappy, da, or dad, but “daddy”.  I recall my high school friends looking askance at me when I spoke of “mummy and daddy”; I don’t even remember when I learned that my parents’ had actual names or what they were.  Even into my adulthood, my parents remained “mummy and “daddy”.

Before I had children, I remember telling my father-in-law that I wanted my future children to refer to me by my first name.  I thought “Mummy” and its variations was semiotically reactionary and anti-feminist.  I didn’t want to be defined by a restrictive and patriarchally-constructed role, and I didn’t want to set that example for my children.  And then I had children and it all went out the window.

I discovered that “dada” and “mama” are some of the first sounds a baby makes (at least with her mouth).  In fact, my children all said “dada” first.  I learned very quickly to encourage them to say “dada” because, when a baby would holler in the middle of the night, I could turn to my husband and say: “she’s calling you”, and then I could roll over and go back to sleep.  I soon realized that being called “mummy” is the sweetest combination of sounds ever uttered, a delightfully alliterative confluence of lips and breath.  Only three people in the entire world can call me that; it is special and precious.  “Mummy” is, in fact, a profound and powerful word.

Naming a child is similarly profound and powerful – and fraught.  I remember, when pregnant with my first child, attending a prenatal class and listening to all the other moms-to-be announce the names they had selected for their children.  One woman said, “I am going to give my daughter my favourite name of all time: Michelle”.  I almost fell over (not hard when you’re hugely pregnant and wobbly).  Michelle?  Really?  That is your favourite name of all time?  Would you like to think about it a little longer?  (Sorry Michelles of the world.  I know some of you and you are lovely people.)

I chose names for my children that I liked, that my husband liked, and that honoured family members and ancestry.  I also considered how the first name related to our surname.  I rejected names that I had previously considered when, upon looking at a brand new baby, thought to myself “you just don’t look like an ‘Elliot’”.  I also considered what my children’s initials would be; no one wants a monogram on their towels that spells out BUTT or GOOF.  I also thought about how the name might be shortened or what nickname might flow: “Frances” to “Fanny”, for example, or “Richard” to “Dick”.  In our globalized world, I didn’t want to pick a name that meant something else in another language.  Remember that story (apocryphal, as it turns out, but it still makes a good point) that the Chevy Nova didn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries because “no va” means “doesn’t go”?  Well, I didn’t want my future globe-trotting child to have a laughable or embarrassing name in Polish or whatever.  And lastly, I selected names that I figured most people could spell, pronounce, and weren’t common or trendy.  Think of all those poor kids called “Khaleesi” or “Tyrion”, which seem less like names and more like random captchas.

Notwithstanding that I gave my children actual names, I hardly ever use them.  As babies my children were called “bunny”, “dolly, “bum bum”, “Mr. Delicious”, or the unimaginably creative “baby”.  My children are adults now, but I still call my daughter “bun”, “bunny” and, for some unfathomable reason, “Lou”.  The boys I call by each other’s name, or sometimes my brother’s name, as well as “buddy”, “dude” and “dudie”.  Occasionally, I really slip up and call one of my sons “Mr. Delicious” at the most inopportune time.  Oops.

There are also the names that we use for our romantic partners: sweetie, darling, dear, sugar, honey, baby, babe, bae, and so on.  Apparently there are hundreds of synonyms for “drunk”.  I would bet (and God I hope) that there are even more synonyms for “sweetheart”.  My husband usually calls me “dear”.  At least, that’s what I hear – who knows what he calls me when I’m not around or what he mutters under his breath when I am.  I usually call him “darling”, except when I call him “you fucker”, usually just as a joke, but once or twice when I’ve been really mad.  My husband only uses my actual name when he is talking me down from a great metaphorical height, if you know what I mean, one that usually involves tears about something or other.  I don’t think I ever call my husband by his actual name unless I am shouting for him to hurry and kill a spider.

Naming is a big deal.  Even last names can be an issue.  When I got married, my father was very disappointed that I took my husband’s surname rather than keep my own.  “I thought you were a good feminist,” he said.  “What does my last name have to do with it?” I said. “It’s either my husband’s last name or my father’s.  At least this way I make a choice.”  A young woman I know, Alessia, was deciding whether to take her husband’s name and asked my opinion.  “What’s his last name?” I asked.  “Bevilaqua,” she replied.  “And what’s your last name?”  I asked.  “Bravo,” she replied.  “Are you kidding me?  Why would you even think of changing your name?  Alessia Bravo is probably the best name in history!”  And I suppose if I were as good a feminist as my dad believed, I wouldn’t worry about keeping his name or assuming my husband’s; I would change my name to Alessia Bravo.

Just because I took my husband’s last name, however, doesn’t mean that I also assumed his first name.  I hate to see correspondence addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”, as if two people become one person once married – and that one person is him.  This is a holdover from a time when women were legally considered the property of men, and this kind of thinking has got to go.  Ugh.  It’s mostly wedding invitations that are so addressed, with the invitation itself compounding the problem by indicating that I (I mean my husband, who is both himself and me) am to be the guest of Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.  And don’t even get me started on Miss, Mrs. and Ms.  I received a letter from a professional corporation that addressed me as “Mrs.” and I threw it in the garbage (after ascertaining that there was no cheque inside of course!).  When you do not know a person or their preference of salutation, it is highly unprofessional to use Miss or Mrs.  Yeah, naming matters.

I remember once a party of seniors at the restaurant trying to get my attention by calling me “miss”.  I heard them, but I ignored them.  They couldn’t possibly mean me.  I haven’t been a “miss” for a long time.  I kept going about my business until I finally realized that they did mean me.  I was at their table in a moment, apologizing and explaining that no one calls me “miss” anymore; I am unused to such flattering endearments.   “But you’re so young”, one of the gentlemen said, “so you are a ‘miss’ and not a ‘ma’am’”.  Bless his heart.  I’ve also had guests clap their hands or snap their fingers to get my attention.  Nope.  I will make a point of ignoring that person until they learn some big boy manners and say “excuse me”, or until one of us dies.

Last weekend there was a party of six at the restaurant: three husband and wife couples.  They seemed pleasant enough until I tried to kill one of them (but that’s a story for another day).  And they were pleasant enough until I wanted to kill one of them (that’s today’s story).  I figure these folks were marginally younger than me.  Innocuously middle-class and adequately educated.  They all appeared to have good jobs, wear nice clothes, and be well-mannered.  They spoke companionably amongst themselves about their children, travels, and home renovations.  Nothing to see here.  I don’t suppose I could have identified them the next day in a police line-up if one of them hadn’t overstepped.

He called me “sweetheart”.  He was obviously married; his wife was sitting next to him and he had an arm around her shoulders.  I am obviously married; I wear a wedding ring and an engagement ring.  This is not a singles’ bar (do those exist anymore?), we did not arrange a Tinder hookup, I am not an adorable toddler and he is not my adoring granddad.  He was not a kindly old Southern gentleman whose courtly manners require a “miss” instead of a “hey you”.  This guy was a straight up, patronizing, condescending, dismissive, sexist, douche.  Calling a woman “sweetheart”, particularly a woman in a position of power (me, the owner of the restaurant), is not casual and it’s not an accident.

There is an obvious power imbalance between the customer and me: he is sitting in a comfy, upholstered chair while I run around in battered shoes with blistered feet.  He places his “order”.  I bring him food.  I am feeding him.  I am serving him.  Our relationship is transactional.  He is giving me money to do things for him.  By calling me “sweetheart” he demeans and diminishes me.  By calling me “sweetheart” he sexualizes our relationship.

If you think calling a random woman “sweetheart” doesn’t matter, you’re wrong.  If you think I’m making a mountain out of molehill, you’re wrong.  If you think I’m making a mountain out of thin air because even a molehill is something, then you’re super wrong.  Don’t believe me?  Ask any woman, any woman at all, if she likes being called “sweetheart” by someone other than her sweetheart.  (Spoiler alert: no woman will say she likes it.)  But more than being wrong, not understanding how offensive it is to call a complete stranger “sweetheart” – a complete stranger who is almost ALWAYS a woman – is just not very nice.  It’s not considerate, decent, thoughtful or kind to dismiss another person’s feelings.  Get on the progress train folks; it’s going to Equality Town.

I’m usually pretty good at keeping my mouth shut when I need to.   Restaurant customers can say some unbelievably stupid, obnoxious or offensive things, but my mouth stays smiley and obsequious, even though I am screaming in my head.  I cannot, however, control my manner.  I could not possibly cheat a lie detector test; I would certainly be undone by an accelerated heart rate or pounding blood pressure.  In the restaurant environment, I cannot control my “tell”, that face I make when I want to punch someone in the throat.  I have been told that I give a super smelly stink eye.  That my thousand yard stare is like more like two thousand yard stare.  Remember that Anderson Cooper eye roll?  The one he gave when interviewing Kellyanne Conway?  That’s what I do, I can’t help it.  My eyeballs are gymnasts.

The first time the customer called me “sweetheart” I told him my name.  The second time he called me “sweetheart” I rolled my eyes.  The third time he called me “sweetheart” I resolved to ignore him until he died of hunger.  The fourth time he called me “sweetheart” I contemplated how to put society out of my misery.  Do not underestimate middle-aged lady rage.  And then I started composing this rant in my head.

So what do you call someone, a person who is a stranger, when you don’t know her name?  Her name, dumbass.  Ask for her name.  Call her by her name.  Remember her name.  And never call anyone “sweetheart” unless you are having sex with her on the regular.

I’ve never been a fan of the kind of restaurant where the staff wears name tags.  I’m also not crazy about the kind of restaurant where the server starts out by crouching down beside you at the table and introduces themself.  But maybe I should try it; if people know my name then maybe they won’t call me “sweetheart” anymore.

“Hey Fuckface, don’t call me ‘sweetheart’.  My name is Khaleesi and I’ll be your server tonight.”

Listen to the fabulously foul-mouthed Kesha and make some arugula pesto

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5 years ago

I’ve had this tab open on my computer for two days, trying to find the time to finish reading it. So first of all, thank you for writing something so funny and compelling – it’s nice to have something that keeps pulling you back in, even when life is nuts. Secondly – I completely agree with you. Names are important, and anyone who argues otherwise must be crazy, because I can’t think of anyone who isn’t offended, disempowered, or otherwise put-off when saddled with a name that doesn’t make them comfortable. Sweetheart in particular bothers me, because it’s got such potential to be lovely – I call my young boys sweetheart, I call my wife sweetheart – and yet it also seems to be the go-to term for sexists looking to put a woman firmly beneath their boot. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen some anti-feminist troll on the internet suddenly start referring to a woman as ‘sweetheart’ after being called out. It’s not sweet. It’s not nice. It’s a clear and blatant attempt to diminish a person’s status and importance. It’s a big ol’ ‘You and your opinion do not matter, as you are clearly not my intellectual equal.’ So yeah… I guess what I’m saying is… I’ll be standing by your side and anyone else’s should they choose to respond to a ‘hey sweetheart’ with a ‘hey fuckface.’