Thursday, October 26, 2000

'Sweetheart': sweet, or tart?

Only a few - probably not you - can get away with saying this

        It happened again the other day. A strange man called me sweetheart.

        What's a girl to do? If she complains, she's one of those nasty feminists. If she says nothing, she's letting the guy look foolish. It's like ignoring a piece of butter on your boss's chin.

        Most of the time, I don't mind “sweetheart” or “honey.” Men of a certain age and personality can get away with it.

        But “sweetheart” in a business setting is different. I was interviewing this man about guns. We disagreed, and in the midst of a lively discussion, he started one sentence with, “Now, sweetheart ... ”

Credibility lost
        I went right on listening and talking, but I could no longer vouch for my objectivity. Either his case was so weak he could only resort to condescension, or he truly mistook me for sweet, which means he was delusional. Either way, his credibility was shot.

        Same goes for Alex Castellanos, the Republican operative who caught flak this summer for a TV advertisement that briefly featured the word “rats.”

        Mr. Castellanos' tactics were criticized by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the communications school at the University of Pennsylvania.

        In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Castellanos responded: “Kathleen Hall Jamieson, bless her sweet heart, is overanalyzing.”

        Alex, honey, you're overmatched.

        The good news is that most men are more enlightened. Local businesswomen tell me they rarely hear “honey” today.

Men improving
        Beth Sewell, executive director of the Covington Business Council, has never encountered this sort of condescension in Northern Kentucky. Central Indiana, however, was a different story.

        In the early '90s, Ms. Sewell managed an office that sold franchises to used-car dealers. Businessmen assumed she was the sales manager's secretary — his “girl,” they called it.

        “That tended to bother me,” Ms. Sewell says.

        On the other hand, she recently was called “honey” by an older man who immediately apologized. She resisted the urge to comfort him.

        “I had seen him as a grandfatherly person,” Ms. Sewell says. “I was thinking, "Oh, that's OK, you can call me that.'”

        Such situations fascinate Gretchen Theissen, owner of LightLeap Solutions, a Covington marketing and public relations firm.

        She remembers one cheeseball who drove her nuts by calling everyone in the office “Bud” whenever he needed a favor.

        Also annoying: men with extra-hard handshakes. That's a method of intimidation, says Ms. Theissen, who learned a few countermoves in a class on negotiation.

        “When they shake your hand, you grasp their wrist and do a double shake. Then you've one-upped them, and they know it,” she says.

        Well, I had no idea.

        Barbara Bonar's pet peeve is the off-limits joke.

        An experienced lawyer in Northern Kentucky, Ms. Bonar never gets called “sweetheart.” But she has been in meetings where men will say, “I'd tell a funny joke, if only she weren't here.”

        The message is clear. We women, with all our sweetness, are ruining the fun.

        To which I would respond: Honey, you should hear our jokes.

       Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 859-578-5584 or


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