Save “Dear” for your spouse
I wrote a blog post last year titled, “No girls allowed!”. It didn’t have anything to do with taking women out of the workforce. It had everything to do with understanding the impact of our words, especially in the workplace. I thought I had said my peace and put my frustrations to rest about being called cute or girl at work, and then a friend of mine told me her colleague called her dear. I came to the immediate realization that I, too, have been called dear more times than I could count, but I never thought anything of it.
I know what you’re thinking, “How can you have a problem with being called a girl or cute, but not have an immediate reaction to being called dear?”. Well, maybe I am a girl and cute and a dear.
The reason I didn’t dwell on this fact was because I was being called dear by someone whose native tongue isn’t English. They didn’t grow up in the United States. They come from a completely different culture. That term, while it may not be appropriate in corporate America, may be ok where they come from. So I let it slide assuming it had no other connotation. What is the problem with that? Let me tell you:
Issue #1: First and foremost, the word dear is a term of endearment. The last time I heard that word used was when my Dad was alive. Outside of calling my mom, Kimmie Sue, he would call her dear. For me, that is a very affectionate way to address someone. Unless you are married to or dating someone at work, I don’t think that word should ever be used. Even then I would argue that it is still misplaced.
Issue #2: No matter what level we are at in an organization, we have to remember we are always setting an example for others. What you call someone in front of other colleagues will have an impact. Using diminutive terms (i.e. cute, girls, dear), especially in the workplace, undermines the authority of the person in question. If we [actually] want to push for equality in the workplace, then please always remember it is ok to address the individual in question. I just ask that you do it in a professional manner.
How to handle:
1. Give them the benefit of the doubt
Before you run to HR (of course the term used and entire situation will dictate whether or not you do this), I encourage you to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know you are frustrated. I know you think, “They should know better.”. You’re right, they should know better. Take a deep breath and think about this: Most individuals have never thought of the repercussions of using terms, such as "girls" or "dear" or “cute” at work. In fact, you’d be surprised how little people think about what they say.
2. Be direct
There is no need to sugarcoat what you are going to say in this scenario. If you feel offended by a term you are being called, you need to make certain the words are fully understood by the person hearing them. That might not happen if they come packaged in a big beautiful ball of fluff.
My suggested approach to this:
Wait until you are calm enough to speak rationally with the person in question. Say something like, “I recently noticed that you refer to me as dear when we are speaking. Where I come from this is very much a term of affection and is inappropriate for the workplace. I know that we both come from two different cultures, so I have to assume that this term might mean something different where you come from. Being called dear at work makes me rather uncomfortable, so I wanted to address this directly and ask that you refer to me by my first name instead.”
Like I said, just be honest. You are offended. It is inappropriate and you want them to stop. That’s it. If you ask them and they don’t stop, then there is another discussion that needs to happen (preferably with someone else present).
3. Change your ways
I’ll keep this one short and sweet: When referring to anyone by anything other than their name, always think first about what type of impact it could have. Rule of thumb here: If you wouldn't want the term used on yourself, don't use it for others.
That’s it. That’s the rule.
Words shape our thinking. If we are working towards a society that truly embraces differences then we need to make sure the language we are using positively impacts those around us. Like I said, what you say in the workplace does matter, but it's up to you to make a conscious effort to lift others up instead of placing them beneath you. If we want to bring about change, then we need to start right here: with ourselves. and I want to make sure that you are equipped to stand up for yourselves before you fight for others.
You’ve got this!
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