Within the last 2 days, I called two different females “Sweetie.” One was a little girl on a bike who I accidentally startled by walking up behind her on a public sidewalk where she’d momentarily stopped. I thought she’d seen me but to be sure I said “hi” just as I came alongside to pass. To my surprise, the grade school age child, dressed in bright pink, started in alarm, and threw up small fists in front of her. I was impressed with the defensive posture – one I’ve never learned (boxing?) – and would not think to do the same in similar circumstances. (If I think something is headed my way I quite likely duck my head and put my hands in front of my face. And not typically because I think strangers are going to deck me on the sidewalk.) I felt bad for scaring her and hastily offered a smile and apology.
The other was an office administrative aid – who was possibly coming down with the flu – and yet took the time to be decent to me, someone who she’d never met before. I wanted her to know I appreciated her time and attention, and as another woman, empathized with the fact she didn’t feel good. After, I hoped she would not have seen it as demeaning in any way.
So what’s this about? I have noticed I started occasionally using the endearment Sweetie in recent years, quite likely coinciding with middle age. I have begun to feel protective toward younger women. I think that’s what I feel anyway. Not patronizing. I assure you, it’s not that! (My quick-to-defend position stems from the fact that I think the female gender gets patronized enough, and god knows, I have been on the receiving end aplenty.)
When other women have kindly (not rudely or belittlingly) called me “Sweetie” in the past, I liked it. At least that’s how I remember it. I know a favorite Aunt used the endearment in cards written to me when I was a little girl. She didn’t have children of her own and was kind and generous to her many nieces & nephews. (As a conservative, religious person, she wasn’t all that crazy with how I turned out – pretty sure those “Sweetie’s” dried up around the time I was in my teens – but nonetheless, that doesn’t take away from the earlier thoughtfulness and affection.)
“Sweetie” seems, when said kindly, well-intentioned. When women address one another with gentleness, it creates a kind of solidarity, a way of saying we’re looking out for one another. Maybe the key to its effectiveness is an age gap? It works best when said from older to younger? Or at least same age? If a 30 year old woman addressed a 60 year old woman of sound mind as “Sweetie” would it inherently sound disrespectful?
“Sweetie” said by a man to someone who is not his wife, girlfriend, or daughter, takes on a rather different note, a patriarchal superiority, whether he intends it or not. A strange man calls me “Sweetie” (or “Honey”) and I bristle. (I can’t think of one instance where a strange man addressed me as “Sweetie” and it didn’t sound patronizing, belittling, or otherwise out of turn.)
I do, I should note, call men “Sweetie” too but I think the distinction there is that I know them first. Perhaps in time that will change, when I grow old enough to be sure that no endearment from me could possibly be misconstrued; my first thought being with sexual connotations but now that I think about it, also to avoid any emasculating interpretations.