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Not Your Sweetie, Not Your Hon

Yesterday in a business writing seminar near Seattle, Washington, we were talking about our pet peeves in the messages we read at work. It was a sociable group of women and men in a friendly company. Nevertheless, this pet peeve surfaced: terms of endearment.

When I asked the woman what she meant by terms of endearment and why such terms were a pet peeve to her, I got an answer like this:

"It’s words like dear, hon, and sweetie. I don’t like them in email and other business communication. I would like to respond to people who use them, ‘I’m not your dear, I’m not your hon."

I asked the woman to speculate why people used words like dear and hon (short for honey) at work. We decided that people, especially older workers, may simply want to be friendly.

Despite that positive motive, the group decided terms of endearment should be taboo at work. I agree. I remember visiting my 96-year-old cousin in a New Jersey hospital last autumn. When I arrived, she had been in the hospital an entire week, yet every worker except her doctor called her hon and dearie instead of her name. To me, the words made her anonymous rather than nurtured. Only her doctor called her Mrs. Wallace.

So let’s agree and spread the word: If you want to be friendly at work, say hi, good morning, please, and thank you. Use people’s names and say "Have a great day!" Let’s apply this rule not only to coworkers, but also to patients, customers, clients, members, visitors, citizens, and others.

Let’s save hon, sweetie, and dear for our spouse or sweetheart, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Let’s use it with people who would not even think of responding "I’m not your hon."

Do you agree? Are you with me?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

16 comments on “Not Your Sweetie, Not Your Hon”

  • Ha! This is definitely a pet peeve! I can handle it when the person is over 80, but it is especially bothersome when someone my age (mid-twenties)–or even younger–uses terms of endearment with me. I do not get this at work; it mainly occurs when I am shopping or in a restaurant. Maybe managers can use this in employee training!

  • I am with you all the way. Those terms of endearment set my nerves off. I must react in some way since most offenders stammer a bit and call me something different very quickly.

    Another pet peeve of mine is when people choose to call me a nickname without the familiarity needed to assume they can call me that. I’ve been called Annie in many inappropriate situations – my mother and husband don’t even call me that. Shortening Christine to Chris, Victoria to Vicki, Kathryn to Kathy, Patricia to Patty or Michael to Mike makes my friends with those names crazy. I generally listen to what they call themselves and even how they pronounce it and stick with that unless invited to call them something else.

    I’m also not fond of the salutation “Ladies” in emails to a group. I’ve never seen a salutation of “Men”. I much prefer Team, All, Colleagues or something else more inclusive.

    I realize it’s just being friendly and I hate to sound picky but I find it disrespectful.

  • I have never been referred to by any of those names. My name is Patricia (which can be a mouthful), but I like it for business and that is what I sign my name and use at work. I do however prefer my closest co-workers to call me Pat because, well try saying Patricia really fast a few times. It can be a tongue twister.

    People can get confused on what to call you if you are not consistent like myself, so I don’t mind. Now Patty is only reserved for family and friends I grew up with and I never use it at the office. I don’t think I would know who they were talking to if someone used it.

    I however have made the mistake of calling someone who had a name like Angela, Angie, because my niece is an Angie and it was the first thing that popped out of my mouth. I usually ask them, are you an Angie? I’m sorry, but that’s my niece’s name. Over the years and with age sometimes that does happen, so I try not to be too upset about it when it happens to me.

    I have never been called hon, sweetie or anything like that. I am quite tall, almost 6 feet with heels, so people probably don’t think of me in those terms on first meeting.

    I agree that they are not appropriate terms at the office, but in some cases it may be what people say because they can’t remember your name.

    I don’t mind the salutation ‘Ladies’ when something is addressed to many women and have seen a similar thing for men, they use the salutation ‘Gentlemen’, which I think is acceptable.

  • Hi, Kelly, Anne, and Patricia. Thanks for commenting on this rich topic.

    Kelly, it WOULD be helpful if managers covered this topic in employee training. From what I heard at the company I mentioned in my post, people are not comfortable addressing this issue because doing so may seem unfriendly. If managers were to tackle it, the topic would be open for discussion.

    Anne, thanks for mentioning unwanted nicknames. My mother gave me the one-syllable name Lynn so I would never have a nickname, and her efforts succeeded. My husband Michael regularly gets called Mike, a name that doesn’t suit him at all. Regarding “Ladies,” please see my post “Women, Ladies, and Girls at Work.” Most women have definite preferences, but we don’t all agree.

    Patrica, thanks for looking at the big picture and trying to understand why people do what they do. It’s an intriguing idea that your height may have discouraged people from thinking of you as “hon.”

    My suggestion: When we are called by a name that doesn’t work for us, let’s sweetly say, “I prefer my name, ___ [fill in the blank with your name], rather than Sweetie [or Annie, Kathy, etc.].” That remark doesn’t criticize. It simply states our preference.


  • Thank you for posting this. I am a 30-year-old educator. I have fun at work, but I uphold high standards of professionalism for myself. Everyday I go into work and have to listen to our business and facilities manager, who is 27, call me “Kiddo,” “Sweetie,” or “Hun.” I am completely annoyed by the use of these terms in the workplace…particularly by someone younger than me. I would LOVE any suggestions on how to tactfully make her aware of this unprofessional discourse.

  • Jen, why not try the suggestion I mentioned above? That is, just say something like “I prefer my name, Jen, to Sweetie and Kiddo at work.” You might add “I feel my name represents me as a professional, which is how I want to be seen.” Then see how the other person responds. She may never have thought about it.

    Try it!

  • I completely agree that ‘pet names’ should be taboo at work. I’m only 22 but I have gotten quite far in my career and am earning a good income. I am constantly called ‘Kiddo’ or ‘Champ’ at work by a paralegal I work with daily. I’m the Executive Administrator (yes, technically the admin), but I deserve respect and I don’t feel that from her at all. Pet names reflect a certain disrespect, and it is completely inappropriate at work, in my opinion.

  • Jenn, why not respond “I prefer to be called by my name rather than Kiddo”? Then let us know what happens.

    Good luck!

  • I’ve been researching this topic and just found your posts. Three young women in my office–all vice presidents–call the rest of the women (including me) “sweetie.” I’m old enough to be their mother, and although I’m not a VP (by choice), I have far more experience than they do. This “sweetie” stuff really gets on my nerves. It’s so unprofessional and condescending. I’m looking for a way to address the topic so that they’ll understand how serious it really is and not start whining and backstabbing, which would be normal behavior for them.

  • Hi, Trudy. Try follow the suggestions above.

    In your case, you can also present the issue as something that will help the young VPs. Tell them everyone prefers to be called by name rather then “Sweetie.” Their doing so will help them build a supportive work team.

    Good luck!


  • I agree, and I am old enough to have been taught that it is also unacceptable to address one’s elders by their first name unless you are a personal friend and asked to do so.

  • Great post, Lynn.
    I gnash my teeth when someone I’ve never met addresses me with one of these cutesie endearments. (Unless I’m visiting Baltimore, where it seems everyone in trade or service calls everyone else “Hon.” In that city, this isn’t usually considered disrespectful. It’s actually kind of charming. But only in Baltimore.)
    Whenever someone I don’t know addresses me by my first name, I drop the register of my voice and say, “I beg your pardon. You are mistaken. MY name is Ms. X.” (And if I’m in a bad mood, I might say, “You have mistaken me for someone else. MY name….”)

  • I actually see no real problem with this. If you are professional in what you do and use the term to make someone smile then by all means do it. Work is to stressful and for someone to be a little lighthearted is great. I believe its people like you that try to take what little bit of joy there is at work and make it umcomfortable. When someone says these types of words they are definetly not meant to cause harm. This is ridiculous..

  • Hello, Angel. Because we communicate with others, it matters whether other people are offended. According to the woman in my class and all the people who commented before you, being called “Hon,” “Sweetie,” and other endearments or abbreviations of their names is an issue for them.

    To say “I see no problem with this” and “This is ridiculous” is an example of ignoring the needs of others–not a good way to relate to people.


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