by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

So what CAN you call someone today? When Barack Obama used the word “sweetie” in addressing a Detroit TV reporter last week, it made national headlines. He was scolded by the media. Fingers wagged. Tongues clucked.

“Uh-uh-uh,” the conscience-makers said, “you’re stepping over the line.”

And maybe he was.

But where is the line?

I’ve been thinking ever since this happened about the things we call each other when we call each other, and it seems they are all bad at one point or another.

For example, “honey.” This is OK when it comes from your grandmother, your aunt or the chain-smoking, lipsticked, old blonde waitress in Las Vegas who says, “Honey, pass me that ketchup bottle, will ya?”

But from a politician, a business associate or a stranger on a bus, it’s bad.

How about “babe” or “baby”? This seems OK when it comes from your grandmother, your aunt or the bad-haired record producer with sunglasses on the other side of the booth who says, “Great take, babe” or “Baby, you’re a star!”

But from a politician, a business associate or a stranger on a bus, it’s bad.

Ditto for kiddo

How about “sugar” or “gorgeous” or “cutie pie”? Again, these are OK from your grandmother, your aunt or the 80-year-old immigrant dressmaker who says, “OK, gorgeous, are you ready for your fitting?”

But from a politician, a business associate or a stranger on a bus, they’re bad.

How about “kiddo”? This is also OK from your grandmother, aunt or the old professor who puts his arm around you and says, “Listen, kiddo, the world is a tough place.”

But from a politician, business associate or stranger on a bus, “kiddo” is demeaning, right?

And is the professor allowed to put his arm around you?

It seems pretty clear that only grandmothers and aunts can say anything they want to people – especially women. But this issue is hardly gender-specific. Men are bothered by certain catch words as well.

For example, “bro.” If a white guy calls a black guy “bro,” eyebrows will raise. If a young man calls an older man “bro”- same thing. But if two young guys are talking sports at a bar, they can toss around “bro” like a football, and no one will care.

What about “buddy”? If a homeless man asks, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” they’re liable to write a song about it. (I think they did.) But if the guy sitting next to you at the office says, “Hey, buddy, you mind not squeaking in your chair so much?” you want to slug him.

Ma’am can be a slam

I read once that Babe Ruth used to call people “jidge,” which was actually what people called him, and thus he avoided having to remember anyone’s name. It also had the benefit of not being insulting, because, hey, if it was good enough for the Babe, why not you?

Besides, titles can make you stumble. Dennis Archer and I met many years ago – before he became mayor of Detroit – in the bathroom at a charity event. We lined up next to each other at the, uh, facilities. I introduced myself as “Mitch,” he did the same as “Dennis.” We did not, given the circumstances, shake hands.

But ever since then, whenever I see him, I have never been able to call him “mayor,” even though decorum might suggest it. I keep remembering that bathroom. And to me, he will always be “Dennis.”

And let’s be honest, some people don’t want to be addressed in the proper manner. I know lots of women over 40 who, if you call them “ma’am,” might tear your head off. They would rather hear “sweetie” than “ma’am.””Ma’am” means they’re old, whereas “sweetie” just means you’re a jerk.

So I guess it’s like that old comic routine from the ’70’s. “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me Johnny … but you doesn’t have to call me Johnson.”

I never knew what that meant.

And I don’t know what to call anybody.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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