“I am a young woman and just started working in this blue-chip organisation. I am supposed to be happy but every time I walk into the office, it is mentally draining. The male colleagues do not outrightly harass us but refer to young women as ‘’sweetheart, dear, baby girl’’. How do I stop this? I feel like such names demean women. Kindly advice”.
When we went to the UK for post-graduate studies in the mid seventies, we were confused by Londoners who referred to us as ‘‘sweetheart’’, ‘‘darling’’ and at times called us simply ‘‘sweetie!’’ To us, these words were reserved for people who were near and dear, not young post-graduate students who just bought a bus or train ticket!
In time, we realised that these were empty words that meant nothing of the sort that we thought they did in our native land.
That was our first lesson in trans-cultural psychiatry. Different cultures use words differently to mean what the culture intends them to mean.
At the time, a young Nigerian student went to a pub with his girlfriend and the waiter made a mistake that nearly cost him his life. He made the mistake of calling the girlfriend sweetheart. The ringing tone in his ear soon told him that he had made a near fatal mistake. Later, the Nigerian student told the Magistrate’s Court that he thought that the bartender was trying to steal his girlfriend.
If the blue chip company you work for is in London, then perhaps it is one of those old companies that still hold on to the culture of the seventies in South London.
If on the other hand you work for a blue chip company in Nairobi and you find the words offensive, then you have the right (and duty) to inform management that you find such references offensive and that you would like to be referred to by your correct title, which could be Doctor, Miss, Mrs. or simply Ms.
This now brings us to other challenges that are similar to yours, but occur in social rather than work settings.
When one meets a man who is the age of one’s father, there is sometimes a challenge as to the title. Does the African refer to such a person as uncle so and so, the father of so and so, or simply Mr Otieno? Growing up, it was easy. People the age of one’s father, were called the father of Kiprotich.
This system became even more complex in formal settings, where the chairman of a board, is both Mr chairman, and also uncle Peter. At home he is uncle Peter, at the office he is the boss.
A few weeks ago, a lady pastor well known to a friend of mine arrived at a social gathering dressed in her casual attire. We all hugged and kissed as is customary in 21st Century Nairobi middle class circles.
The following day, at a church harambee, she was in full church regalia, in the company of the archbishop and she had, overnight been transformed from a friend at the club, to a woman of God serving as a shepherd of (us) the flock! How confusing it was for all of us, including the lady of the cloth. Same lady, same people but the different setting had changed titles overnight. No kissing and no hugging!
At a recent school reunion, a man introduced himself to former school mates as follows: “My name is Professor, Doctor, Honourable James Mutisya”. Later the same day a well-respected man of many titles introduced himself simply as Hassan Abdulla, without any titles, which all knew he had.
In conversation later the same day, it was agreed that James needed to elevate himself socially through assigning himself titles. Hassan on the other hand let the society elevate him.
In the case of those men who refer to you as sweetheart in the office, it could well be that they do so because in their hearts of hearts, they feel inferior to you and can only shine brighter by bringing you down.
No self respecting professional man should treat another professional person (male or female) other than with full respect.
In the last ten years or so, a phenomenon that can only be described as new has taken place. Boys and girls born as we all watched have become consultants in medicine, IT, advertising, and other fields. As they grew up, they were, correctly referred to as baby girls, sweetheart and other such words of endearment. Does my son or daughter change from my dear when she becomes an Advocate of the High Court?
The answer is yes, she stops being my sweetheart or my dear girl if she finds it offensive. In this case, she draws the boundary and she must let us know where the boundary lies.