Familiarity and contempt

Earlier this month, in an English court, a man who had just been sentenced to 18 months told the judge she was ‘a bit of a cunt’. To which she replied: ‘You’re a bit of a cunt yourself’. Complaints about her language are now being considered by the Judicial Standards Investigation Office. But plenty of people applauded her, calling her a ‘hero’, a ‘role model’ and a ‘legend’.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New York Times reported that sexist endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ were no longer acceptable when addressing women in court. The American Bar Association had adopted Resolution 109, which makes it a breach of lawyers’ professional standards to engage in ‘harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests prejudice and bias’.

These two stories might seem to belong to different worlds: one where a judge can be hailed as a hero for calling a man a cunt, and another where lawyers can be fined for using endearment terms. (I can hear the denizens of the manosphere now, muttering darkly about feminazis and their double standards.) But ultimately I think they’re about the same thing: the ongoing, messy and often confusing struggle over what counts, in the 21st century, as ‘appropriate’ or ‘offensive’ language.

Resolution 109 is an example of a kind of verbal hygiene which has loomed large in recent decades: regulating language-use in an effort to combat prejudice and discrimination. This is popularly known as ‘political correctness’, and it is, of course, highly controversial. Although the resolution passed, it was not unopposed. And opinions were particularly divided on the inclusion of endearment terms like ‘honey’ in the category of ‘harmful verbal conduct’.

Some of the reasons for this disagreement became apparent when the New York Times invited lawyers to share their views on its Facebook page: the resulting thread attracted more than 500 comments. Many came from female lawyers who shared their own experiences of being addressed with terms they found demeaning:

I was called ‘young lady’ today while I was in court. I am 42.

I have been called honey, sweetie and missy.

Called ‘blondie’ by a sitting federal judge

I’ve been called ‘sweetheart’, ‘honey’, my first name and asked to get coffee.

But there were also a number of contributors who defended the use of endearment terms, arguing that

  1. In some US regions (e.g. the south and south west) the use of endearments is just ordinary politeness.
  2. It’s not just men who use endearment terms and it’s not just women on the receiving end.

As one commenter said, putting the two arguments together:

Good luck with that in Texas. This 70 year-old male has been called [honey] by women for 25 years.

It’s true that there are regional differences in modes of polite address. It’s also true that women use endearment terms to men (as well as to other women: the only potential speaker-addressee pairing you don’t typically get is men using ‘honey’/ ‘sweetheart’/ ‘darling’ to other men—though they may use other comparable terms, like ‘mate’, ‘dude’, ‘bro/bruv’ or—to younger men—‘son’). But that doesn’t mean the women lawyers’ complaints are unjustified. To see why, let’s take a closer look at the underlying sociolinguistic principles.

In 1960 Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published a now-classic article entitled ‘The pronouns of power and solidarity’.  Its subject was the alternation (lost in modern standard English, but still present in many other European languages), between familiar and polite second person pronouns (Brown and Gilman referred to these in shorthand as T (familiar) and V (polite), from the Latin ‘tu’ and ‘vos’). They pointed out that what these pronouns communicate doesn’t just depend on which one you choose, but also on whether they’re used reciprocally or non-reciprocally. If two people address each other with the same pronoun, either T or V, they are treating each other as equals. Between equals, reciprocal use of the familiar T implies intimacy; reciprocal use of the polite V implies a more distant relationship of mutual respect. When the pronouns are used non-reciprocally, however, they imply an unequal, hierarchical relationship: the higher-ranked person addresses the lower-ranked person with T, while expecting to receive V in return. In this situation, the speaker who addresses you with T is not saying ‘I think of you as an intimate’, but rather ‘I think of you as an inferior’.

The same kind of analysis can be extended to other forms of address like names and titles. In hierarchical institutions these are used reciprocally among peers but non-reciprocally between people at different levels of the hierarchy. In the military, for instance, you address subordinates by their surnames and superordinates with ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’.  School students call their teachers ‘sir’,  ‘miss’ or ‘Mr/Ms X’, while teachers call students by their given names.

Exchanges between unacquainted adults offer more freedom of choice, but the choice is not just random. In customer service interactions (to take one common situation in which strangers address each other), the server may call the customer by a generic respect title like ‘sir/madam/ma’am’, a familiar term like ‘honey/dear/mate’, or neither. Here the choice will probably depend not only on the status of the two parties (e.g., their relative ages), but also on the type of establishment and the service being provided. I’d be surprised to be called ‘honey’ in a fancy restaurant, but I wouldn’t find it surprising in a diner. Nor would it offend me in a diner, because I wouldn’t suspect the server of patronising me: I’d understand the endearment as a form of politeness, treating a stranger like a friend or family member to signal that you are positively disposed towards them. In more formal contexts, though, politeness demands an overt show of deference (which can be accomplished by using a respect title), or at least the avoidance of familiarity (which can be accomplished by using no address term at all).

The fact that the same address forms (T/V pronouns, given names/family names, endearment terms/respect titles) have both a ‘power’ meaning and a ‘solidarity’ meaning offers a useful get-out clause for men who are accused of talking down to women. They can say, in effect, that the women have mistaken one meaning for the other: what they intended to communicate was a solidary form of politeness (‘I am positively disposed towards you’), but the women have interpreted it as an example of the power meaning (‘you are my social inferior’) and taken offence where none was meant.  Several of the comments on the Times’s Facebook thread suggested that women don’t find it easy to dismiss this possibility. Knowing that endearment terms can sometimes be used in a solidary way, even when the parties are not actually intimate, they do wonder if they might sometimes be judging men’s motives unfairly.

But if we’re not sure whether the person who calls us ‘honey’ is being courteous or condescending, the analysis I’ve just sketched out gives us some tests we can apply. One is whether there is, or could be, reciprocity: if an address form is used non-reciprocally, you’re generally looking at power rather than solidarity. With judges, in particular, the answer is clearly ‘no’—a lawyer could not address the judge as ‘honey’ and then claim they were ‘just being polite’. Some Facebook contributors did suggest that if the endearment came from opposing counsel (i.e. a peer rather than a superordinate) you could retaliate by addressing him similarly. But their comments implied this would be seen as a hostile act. So, it seems the ‘just being polite’ excuse does not pass the reciprocity test, at least in the courtroom context.

Context, of course, is an important influence on what counts as polite behaviour, and the second test we can apply to doubtful cases is whether the claim that someone ‘was only being polite’ is contextually plausible. Are we dealing with a situation (like getting served in a diner or at a market stall) where we’d expect informal friendliness, or is it more the kind of situation where we’d expect to hear the more formal language of distance and deference?  One contributor to the Facebook thread, a lawyer practising in Canada, made an interesting observation on that point. She hadn’t had to deal with being called ‘honey’, she said, because the Canadian courts (like the British ones they are presumably modelled on) require lawyers to refer to one another formally using stock phrases like ‘my learned friend’. Some kinds of courts and court proceedings may be less formal than others, with less strict (and less archaic) rules of address, but it’s hard to imagine any court of law being as informal as a diner or a market stall.

Then again, we have the example before us of the judge who called a man she’d just sentenced ‘a bit of a cunt’.  That happened in an English court; why wasn’t it prevented by the contextual norm of formality?

In this case there may be a very specific reason. The man in question had a long history of launching racist tirades at passing strangers. He had been prosecuted after breaching—for the eleventh time—an order prohibiting this behaviour. So, as well as responding to his immediate provocation, the judge might have wanted to give him a taste of what he’d inflicted on many others over the years. I suspect that’s why so many people applauded her: despite the obvious contradiction (using abusive language to someone you’ve just sent to prison for using abusive language), the nature of the man’s offence made her response seem like poetic justice.

I’m not sure the JSIO investigators will share that view: they’ll probably be more concerned that a judge who uses words like ‘cunt’ is compromising the dignity of her office. But from a linguist’s perspective there’s another question here. Should the judge have engaged in any kind of informal exchange with a defendant (regardless of whether obscenities were involved), or should she have maintained the formality of the proceedings by responding to his intervention with a formal rebuke?

Historians of English generally agree that since the late 20th century there’s been a shift towards greater informality in both speech and writing. This has happened, it’s argued, because of changes in the wider society: we’ve become less deferential and more egalitarian, as well as (in Britain), less reserved in our dealings with others. Formal politeness has come to be seen as old-fashioned and patrician—a throwback to the bad old days when everyone wore a hat and kept a stiff upper lip. Institutions which have preserved the traditional formalities, like the law courts and Parliament, are often accused of being remote, inaccessible and off-putting to the ordinary citizen.

Like most people, I have no desire to return to the days of obsequious forelock-tugging and stiff upper lips.  But the contemporary preference for informality and familiarity over formality and distance is not without its problems—especially for women.

Most people are offended or irritated when strangers address them in a way they consider over-familiar. But for women, enforced familiarity and intimacy are more than just irritants: they’re part of the apparatus that’s used to subordinate and control us. Catcalling, casual touching, groping, unwanted personal comments or sexual overtures, being followed on the street, being verbally abused or threatened if you ignore a man’s demand for your attention—these are everyday experiences for women in public places, and they all rest on the assumption that any man has an automatic right to treat any woman as an intimate: get close to her, touch her, make demands of her. The non-reciprocal use of endearment terms to women is another manifestation of the same thing. And if a woman objects to it, the excuses men make (disingenuously or otherwise) are the same ones they make about street harassment. ‘I was only being friendly’. ‘It’s just banter’. ‘Can’t you take a compliment/a joke?’

These excuses can be effective in derailing complaints of sexism. Measures like Resolution 109, targeting discriminatory language, are easiest to apply to cases like racist and homophobic slurs, where the offensiveness of the words is not disputed. They work less well when the issue isn’t the use of an inherently offensive word, but rather the allegedly offensive use of a word which also has legitimate, non-discriminatory uses. Endearment terms are an example: there’s always scope for argument about what the speaker ‘really meant’.

But in contexts like the courtroom we could cut through this by stipulating that professionals must use formal modes of address. No one can deny that endearment terms are informal, so insisting on formality—the reciprocal formality that signals mutual respect between non-intimates—would make their use inappropriate regardless of the user’s intentions.

You might be thinking: ‘but this is 2016!’ As I said before, today it’s usually assumed that what we want in public institutions is more informality rather than less: formal language is seen as elitist and exclusionary, whereas informal language is more inclusive and democratic. But maybe we should reconsider that. We should remember that many subordinated groups—including women, Black people and working class people—have a long history of being addressed with familiar terms; not as a token of friendship or positive regard, but as a mark of contempt for their ‘inferior’ social status. There is surely something to be said for breaking with that tradition, and showing people the explicit respect that more formal terms communicate.

To put the point in simpler terms: intimacy should be our choice, and respect should be our right.




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