The Power of Words

It should come as no surprise that we live in an ageist society. Discrimination based solely on our age hurts all of us all but can be hardest on women. When a woman is told she looks good for her age, it’s a conditional compliment that implies that she might look better if she were younger.

When a young salesperson calls you sweetie, dear or honey, it’s not a polite form of familiarity, but it’s condescending and ageist.

Labeling on skin creams and lotions have long been ageist with the term anti-aging. It implies there is something wrong with getting old and we should want to stop or reverse it. I applaud Allure magazine who announced last year that they will no longer use the term anti-aging. They also called on the beauty industry to follow suit.

Ready access to the Internet and social media has given birth to a new form of reckless conversation. People speak their minds freely, often in generalities with no concern for who it might insult or it’s ageist implications.

Calling something an old lady or a granny style is ageism, even when we do it ourselves.

So how do we help dismantle ageism? We lose these derogatory words that support outdated stereotypes and speak out when they are used by others. The fact is, ageism doesn’t just affect how people see and treat us, it also affects how we see and treat ourselves.

Let’s support each other, ladies. Let’s join the fight against ageism and start with ourselves. Beware of the words you choose because words have power.



  1. I’ve scrolled past these numerous comments so I can share my experience: I sometimes shopped at a small hardware store where a very nice looking young man worked at the sales desk; maybe at most late 20’s/early 30’s. He always seemed extra pleased when I walked in and was always very courteous & helpful One day, it was obvious he started to say “Hello there, Sweetie”, but caught himself just before the “Sw…..”.

    Believe me, it made my day….(as I could have been his grandmother!). I’ll take ’em where I find them..((: )

  2. I have to agree with the comment about the south, and my birthplace, where honey, sweetie, and similar words are meant and are considered to be cordial and friendly–not condescending Since we are a blended and connected world, I think we should try not to take offence at simple greetings or casual interactions and consider more the attitude and intent that accompanies the words. Even ignorance can be tolerable and a strong reaction to your own trigger words can hurt the speaker more than you are offended. When we communicate online or by text, we should and can be more careful since there is no intonation or tone to interpret. I strive to be kind in both my own words and my reactions to others. Quite frankly, we are exhausting ourselves trying to evaluate every word we say in casual communication with strangers. Someone can find offence at anything and some just want to take offence at everything… but this discussion has made me realize why so few people smile or say hello unless they have a purpose to interact. Maybe we are killing the art of just being pleasant to each other because now we have the fear of being misunderstood.

    1. you make such good points, Connie!

  3. When at a restaurant in Baltimore, if not address as “hon”, consider yourself insulted!!

    1. Same in Philadelphia. I am so used to it, I don’t even “hear” it.

      1. Yes, to some extent it’s a regional thing. For example, when we visit Nova Scotia, both my husband and I are called “dear” by women of all ages who wait on us in stores and restaurants. It’s just part of the local flavour and nothing untoward is meant by it. That’s quite different than someone being intentionally condescending.

  4. Debbie Davis says:

    Great topic Jennifer!! I also seem to fit into the majority here…I don’t care to be called sweetie, hun etc…but I find it not worth coming off rude correcting if the term wasn’t meant to insult. I do mind being referred to in those terms by someone condescending….like many feel the same here. When someone is purposely negative or insulting, especially online- then by “bitch” comes out and I will confront or defend someone else. I think we have all become “uber-sensitive” to this conversation nowadays, which is sad. Growing up we were taught to have a round back and let things roll off, unless it was a purposeful attack! Then we were taught to defend ourselves. With a keyboard veil to hide behind online, too many people feel it’s their obligation to voice an opinion whether it’s asked for or not!! Sad…thanks for getting this conversation going!

    1. I think those comments can be addressed politely without offending the person who calls us hun or dear. It’s delicate but worth it if it bothers us.

  5. Kathleen O'Brien says:

    Most terms such as honey or hon don’t bother me. I work at a school where it’s always Mrs., Mr. or Ms. if you’re adult and yes, mamam, yes sir Please and thank you – I love it! I get treated so much better there than I do with my gigs with adults, doing nearly the same job. I think that most places are losing respect for the elders rather than gaining it. I appreciate that.
    For the most part, what others say reflects their upbringing or lack thereof, and I let it roll off me. Only when it’s directed at me do I take a stand.
    And I do often call friends sweetheart and dear, and I like that from them as well.

  6. I never really pay attention to these labels. I says more about the person writing or saying them than it does about me.

  7. Great discussion! Thank you, Jennifer, for bringing up this topic. I’m amazed how varied the opinions are, but I think the general consensus seems to be that we all want to be shown respect regardless of how old we are or what we’re wearing. It’s a great reminder to us to be careful of the words we use!

    1. Thanks for sharing Elaine. I am interested to read the varying views here and agree we all deserve respect

  8. This reminds me of my quite imperious mother in the doctor’s office. She always wanted to be called “Mrs So and So”. When a new nurse called her by her first name “ Barbara”, she refused to look up or budge. The new nurse then conferred with other office staff, who called for “ Mrs….” and my mother got up and came in as requested! I don’t think anyone would have dared call her “ Hon”!

  9. I just turned 65. I’ve always been quiet and hated conflict. But, I’ve decided to speak up for myself, not to be cranky but to be respected.
    Like the majority here, I don’t get fussed about being called hon. I find a lot of young people use that term and their intent is not to be derogatory.
    I like it when I’m told I look young for my age. I don’t find it an insult but a compliment, as it is meant to be.
    Anti aging creams – so many have bought into that concept. You can’t turn back time, so stop wasting your money and spend it on fun things instead. I buy Olay or L’Oreal. It hydrates my skin. Good enough! I wear sunscreen as my best defence against wrinkles and age spots.
    It might be the community I live in but I don’t find people treat the aging population in a disrespectful way. The internet is a different story.

  10. Ma’am and Miss are proper etiquette. I don’t get ruffled over it. I’d rather be called Ma’am than ‘sweetie or honey’, because it is a show of respect. Likewise, my 85, almost 86 year old mother-in-law always tells me when someone tells her she looks good for her age. She wears it like a badge of honor. So, I think it’s all in perception.

    1. My 86 yo mom also loves being told she looks great for her age. And she does. 🙂 She has also had vitiligo since her teens and consequently avoided the sun and wore sunscreen religiously all my life, so there is that.

  11. Bonna Nichols says:

    I fall somewhere in the middle of all this, I don’t care to be called “honey” or “sweetie” by anyone other than my husband but Anti-aging cream doesn’t offend me at all nor does being told “you don’t look 71”. I am like some of your other readers just don’t be mean about what someone wears, thinks or expresses and find something to do with your time besides worry about the “little things”. Just happen to think, yesterday I told a friend that if I can look as good and be as active as her 86 year old sister I’m looking forward to my 80″s and that was only meant as a compliment!

  12. I was asked by a young male cashier the other day if I was making a business purchase. I replied in surprise that I was not. He then said he asked because I was dressed so nicely (I had on a striped shirt, capris, and earrings). Sad that normal everyday clothes are viewed as dressed up these days! That being said, if he had called me sweetie or hon, I probably would have replied with ‘my name is Susan.’ But I don’t get all cranked up about that stuff anymore.

  13. I have been told I was dressed like, June Cleaver, (I had on a cotton shirt dress and pearls), I said, “ yes, I like a retro vibe” and smiled, doesn’t bother me. I liked the French, bonjour, Madame, it felt graciously adult.

  14. Merri Fergusson says:

    So often it is not the actual words but the tone, facial expression or body language that accompanies that is offensive. If I feel I am being respected like someone half my age you can call me any number of things and I won’t be offended. Remembering to value an individual using norms that are acceptable to all ages should be our goal.

  15. I guess I’m only mildly offended when I’m called honey or sweetie, especially if the person calling me that is a contemporary. Those terms don’t seem as bad as being called “you guys” by younger waitstaff. I’d prefer “you folks”, but that might be an old fashioned term. I’m 68, BTW.

  16. Linda Ann S says:

    I believe that use of certain words is offensive in certain situations and not in others. Anything said in a condescending way bothers me. I look at the “anti-ageing” phrase as just a way to market product. It must be working or companies wouldn’t continue to market their products that way.
    I do, however, totally agree with you about women supporting each other. Too often it seems women are the worst critics of each other. As I’ve gotten older, I realize the value of my friendships with other women. They are priceless! We really need to lift each other up, and if we can’t do that then just say nothing.

    1. You’re right Linda. They will likely come up with a new phrase to describe their creams. Perhaps positive aging?

  17. My husband (71) will call young servers or salespeople “dear”. I think it’s just a habit. I don’t use terms of endearment for anyone except my daughter or husband. When someone says “she looks good for her age” they often mean that she looks younger or different from the “widely held expectations of ageing.” How silly because we all look different at different ages. Although I love to receive a compliment, perhaps we should refrain from assessing other people…or it is never rude (in my opinion) to notice when someone pays extra attention to their appearance. Wrinkles, grey hair, the cushioned middle are part of life but your pretty scarf that brings out the blue in your eyes, your special earrings or the colour of your sweater are a reflection of a conscious choice that I admire.
    Even “old dears” can enjoy fashion or not…

  18. What offends me more than anything are the OMG’s thrown out there. If you do believe in God, don’t use His name in vain. If you don’t, have consideration for those who do.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Cheryl!

  19. Annemarie says:

    I’m in my mid-fifties, and hon doesn’t bother me – some (female) sales people/ wait staff say that to everyone. I’m not comfortable being called by my first name in the doctor’s office, however. Is it considered more private somehow? But my own pet peeve is when “mom” is used as an insult or in other ways to denigrate something – that being associated with being a mother is self-evidently undesirable. Being a mom doesn’t make you icky!

    1. I agree and don’t think calling something granny style is appropriate either.

      1. Really Jennifer? I recently read your post titled In Praise of Granny Panties…with the “G-word”used often and without apology in the article. Just sayin’….

      2. Great point Kat. Even though it was said in a non-derogatory tone, it could certainly offend. I never said I was perfect, I’m just trying to raise the bar.

  20. I agree with Paulette — unless they call me an old witch, I’ll just ignore it. My pet peeve is being called “hon” by anyone but I’ll just cringe and go on. As a former art teacher, I’d refer to my students as sweetie, sweetheart, and, sometimes, honey — out of caring for them (and not remembering one of the names of the 600 students I taught!) But, I’ve never used this term for any adult.

    1. Calling a young student those terms is not ageist. The other way around us. If they don’t know or remember my name I’d rather they say nothing. The more we ignore these things, the longer they will continue.

    2. Kathy, I too do that in my art room! It also helps me release the stress of having to tell the kids not to run with scissors for the 400th time. I sometimes say “Sweetie” through clenched teeth! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one…I’m down to 265 kids so maybe I should start referring to them by their actual names-Shayla, Skyla, Shaylynn, Skyler, Shay-Marie, Schuyler, Skyanna.

  21. I remember when I was a 17 year old student nurse and thought the ward sisters were ‘old biddies’. These ‘old biddies’ were in their mid 20s. These days, I cannot get upset about being called love, sweetie etc, because the person calling me that is usually around my age (61) and has not meant to be offensive nor condescending.

  22. Enough with the word control police out there! There is too much of that already. Words that are offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. I could care less that advertisers use the term anti-aging. But, I’m sure they will invent a new word that is deemed “correct” so they can sell more product. I find the use of vulgarity offensive and it has become so common in our everyday lives.

  23. Sweetie, dear, honey don’t bother me. Anti-aging doesn’t bother me. “Granny” something or. “Mom” something (mom jeans!) get under my skin. I do have to laugh though. I’ve noticed since high waisted jeans are becoming fashionable again you don’t hear the term “ mom jeans” as often and when you do hear it the tone has become less derogatory.

    1. “Mom jeans” are back and being labeled just that. Go figure.

  24. I totally disagree that any of those things are offensive. I’m sorry, but I think we are a little too easily offended in this day and age. “Honey”and Sweetie” are terms of endearment and aren’t meant to insult, unless it is used condescendingly. That I will not put up with. If I am comfortable in my skin, whether I’m 25or 65, who cares what I’m called. Why be offended about such little things. Why worry about a product called anti-aging. Isn’t that why we use it; to look younger?

    What does offend me, besides being condescended too. Having a man tell me not to get my panties in a wad. Now that is offensive and I will let that man no that in no uncertain terms. He is lucky if he doesn’t get my knee between his legs to see if he gets hisBVDs in a wad.

    1. This gave me a morning laugh, Phyllis, so thanks. The other thing that REALLY riles me up is being told to “just calm down.”

      I have noticed salespeople calling everyone (from age 8 to 80) honey or hun. My mom (86 yo) is offended by that, but I guess I just can’t get upset over that in the big picture. Since I turned 65, I’ve been told I speak my mind (even) more freely and I’m just not all that offended by salespeople. However, talk down to me at your own peril.

      As for anti-aging, I can’t imagine we’ll ever change that stereotype in this society. But one can dream. I love seeing famous women who aren’t doing major face work and are aging naturally on screen or in public. My heroines.

      1. We can only change things by speaking up.

    2. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one Phyliss. I find it condescending. I don’t buy them to look younger or stop aging. I buy skin creams to make my skin look better.

  25. Oh please……enough with changing words that might offend! Good grief! WE ARE ALL AGEING…..sure beats the alternative! I accept it as a compliment when I’m told I look good for my age.(71)……say “Why thank you” & move on…….

    1. Each to her own Glenda. That’s why we all get to have our say.

  26. Bravo! And you’re right–the change has to start with us. No point in getting others to change if we self-sabotage.

  27. An ageless problem that continues from generation to generation!

  28. I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Like others, I do find ” honey, sweetie…” etc rather ridiculous, but I don’t blame the salesperson for this. The alternative might be something like, “madam or ma’am” which I abhor! The words anti aging as applied to creams, serums or antioxidants are really just to get us to dream, to imagine or think of ourselves in a younger version. I’m not offended. I don’t take myself too seriously anymore I guess, since a Near-death illness a year ago. ( organs shut down). Unless they call me “you old witch” I just smile and move on…..Did I miss the point?

    1. I almost died last year also and was in bed for almost 4 months. For two months I couldn’t even read. This is small potatoes. THat person who you feel just insulted you probably have their own anguishes going on.

      1. So sorry to hear about your struggles Roseanna! It’s true we never know how another persons day is going or the issues they’re strugglkng with.

    2. I live and work in a bilingual environment (French/English) it is common to refer to a female as Madame even when speaking in English. Referring to someone as my dear or my friend and then being accused of ‘verbal abuse’????? I am a health care professional and yes, I do see transgressions when younger staff address older patient’s and I do not like it. In French we always ASK to use ‘tu’ when speaking to someone older or not in our immediate circle of family or friends but I hear staff ‘tutoyer-ing’ older patients as a matter of course. Just rude. On the other hand as the commentor from the Deep South pointed out, how we address others can be a cultural norm and not meant to be rude or ageist. As my son says you don’t want to die on that hill so let’s choose our battles wisely.
      The fact that someone acknowledges you is a good thing. Maybe not in a manner which suits you but at least they see you. I would rather a sales person refer to me as “Hello dear.” than to ignore me completely.

  29. Diane’s question is a good one! How to respond without appearing rude yourself? I am a nurse and one of the things that was drilled into me is that you called people Mam or Sir, or Mr/Mrs, unless they invited you to call them by their first name or a nick name. The point was in not saying anything derogatory or taking away someone’s dignity. And, it fell under the category of “verbal abuse” if you were discovered saying that during a state survey.

    We should have a good conversation about the proper way to address people. Does anyone think its appropriate to have a private conversation with your server after the meal, or should you discuss it (without pointing fingers) to a manager?

  30. What do you say to that person who calls you sweetie, dear or honey ???? I never have an answer but I would love to respond.

    1. I have, in the past, responded by stating, “My name is Laura”. Always does the job!

      1. Perfect Laura!

    2. A simple response is usually best. “Please call me Jennifer”.

      1. I live in the Deep South and for the most part, those words are just the way we talk. It’s not meant to be degrading at all.

    3. “Do I know you? Only my husband is allowed to call me that. Are we married?” Followed by a confused look, and a wink to the other customers. Effective, especially if the clerk is female.

      Once when I was called an old lady by a panhandler, I responded with, “I’m not a lady.” At leadt the other people on the street smiled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *