There are two habits that contribute a great deal to my overall happiness. One is to listen very careful to the INTENT of someone who is speaking. The other is not to get too tied up in semantics. I belong to a very active online community based on the craft of knitting. Not surprisingly, most of its members are women. In that context, this comment was recently posted in one of the forums:
Okay. Here it is, the 21st century. I’m an adult female human being. I’m a woman, dammit, not a girl, or a gal (whatever that is). I’m a lady only in certain social situations. Outside those very particular situations, I’m a woman. And so are my colleagues and compatriots who are also adult female human beings. Dammit.
This rant is brought on by hearing adult women calling each other “girls” or “gals” or “ladies.” Girls wear little green uniforms and sell cookies. I don’t know what gals are. Ladies are women of a particular social class, in situations where social class matters. And my life in general involves neither cookies nor situations where social class matters. Whether we’re born to silk or to scraps, we’re all here to do the same thing: make the world a better place for everyone.
A female human being old enough to work or vote isn’t a girl, she’s a woman. Women of college age are women. Women of retirement age are women. It’s what we are. Let’s call ourselves what we are, instead of what we’re not. What we are is adult human beings, responsible for our own thoughts and actions. Women.
She is right: we are women. And we are also people. And as such we can think objectively, if we care to. This is where listening comes in. Real listening means attending to not only the words of the speaker but the other cues as well. Tone, body language, word choice and context are just a few of the cues we can use to take meaning from a speaker. Using these skills, we register the words of the speaker on a more than intellectual level. We actually feel what is behind the words, whatever that might be.
I come from a place where a woman calling another woman “Honey” is meant to indicate that they are open to their feelings. As in, “Oh, Honey, I’m so sorry!” Women who bristle and complain that they are not somebody’s “Honey” are reacting to the word as if it were delivered in an entirely diffferent context. not realizing that the word choice in this scenario is almost irrelevant. Many words would do, because the real message is the What we hear is the sense of tenderness, intimacy and genuine empathy. “Lady” is also used in my community to indicate that the person we are speaking to is recognized as being a mature, evolved and socially aware person of the female gender. I often use “ladies” in tandem with “gentlemen” to indicate that I respect these qualities in the people I’m addressing. Immature, self-involved or irresponsible people never earn these terms from me, although I am often willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I have also been involved in organizations where “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes Sir” indicates a respect for the instructions of whoever delivers them. It also indicates that I will give the matter my immediate attention. Gender, in this context, is irrelevant.
As for “girls” I don’t appreciate hearing that from men, because it’s diminutive. It sounds like I’m supposed to be small, passive and child-like. But when my women friends refer to the ‘girls’ it sounds fun to me, because in our situation we are women, but we also allow our playful sides out to get silly. Good female friendships are like that. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I actually feel for people who can’t share that experience.
Anyway, my point is that we need to take it from the point of view of the speaker. Why did that person pick the particular term or phrase? Do they use the corresponding male term as well? Really, it’s the intent, what’s behind the term, that matters. And, as women, we should be strong enough to say, calmly and firmly, when we prefer people not to use certain terms. No anger, no judging, just an assertion of what is OK with us and what is not. Followed by a good natured smile that says “It isn’t personal, I just want you to respect my needs.” No drama. I find this approach to be more informative for the name-caller, more effective in getting them to stop, and far better for me as I don’t have to live with judgement and resentment. Win-Win-Win. Those are good words, too.