Southern gendered language: it’s a thing y’all

By Sarah Gardiner

“Thank ya, honey”

“Anything else I can get for ya, doll?”

Regional language has always been a main string of Southern culture’s DNA. Every place has their colloquialisms and particular ways of speaking, but there’s something about the south that invites a friendliness in conversation unmatched anywhere else. “There are no strangers in Kentucky,” the saying goes, but sometimes this friendliness can lead to unwanted displays of gendered affection.

Walk into just about any restaurant, business, or friendly neighborhood home in the south and you are likely to be greeted with a warm smile and a pet name. Sweetie, cutie, hon, darling–they flow like honeysuckle drenched assumptions. Assumptions of gender, of presentation, of relationships. These word choices can often reveal unconscious biases or snap judgements that might do more harm than good.

While many of these terms of endearment aren’t explicitly gendered, almost all have an implicit connotation and a perceived pronoun attached to the backend. When I–a queer, cis-gender woman–go out to restaurants or stores, I am almost always met with a “dear” or a “sweetie.” On one particularly horrible occasion, an older man called me “baby girl” at least 10 times over the course of our conversation. When my cis-gendered brother joined me, he became “buddy” or “boss” or “chief.”

Because of their assumptions about my gender, I’ve never been a stranger’s “buddy” or their “boss,” though both would fit me just as well, if not better, than they fit my brother. While I am relegated to a pet name, he gets to be elevated to a role of power.

These small verbal assumptions are hardly ever ill intentioned–the exact opposite, often–but even a friendly gesture can be a microaggression if its effects aren’t taken into account. The man who called me “baby girl” had no idea if I am a girl, and he can surely see that I am not his baby. Language like this is both a risky assumption and inherently patronizing. He might have meant well or tried to be friendly, but these sorts of endearments reinforce gender roles and create an implicitly binary dynamic between us.

This is not to say all pet names and terms of endearment are bad. At their core, these comments are meant to be friendly and they can be a welcome greeting when used properly. Take, for example, what I like to call the “Everyone’s a Hon Test.” Go down to your local library or diner, or really anywhere sweet, old Kentucky ladies gather and take note of indiscriminate way endearments are thrown around. There’s bound to be one kind soul who throws out “honey” and “darling” to everyone; young, old, queer, regardless of gender, if everyone is a “honey,” no one is placed on a subconscious spectrum.

If you want to be a friendly, southern ally, consider what implications your words might have the next time you casually toss out pet names to strangers. What you consider to be a nice attempt at connection may be a reminder to someone else of a gender or presentation that doesn’t match their identity. The world is more diverse than Baby Girls and Bosses. Let’s start representing that spectrum in our southern language.