Friday, August 29, 2008

Terms of Belittlement

I've been spending time in doctor's offices lately. Nothing major, just my annual stuff and my son's broken arm. What that means is that I've been hearing a lot of professional women referred to as "girls".

As in children.

As in "please hand this to the girl at the window" (meaning the highly trained, apparently competent 50-something person entrusted with sensitive papers and distressed people) and "just sit there and one of the girls will call you back. "(Ditto)

At first I tried being confused. "I don't see any girls here." (blank stare...right over there, can't you see?) Then I tried being shocked. "Surely you don't hire children to work here." (puzzled cluelessness. "No, of course not". ) Then I tried the direct approach. "It's so demeaning to call the professionals you work with girls." This approach was to the male techs who were waiting around to put a cast on my son's arm. (Funny, nobody called them "boys". ) However the response was quite revealing. "Well, they act like girls!" one of them guffawed. His partner sensed dangerous territory and hastened to add. "Of course, they think we're nuts too!"

At the Mamogram office this morning, when told by the clerk to wait for the "girl" to call me back, I said again, "It's so demeaning to imply that the people who do such important work are children." The clerk was taken aback and finally responded. "I'm sure its a term of endearment." But I saw a shadow cross her face as she heard her own words. No doubt employee relations are just fine in that big office, but it was crystal clear that the person who was going to call me back was not "dear" to the one who had just called her a girl. It's not really a term of endearment, after all. No, actually, it's a term of belittlement. It bespeaks a lack of respect for persons doing important but adjunct work in a medical office because of their sex.

Call her a tech or a receptionist, a nurse or a patient rep. (hey, then I know more about what I can expect from her!) Call her a lady, a person...heck, call her a woman.

If you play bridge with "the boys" or go out with "the girls", that's your affair. But if you refer to the woman in your office who is older than I am as a "girl" you belittle her, and her work, and by extension, you belittle me.


Chalicechick said...

I usually go the confusion route, which works a lot more slowly, but is effective over time.


Lizard Eater said...

Just watched Pat Buchanan, in raving about how wonderful Sarah Palin is, refer to her as a "girl" at least twice.

(rolls eyes)

KJR said...

I remember being annoyed by the "girl" thing some time ago, but I haven't noticed it recently. I wonder if I have stopped noticing or if some parts of the country are more behind the times. I will have to take a look. A funny thing where I am now is that they use the honorific Rev. for women ministers and call men by their first name as in "Rev. Jill" and "Jack" --- what do you make of that?

kim said...

If you start using a term of respect for women, it will become a term of belittlement eventually.... Is that really cynical? (uh-oh. My generation isn't supposed to be cynical, that's the next generation's job.)

Berrysmom said...

When I read this comment, I actually muttered to myself, "You go, girl!"


Kelsey Atherton said...

I can understand and sympathize with the belittlement, and can only imagine it will get more frustrating as the people I interact with are further and further away from childhood. College has language weird, because from teen years we're "young men and women", but then we're "college kids", and child terminology (along with naivete and inexperience) are again assumed. Some of it is fine and appropriate (we are, after all, new adults), but some is really weird. Perhaps the thing to do is start referring to legal adults as adults, though I have a hard time calling members of fraternities "men". But after college, adult terminology fits.

But that's an aside. The real comment I want to make is that male terms (sir, man, boy, male) are all one syllable, lending themselves towards ease of use. Terms for women are two syllables (ma'am, lady, female), with the exception of "girl". When picking the quickest term, the diminutive is what suggests itself. Not that convenience legitimizes it, but using 'girl' isn't usually a conscious effort to belittle - it may be an unintended consequence of convenience that people deem is acceptable.