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Honey, Sweetie, Dear: Terms of Endearment Communicate, Reflect, and Reinforce Sexism Toward Adult Women

Abstract

Four studies demonstrated how terms of endearment (ToE; e.g., “honey,” “dear”) communicate, reflect, and reinforce sexism toward adult women outside of close relationships. Study 1 participants reported more negative reactions to ToE as their endorsement of benevolent sexism decreased, and older women reacted more negatively than men and younger women. In Study 2, an interviewer either used or did not use ToE when interviewing women from upper-level business classes. ToE use caused women relatively low in benevolent sexism to feel less positive, warm, and competent, whereas women higher in benevolent sexism were unaffected by the use of ToE. Shifting focus to ToE users, Study 3 participants read about a day in the life of a man protagonist (Tim) who did or did not use ToE. Participants inferred that Tim more strongly endorsed sexist attitudes and hierarchy-enforcing ideologies if he used ToE than if he did not. Finally, Study 4 showed that the more participants self-reported using ToE, the more they endorsed several of these sexist attitudes and ideologies. Altogether, this research demonstrates the deleterious effects of seemingly harmless language and extends knowledge about everyday sexism through language.

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Availability of Data, Material, and Code

All materials for all studies, including the data, syntax (i.e., code), output, and Supplemental Online Materials (SOM), are available at https://osf.io/v4jfs/.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Mackenzie Ess, Celine Jusuf, Kiya Darlage, Nadia Kidiwa, and Haley Brower for assistance with data collection.

Funding

The first author’s efforts on this work were supported by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (DGE-1333468).

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Correspondence to Laura K. Hildebrand.

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This research was conducted in compliance with the ethical principle outlined in the Belmont Report (Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice) and the APA. All studies were approved by the Purdue Human Research Protection Program and its associated Institutional Review Board. All participants consented to participate in the present research.

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All participants consented to participate in the present research.

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Appendix

Appendix

Study 3 Narrative

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Tim was exhausted. He had just boarded a 7PM flight to Michigan, the last stop on his itinerary before he could finally get home to Minnesota. Tim, age 45, is an Executive Director of the Plants & Operations division of 3M Company—a multinational conglomerate corporation based in Minnesota. The company designs, produces, and distributes a variety of innovative products, ranging from dental and orthodontic products to electronic materials. The company really took off in the early 70 \s, when one of its chemists invented post-it notes. Tim wished he had been with the company at that exciting and lucrative time. Still, Tim felt like he did well enough, especially with the salary boost that came with his promotion to a Vice President position five years ago.

Speaking of money matters, Tim’s current travels were related to reducing company costs. He had been to the 3M plants in Alabama, Arkansas, and Connecticut so far on this trip, and now he was headed to the Michigan plant in Detroit. Tim wasn’t a fan of business travel and usually he didn’t have to do much of it, but the company was on a mission to cut plant costs, and they wanted Tim to carry a clear message and action mandates.

“At least the company is flying me first class,” Tim thought as he settled into his airplane seat. “Maybe I can relax a little on this flight.” “A drink might help with that,” Tim thought. The flight attendant was on top of it and already circulating through first class to get orders before takeoff. Soon she reached Tim.

“Anything to drink, sir?” she asked.

“You bet, sweetheart,” Tim replied. “I’ll have a bourbon, Maker’s Mark if you have it.”

Tim slipped into a dreamless but restful sleep that lasted much of the flight. He awoke with a start as the plane was landing. “Man,” he thought, “I’m obviously exhausted.” He hoped he could get to the hotel quickly so it wouldn’t be too late to call his wife and make sure that all was going well on the home front.

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Soon he was checking into the Hyatt, which was packed with people attending a medical convention. The man at the front desk couldn’t find his reservation online. He called his manager to the desk, and she discovered that the reservation had mistakenly been made for the following week. “Ah, there it is!” the manager exclaimed. “Glad we found it, Mr. McPhearson. You’ll be in 2305, and note that the Club Room is in 2300. Breakfast is served in that room from 6 until 9 AM. We hope you have a nice stay, sir.” “Thanks much, honey,” Tim replied, as he headed for the elevator.

Tim talked with his wife, had a good night of sleep, and felt refreshed in the morning. He was waiting in the lobby when Helen Chezny, the plant’s senior administrator, picked him up to take him to headquarters. Helen was overseeing Tim’s visit and had arranged the schedule for the day.

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Helen gave Tim a copy of the schedule so he could look it over on the drive. “Who is Ralph Evett?” Tim asked. Ralph was on the schedule for an individual meeting that would last an entire hour at the end of the day.

“Oh, I should have noted on the schedule. He is our local Director of Compliance and Regulation. I thought that a full hour with him might be advisable so that the two of you can discuss how changes you’ll be encouraging us to make at the plant will mesh with government and regulatory agency codes.”

Tim replied, “Fair enough, dear. That’s a good idea, although I hope that everyone understands that changes will be required rather than encouraged.” Tim felt like he should emphasize that mandatory changes were forthcoming. He did not want to be misleading, and he felt that the tenor and productivity of the meetings throughout the day would be best handled with a transparent approach about expectations. This approach had worked well during his other recent plant visits.

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The remainder of the day was busy. Tim toured the facility, and then he gave a 3-hour presentation covering topics such as preventing breakdowns, reducing cycle time, increasing runtime, minimizing waste, conserving energy, and continually improving the quality of operations while controlling costs. Then he had several individual meetings. He discovered that a college buddy of his was an engineer at the plant, and the two of them were able to spend a bit of time catching up over a coffee break. “Man, you look great,” Tim said to his old friend. “Are you still running marathons?” “Not the real ones,” his friend replied. “Only half-marathons here and there. I just don’t have the time to devote to more training, and it gets harder and harder to stay in shape.” Tim echoed the sentiment, saying “I hear you.”

Overall, Tim felt that people in the plant were fine with the changes in procedures and operations that he was introducing. Helen had been especially important to the day’s success. As she drove him to the airport, Tim communicated his appreciation for all of her efforts, saying, “Honey, you deserve a big thanks. The schedule worked well, and everything that needed to happen was accomplished.” Tim was able to enjoy his flight home that evening, knowing that the long week of plant visits wouldn’t have to be repeated anytime soon.

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Hildebrand, L.K., Monteith, M.J., Carter, E.R. et al. Honey, Sweetie, Dear: Terms of Endearment Communicate, Reflect, and Reinforce Sexism Toward Adult Women. Sex Roles 87, 185–210 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-022-01311-3

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Keywords

  • Sexism
  • Gender
  • Stereotyping
  • Language
  • Prejudice