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Don't call me 'dear' - why language matters and how to improve it

Monday 10, Feb 2020

Don’t call me ‘dear’ – why language matters and how to improve it

How and why should we bridge gaps between community expectations, corporate policy and employee behavior?

Many organisations, and their brands, are at risk of creating these gaps, in the everyday interactions their people are having with consumers.

A language gap is putting not just organisations, but also people over 70 at risk, through the way we talk to people over 70.


Frameshift conducted a small survey at a retirement village asking residents which terms of address they found respectful and which terms they found disrespectful and which terms they really disliked when people talked about, or to, them.

Being called ‘sweetie’ was the most disliked – 83% of the respondents identified this as a dislike.

It was right up there with the term ‘wrinkly’ – which 80% identified as not respectful - which isn’t really a surprise.

But what IS interesting is that while you can’t imagine someone saying to a senior ‘hello wrinkly’ we don’t seem to hesitate to say ‘hello sweetie’.

The respondents told us that being called ‘young man’ or ‘young lady’ was worse than being called ‘geriatric’; 78% chose ‘young man/lady’ as something they disliked compared with only 68% finding ‘geriatric’ objectionable.

‘Darling’ beat ‘silverback’ and 61% of respondents disliked being called ‘love’, ‘lovely’ or ‘dear'.

The upshot was the only word accepted as respectful (by 84% of respondents) was ‘senior’ – every other term got some who liked it and some who did not.

Of course if you tried to call someone between the ages of 50 and 69 ‘senior’, you’d get a VERY different response – for lots of reasons that are the feature of some of the other research.

But for people aged over 70 – and some in the research were over 100 - ‘Mature’ got a 60% thumbs up but a 16% thumbs down.

‘Elderly’ was sort of OK with 40% identifying it as respectful and 12% identifying it as disrespectful.

People over 70 were up for being called ‘senior’ and perhaps ‘mature’ but you could keep your ‘older person’, ‘elder’ and ‘aging person’ descriptions as low energy and you were in negative territory with ‘3rd ager’ and ‘boomer’.

So what lies at the heart of the problem of this language?


There’s a framing that we apply with these terms.

Goffman developed the idea of framing. He said that organisations and cultures develop frames that provide a lore of understanding – an approach
– a perspective. The frames allow us to locate, perceive, identify, and label. A frame sets the way we interpret the world. So any frame we apply to seniors will dictate what we do next. It will affect our choices because we will process information within that frame.


People under 70 find it easier to use certain terms to frame their perspective of age. We need these frames to make it easy.

The overarching frame is – they’re old. This is based on external appearance
– it makes no reference to what they’ve done as a profession or in their community.

With this frame the person can cease to exist except as an age. A bit like a child – that’s a ‘child’ and that’s an ‘old person’ and in between there are ‘people’.

The fundamental issue with names that don’t value the person is that they also remove their power and their agency. And the more the framing bias is reinforced across society by repeated use of the same terms, the more fertile the ground becomes for abuse. Because, at heart - abuse is about how imbalances in power lead - almost inexorably - to misuse of power.

The language of ‘sweetie, dear, love and lovely’ is a devaluation in two senses.

First it’s a devaluation because we use terms of endearment suitable for relationships of sustained affection in cheapened ways to try and connect with people we are devaluing. If everyone over 70 is a ‘dear’ – then who is ‘dearer’?

People over 70 know they’re not really your ‘sweetie’, ‘dear’ or your ‘love’. There’s a lack of authenticity in using this language – it’s saccharine, a fake attempt to try and create an acceptably nice frame within the ‘old’ frame. But it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Second it’s a devaluation because it infantilises. Much has been written about infantilisation by psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. We know that infantilisation includes use of pet names, and directing child-like remarks, gestures, and patterns of speaking toward older people. Much of the literature in this area deals directly with the verbal communication of infantilisation to older people, such as high-pitched intonation, exaggerated or drawn out phrasing, and simple content and vocabulary.

And we can’t seem to stop doing it. And the more we do it, the more we fail to maintain a power balance of respect and equality. 

And that’s a problem. 

Because when you take away power and agency, you can do whatever you like to the other person – and some people do.

It’s not a coincidence that we have trouble with our treatment of both children and the very old.


The solution is to shift these frames we use. In one sense the solution is easy – we should use seniors’ names. 

But there’s more to do.

We know that the people who completed our survey do not complain about being called ‘dear’, ‘love’ and ‘sweetie’. 

Why don’t they complain about something so simple to fix? They don’t complain because they don’t wish to risk further disempowerment. They are not going to put themselves in a vulnerable position by complaining. They’re not going to draw attention to themselves as difficult and demanding if they don’t have to. They need to save their firepower.

Our training and research in Vulnerability is based this experience of consumer disempowerment. 
We structure our learning module to encourage participants’ understanding of vulnerability by encouraging them to think of vulnerable circumstances as arising in four key areas of life – your health, your finances, your relationships and your sense of inclusion.

When you apply this thinking to people over 70, you can see the potential for a high sense of vulnerability.
For instance - in relationships from loss of friends or family, in some loss of health, in finances from the loss of ability to advance your career and increase your financial capacity - so if you’re over 70, you’re already aware of your vulnerability and you really don’t want, or need, to feel any more vulnerable.  So why take the risk of complaining about something to people more powerful than you?

There are lots of theories about why people infantilise older people by using words like ‘sweetie’, and ‘young lady’ and ‘dear’ and ‘darling’, but the main issue is we turn the senior into something little, cosy and lacking experience and capability - which is insulting to a person who has survived life for 70+ years.

So don’t call people over 70 ‘sweetie’, ‘dear’ or love’.

Shift the frame and call them by their names because Infantilisation of people over 70 is not just patronising, it’s risky.

It’s risky because it encourages a culture of disempowerment and that inhibits seniors from speaking out and that’s the first step to creating the environment for abuse.  

This article is an extract from a paper presented by Anita Wynne, Director, Frameshift, at the 5th National Elder Abuse Conference 2018, - Together making change. SOCAP and Frameshift are partners in delivering SOCAP’s vulnerability package of services supporting members with service delivery  for consumers who may be experiencing vulnerability including Assisting Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances.

Don’t call me ‘dear’ – why language matters and how to improve it

83% of seniors over 70 dislike being called “sweetie” and “dear” as it  encourages a culture of disempowerment that inhibits seniors from speaking out or complaining about service provision. 

What should you be doing to bridge the language gap between community expectations, corporate policy and employee behavior to foster an empowering relationship?