JOANNE McCARTHY: Double-edged endearment

MEMO to staff re use of endearments in the workplace, from your pals at the Centre for Acceptable Relations in the Professional Sphere (CARPS).

It has come to our attention that some staff have taken to using endearments in inter-office, intra-office, and outer-office communications, contrary to section C, sub-section (6ii), paragraph 3 of the Code of Behaviour for Departmental Employees, 2010 edition, which states: "Any attempts at humanising the workplace are strictly prohibited."

Just this week we've seen a nasty outbreak of endearment-related tension in the Northern NSW Local Health District, where staff had been in the habit of calling each other "Sweetie", "Honey", "Darling" and "Mate" in inter-office communications.

CARPS is pleased to note management swiftly addressed this outbreak.

As the health district said in a memo to staff: "The utilisation of this language within the workplace at any time is not appropriate and may be perceived as disrespectful, disempowering and non-professional.

"This type of language should not be used across any level of the organisation such as employee to employee or employee to client."

The health district did not threaten dismissal - after all, it is December, 10 days before Christmas, the season to be jolly and all that.

But it left staff in no doubt that any and all future outbreaks of undisciplined humanity would be swiftly and professionally dealt with, and offending staff members dragged off to a human resources bunker in the bowels of the health district's administration building for questioning.

So, in the interests of clarifying the situation, and preventing any sudden outbreaks of humanising behaviour in future, CARPS is circulating this handy guide to inter, intra, and outer-office communications for your workplace.

Please copy, sign and return to your Healthy Workplace Environment Officer by the due date, or disciplinary proceedings will be initiated, forthwith.

Rule 1. Use of the word "Darling" or its variations, "Darls", "Darl" or, for the Russians or Hungarians among us, "Dahlink". Now some people might struggle with the idea that "Darling" or "Darls" could ever be offensive.

But those people have never been on the receiving end of a "Daaarling" drawled by a beefy old boss to a startled 22-year-old female secretary during a letter-composing session late at night after the rest of the staff have gone home. And the ironic use of "Darls" by middle-aged female employees to annoying middle-aged men in the workplace shows it's always dangerous to take the "D" word at face value.

Rule 2. Why spontaneous outbreaks of "Hon", "Baby" and "Sweets" should be trampled on.

In his book, Latin Terms of Endearment and of Family Relationship, published nearly a century ago, author Samuel Harrod noted the word "Honey" was used as an endearment as early as the 1300s, while "Baby" didn't make an appearance until the 1800s. But as anyone who's sat near a hissing couple at a restaurant knows, you can never be sure if the words "Honey" and "Baby" are friend or foe, so their use in emails is fraught with danger.

Hissing male diner: "I said I didn't want to eat out, Honey, which is why I'm yawning."

Hissing female diner: "Oh really? You seem to be yawning a lot these days, Baby."

Hissing male diner: "Maybe that's because I get exhausted from these constant interrogations, Sweetheart, and I'd rather be at home on the lounge watching footy."

Hissing female diner: "Maybe I'd prefer that you were there too, My Pet."

Use them in an email at your own risk.

Rule 3. When "Mate" is a problem. Australians like to believe the word "mate" evolved when convicts landed at Botany Bay and started challenging their British masters. They like to believe mateship was refined and distilled on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme during World War I, and given lustre when Aussie cricket mates thrashed the Poms at the MCG or Lords. Thus they like to believe that "Maaate" is universally well received, and positively delivered. But as Labor pollies know, it's best to keep your friends close, but your "mates" closer, and when a copper calls you "Mate" in a clipped tone at two in the morning after pulling over your car, it's rarely good news. "Mate" in a work email can be as straightforward as "Thanks mate", or as challenging as "Listen here mate, you're barking up the wrong tree", which is why John Howard came a cropper when he tried to insert "mateship" into a preamble of the Australian Constitution.

Your mate can be your best friend and your worst enemy, sometimes at the same time. And most of the time he's a he. Northern NSW Local Health District back-pedalled this week after outcry over its move to remove terms of endearment from its communications.

It "needed to be a little bit flexible in this regard", a spokesman said.

So it's Toots, Snooks and Fluffy for people you know, and Mr or Mrs Smith for those you don't. And regards to all from Boofhead, at CARPS.

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