Obama's 'Sweetie': Spontaneous or Sexist?

Comment to reporter on campaign trail sets off debate on appropriate language.

ByABC News via logo
May 16, 2008, 10:09 AM

May 16, 2008 — -- The recent flap over Sen. Barack Obama calling a female reporter "sweetie" sparked a national dialogue over what is acceptable language between men and women in the workplace.

The moment came at a campaign stop in Detroit, when Peggy Agar, a reporter at ABC's Detroit affiliate WXYZ-TV, asked Obama this question: "Senator, how are you going to help the American autoworkers?"

"Hold on a second, sweetie. We'll hold a press avail," replied Obama, referring to a structured question and answer session with the media.

Hours later, Obama left Agar a voicemail, apologizing for not answering her question and for calling her "sweetie."

"That's a bad habit of mine," Obama said in the message. "I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front."

It apparently is a habit. In an earlier campaign stop, Obama said to a woman, "Sweetie, if I start with a picture I will never get out of here."

And then: "Sweetie if I start doing autographs I just won't be I am really late."

While the extent of the political fallout over Obama's use of the word is unclear, his "habit" has become fodder for talk shows and bloggers.

On "The View," Whoopie Goldberg said that it wasn't such a big deal. "And what he meant to say I believe was with no disrespect, 'cause I call everyone sweetie if I don't know their name," she said.

When men throw out words like sweetie or honey or girl in movies like "9 to 5" or "Anchorman," it is portrayed as supremely condescending.

"GMA" workplace contributor Tory Johnson said that each person has to decide if they are offended by the use of certain words, and to make it clear they are uncomfortable.

"If you don't like someone calling you sweetie, call them on it, but don't assume their intentions are bad," Johnson said.

"I think in general, whether politics or in the workplace, when we start policing spontaneity we're in trouble. And we should let people be themselves, and we should not assume the worst when somebody uses a word like sweetie."

For her part, reporter Peggy Agar wasn't upset about being called sweetie. "I felt more offended that he didn't answer the question," she said.