Joanna Whitehead despairs at Virgin Trains’ double hit of sexism in response to a customer’s grievance
Earlier this week, it was reported that a woman using the Virgin East Coast mainline train service had been called “honey” by a male member of train staff in response to a grievance she had. The passenger, who was understandably disgruntled after being given misinformation on a busy train service, complained to an “older male train manager”, who she said dismissed her “with that hideously patronising word that women shudder at in contexts such as this: “honey””. Dissatisfied, the passenger took to Twitter to highlight her frustration, tagging the Virgin Trains account.
Virgin Trains’ response?
There are two corresponding elements to this remarkable fail. Firstly, that a woman looking to resolve a grievance was referred to as “honey” and, secondly, the subsequent response to this by the Virgin Trains employee in charge of their Twitter account. The actual details of the incident are almost irrelevant.
Being referred to as “honey”, “sweetheart” or “darling” is something many women and femme-presenting folk are familiar with. What’s important to note is that these terms are context dependent. A close friend or lover referring to us in this way will most likely get a very different response to a stranger shouting this at us in the street. And, for many of us on the receiving end of this, we know what that latter experience feels like and what it intends to do.
In the wrong context, these words can be used to undermine and belittle women. They’re the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. They serve to remind women that they are lesser – that their roles are those of eye-candy or playthings. They are not words to use when you want to denote respect.
Words are powerful. They can soothe, reassure and inspire, but they can also harm, humiliate and wound. Civilisation has progressed far enough for almost everyone to recognise this. When a person speaks up to say that they are offended by a word being used to refer to them, we should listen, rather than shouting them down or telling them that they’re being oversensitive.
Virgin is one of the world’s most profitable companies. Figures on their website indicate that they make £16.6 billion globally in revenue (“and growing”). They employ over 69,000 people worldwide. The Twitter account that published the post above has 149,000 followers. That someone thought it was amusing or appropriate to respond to customer feedback with the above response is baffling.
A further post was then published by the company:
Comments in response to this exchange have been predictable, with some stating that using terms such as “honey” to refer to other people is characteristic in some northern parts of the country. This may be true but, again, I would argue that context is key. Would a man raising a complaint with a male train manager expect to be called “honey”? I very much doubt it and suspect that the train manager may be at risk of a black eye if this occurred. As someone born and bred in Yorkshire, I can also safely say that I have never witnessed a cis, heterosexual man seriously refer to another cis heterosexual man as “honey”.
For those commentators who believe that it’s impossible to focus on an incident like this when they are other “more important” issues to concentrate on, I would direct them to this excellent video by Riley J Dennis. Focusing on incidences perceived as “smaller” in the grand scheme of things does not mean we are unable or incapable of also paying attention to society’s larger issues. The two are not mutually exclusive.
And, if you’re struggling to know what the appropriate context is to use such words, I suggest using the person’s name. It’s really that simple.
Do better, Virgin.
The picture at the top of the page shows a upper-body shot of a white, stone statue of a man with his head in his hands against a perfect blue sky. It’s meant to represent the face-palm moment I felt when I first read the report in relation to this story. Image taken by Alex Proimos and shared under a a Creative Commons licence.
The first Virgin Trains Twitter screenshot reads, in response to the woman’s complaint about being referred to as “honey”: “Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer “pet” or “love” next time?^MS” The second Virgin Trains Twitter screenshot reads: “We apologise unreservedly for this tweet and for the offence caused. To avoid causing more offence we have deleted the original post^SH