Is “Hon” the New “Ma’am”?

The definitive guide to who can call whom “hon” and when.

“How many do you have, hon?” the sales associate at the Express in Liberty Place asked me last week. The week before that, a young woman on the 13th Street El platform asked, “Hon, can you break a ten?” Before that, it was a former student who thanked me for my feedback on her work and then said, “See you tomorrow, hon!”

For the last year, I’ve been getting “hon”-ed down all over Philadelphia — and not from the usual suspects, but from women who are definitely younger than me. And quite honestly, I’m baffled.


Until recently, I’d thought of the word “hon” as a term of endearment used by well-intentioned South Philly geriatrics when they can’t remember the name of someone they’ve met at least a dozen times. It is not a word that gets tacked on to the end of casual conversation like “man” or “dude” or “girl.” Its use should be warm and intentional.

Now, it’s coming from some sassy sales associate who wants me to know that I can either have a fondness for Krimpets or a pair of white skinny jeans, but ne’er the twain shall meet. What the shit, Philadelphia?

After the most recent “hon”nundrum, I began polling female friends to see if they’d been getting a lot “hons” recently.

“I HATE THAT SO MUCH! I have no answers as to why this happens, but I wonder about it too,” one friend ranted. Another friend admitted that, to her dismay, her 25-year-old hairdresser calls her “hon,” but since she holds the scissors, my pal doesn’t object. A third friend shared this charming anecdote: In her Midwest high school, the popular girls used the word “hon” to refer to girls they deemed less socially influential, as in “Oh, hon, YOU couldn’t possibly share our lunch table.”

Is this some weird generational thing? Is it because Millennials are know-it-alls and perceive us — fellow but infinitely less hip Gen Yers — to be out of touch so they are condescending? Or is it because Millennials need to be friends with everyone so after even just a few nanoseconds of chatting, they assume we’ve become BFFs, worthy of terms of endearment?

Here, in no particular order, is the incredibly official, not-at-all-subjective list of People Who Are Allowed to Call You “Hon”:

• All the waitresses at Melrose Diner
• Your boss, when he’s about to deliver bad news but doesn’t want you to spend the next hour crying in the bathroom
• Your best friend when she’s just told you that you do kinda look a little chunky in those skinny jeans
• Anyone’s grandmom

When it comes to people who are not allowed to call you “hon,” the incredibly official, not-at-all-subjective list has just one item on it:

• Everyone else*

The rules are clear-cut and they exist for a reason: Being called “hon” by a person visibly younger than you is even worse than being called “ma’am.” It’s demeaning and condescending and unlike “ma’am,” it doesn’t even have the guise of being polite. It’s straight-up talking down. I won’t pretend to understand it, but I’d like it to stop. Okay, kiddos?

*But mostly people who are younger than you, especially if they’re interns, subordinate employees, students or step-children.

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  • phillysportsfan

    my mom used to get mad at “ma’am,” but i always wondered wtf you want someone who doesn’t know your name, like a waiter, to call you? i think she might have said “miss,” but i don’t think that’s acceptable.

    although i do remember when i was in my mid-20s and was downashore and wearing a watch and some young punk (teenager) “sir-ed” me for the first time asking for the time, so yeah.

  • Denise Rambo

    I’ll admit that I have a habit of calling just about everyone younger than me “Sweetie”. I only “Hon” people that are friends of mine and in approximately the same age range.

  • Bob

    Fine I’ll go with “doll” then.

  • Dean C

    May be wrong here, but you write as though you’re not from the area. Being now in my 40′s I can tell you I’ve lost count when I was younger how many women told me never ever call them Ma’am again as it makes them feel old. The Ma’am thing may work in the midwest or even down south (though living in the south now, I can tell you they call you everything but Ma’am and Sir in different places) it doesn’t work however in the Northeastern states. Ma’am is what you call an elderly woman, so if you wish to be called old, more power to you though I would suspect most woman and men do not.

    I tell people when they now call me Sir, to call me by my first name as Sir was my father., Yes, I’m getting old but I’m not that old yet.

    But the bottom line is if this is what is getting you all riled up, perhaps a change of location is order for you then.