Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

What’s wrong with calling a female walker ‘sweetheart’?

(Photo: iStock)

So, another place where men have to mind their language: on mountains. In an article in Scottish Mountaineer magazine by one Dr Richard Tiplady, he advises male walkers never to call women ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’. They should not assume that women can’t read a map. ‘If they ask for advice about kit or their route, be polite without being condescending – but don’t offer advice if you’re not asked for it’. 

If we carry on at this rate, the human race is going to die out

A brief chat about hills, the weather and the man’s intended route is fine, but ‘don’t ask what route they are taking’. If a male walker catches up with a lone woman walker, the rule is a brief ‘hello’, and then onwards. It’s all based on a conversation the author had with a walking friend, who posted details on the Facebook page of the Scottish Women’s Walking Group, inviting their ‘horror stories’.

It was with mixed feelings that I read all this. Usually if I’m walking with my expert friend from the Wildlife Trusts, who does directions from the position of the sun, she does all the spadework in the way of map reading, and I remember with some bitterness the time we walked for four hours over steep terrain only to have to return the same way because she didn’t trust the weather for the last unfamiliar bit of the route. 

Alone, I am so pathetically rubbish at finding a route up a mountain or through a forest, unless I’m actually on a trail with little arrows on the trees or following a fence, I’m rather grateful for a bit of guidance from passing fellow travellers. The advice to men from expert female walkers doesn’t, I feel, quite do justice to those of us who aren’t bloody experts and who really would benefit from a kindly steer from someone who is. And I would certainly welcome advice about approaching bad weather. I’m quite good at sniffing rain, but all information is gratefully received in the spirit in which it’s given.

The advice for men approaching solo walkers is fine. Alone, you are vulnerable; in my case, irrationally subject to fears that an approaching man is a potential serial killer. All sorts of disagreeable stories come back to you about the fate of females murdered on moors or up mountains, never to be found again. It’s stupid, but there you go. Even now, in an egalitarian age, a solo man approaching a solo woman in a lonely place should be on his best behaviour; the cheerful greeting is fine, then move on pronto.

Where I take violent exception to this advice is the predictable stuff about not calling a woman ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’. I already find it puzzling the way walkers in England and Wales don’t exchange a few words with passing strangers. Quite often these aliens don’t actually say ‘hello’ or ‘lovely day’ or the sort of anodyne stuff normal people say. We’re already treating each other like unwelcome incursions on our personal space and yes, I blame the era of the smartphone and the swipe, whereby the only potential friends you come across are those you invite online. Up a mountain, the cheerful greeting should be the norm and that may indeed include men calling other men ‘mate’ and females ‘sweetheart’. It’s not actually a big deal.

Men are already, I find, hesitant about ever approaching or conversing with a female they don’t know. If we carry on at this rate, the human race is going to die out. On the London Underground there are signs warning that sexual staring is harassment and will be dealt with; heaven help the bloke who’s daydreaming and letting his errant stare come to rest on a woman. I say, let’s welcome any genuinely friendly interaction between people, including between the sexes. Let’s not forever be awake to the possibility of offence, including up a mountain.

My late uncle once called a woman working for a housing association ‘dear’ on the phone and she was foul about it. He was rather a shy man, trying to be friendly and it killed off his tentative willingness to engage with strangers. I only wish this combative feminist had come my way. Anyway, no doubt expert Scottish women walkers are so scary men wouldn’t take liberties with them. But they should be wary of speaking for the entire sex. There are, folks, those of us who honestly don’t mind harmless overtures, and calling someone ‘sweetheart’ or ‘dear’ when you don’t know the name is just that. Aren’t there enough real things to be getting worked up about?