Hey, Buddy...

Have you ever noticed that words can have a different connotation depending on the context in which they’re used? As a writer, I’m fascinated by the different ideas and feelings a word can generate along with its literal meaning. Take, for example, the word “buddy.” Depending on who is saying it and in what tone, this word can have either a positive or a negative connotation. So here are some things to keep in mind when you’re tempted to call someone “buddy.”

Regardless of what dictionary you use, the common definition of “buddy” is a close friend or a person who provides help or support, or a working companion with whom cooperation is required (e.g., a buddy system).

My brother and my close friends and mentors occasionally refer to me as “buddy.” In these circumstances, they’re using the word in a context of respect and friendship. There are other occasions when people who aren’t close to me may call me “buddy.” For example, if I’m not watching where I’m going while driving my wheelchair, and headed for a pothole, a concerned person might call out, “Hey, buddy, watch out!” Usually the tone is one of concern, or maybe impatience (which I probably deserve if I’m being careless).

There are, however, occasions when use of the word buddy is patronizing and condescending. As a person with a disability who is non-verbal, I experience this use of the word more frequently than I suspect most people do, starting way back when I was a kid.  The first time I heard it was one day when  I went with my family to the mall to do some shopping. We were looking at a store window when a man came along. He stopped, pulled a loonie out of his pocket, flipped it onto the tray on my wheelchair, patted my head and said, “There you go, buddy.” Then he walked off. My younger brother, who never misses an opportunity for financial gain, bolted after the man. Very politely he indicated that since we’re brothers and since both of us are special, there should be a loonie for him too. He promptly held out his hand and was rewarded for his efforts by the slightly shocked man. It was a bit of comic relief in a painful moment.

I would like to tell you this was an isolated childhood incident, but it’s not. The other day I was in line for a coffee. The customer service representative addressed everyone ahead of me as “Sir” or “Madam,” but when it was my turn….yep, you guessed it…he called me “buddy.” Prepared to forgive him for a one-time slip-up, I went back later to buy a donut. Yup, the same thing happened.

Even in business situations, it’s not uncommon for people to address me as “buddy” – though they don’t use this form of address for the colleagues who are with me.

When someone I hardly know calls me “buddy,” it feels patronizing because I’m aware the reference is generally rooted in pity. To refrain from using this term isn’t to be “politically correct” but respectful. Here’s a simple rule to follow: if you aren’t a person’s friend, family member or mentor, don’t refer to them as “buddy.” It really is that straightforward. If we are truly committed to creating an accessible and inclusive society, then the connotation of our words matters.

By the way…the customer service representative at the coffee shop and I had a little chat. I call him Brian and he now calls me “John.”