I said mate, I said luv, I said darl…


Health workers on the New South Wales north coast have been told they cannot call colleagues or patients ‘mate’ or other terms of endearment.

A memo was sent out last week by the Northern NSW Local Health District reminding community and allied health workers of the need for ‘professional language’ within the workplace at all times. It specifically referred to terms such as ‘mate’, ‘darling”, ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’.

Wordle: mate

The memo says that this type of language “may be perceived as disrespectful, disempowering and non-professional”. It should not be used across any level of the organisation, such as employee to client (or patient).

In a discussion of the memo on the NSWNMA Facebook page, most nurses disagreed with the directive.

I recently had surgery and the staff who called me ‘darling’ made me feel safe and secure, I always use kind terms of endearment for patients who are under stress and need a great deal of comfort, it really helps. Professional nurses know what they are doing and don’t need memo reminders of how to behave.

I do call my colleagues ‘mate’ and I don’t apologise for it, this is Australia and one of the things that defines us is our mate-ship.

Sometimes a gentle word, a little personal interaction or gesture can make all the difference in a patient’s day. Most of my patients are elderly and are from nursing homes … and when you see the eyes of a 93 year old lady light up when you ask them a simple ‘how are you feeling darl/pet’, it means something to them and to you. HR and management should go back to enforcing NHPPD and like for like replacements and leave nursing and patient communication to US – the nurses!  … But where one LHD goes, others are sure to follow.

One nurse, however, supported the memo.

Try calling them by their actual names – you will develop a much stronger therapeutic relationship with them and build rapport much quicker than using a generic ‘mate’ or ‘sweetheart’.

With a caveat:

The intent behind it makes all the difference.

What do you think? Do you use these sorts of terms in your working life as a nurse? Do you work within the Northern NSW LHD – if so, how do you and your workmates feel about the directive?


  1. Working in birth suite, with distressed women, sometimes a well placed “honey” can settle things down. They need to feel safe. I do try to use their name but sometimes in the heat of the moment you do forget names! I don’t like “sweetie” or “darl” or slangy type terms though. Nothing wrong with mate though, how un-Australian to try to ban “mate!”

  2. The intent is the issue here. Language has power. The role of the nurse is to empower people. Recently our Prime Minister challenged her counterpart on his use of such terms to dismiss what she said on the basis of her gender. These terms can be used similiarly by more powerful health professionals to dismiss or minimise the distress felt by patients.
    As a patient I have been called love, dear, darl and sweetie. Most of the time it was innapropriate and once I started using these words back to the nurse who was equally uncomfortable with me using these terms. The most important consideration is not what we think if we use the terms but what those on the recieving end feel. Other times I have had these used to me and they have comforted me. What mattered was the context and the delivery. I do not support a blanket ban however I can fully understand why health districts are concerned by the use of language. Personally I try to ensure people are happy with anything I may call them before using the term.

  3. i work in this LHD and I haven’t yet seen the memo, but when I do I won’t be changing any of my current practice.
    When questioned about the memo on ABC radio Chris Crawford backpeddles far enough to wonder why he even sent it out in the first place. I’ll cue my practice from these sentences as I always have
    “Some of that language can win people over because it establishes a rapport in the right circumstances. Once a relationship with a client is established and that language can help build the trust, I think it’s probably OK.

    http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2012/12/11/3652020.htm?site=northcoast “We’ve got to rely on the good common sense of our health workers.”

  4. I work in an inner city hospital & given that a huge amount of my patients are from multicultural backgrounds it’s often a challenge to pronounce their names correctly (although most staff try). As I was taught (last century) I always ask them what they prefer to be called. However if a patient is male & confused/unconscious I always resort to ‘mate’. I mean, it just makes sense doesn’t it?

  5. Limiting of an individual’s right to speech, nurses are part of the working nation and the living nation, we are patients too, we crawl, we walk, we learn, we are creative by nature of our job. This policy at its base is not constitutional! Speaks volumes of corporate culture, as a business is influenced and run from the top down!

  6. I have always addressed patients/clients by their name i.e Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms plus surname. If they ask for me to call them by their given name I do so, using their own name ensures the nursing care I am giving is one of art and one of science.

  7. What kind of a pathetic attempt to re-direct the public away from the REAL issues of poor administration of the Public Health Service !
    Fiddle, while Rome burns !

  8. Another reason why the “Health Service” is in such disarray. Maybe the bureaucrats are bored. Merry Christmas to all & here’s hoping the future returns to some sort of commonsense.

  9. Here in Michigan (the States) that has already been told to us years ago and it is engraved in our heads during nursing school, but as a nurse you know who you can and who you can’t call sweetheart, honey, etc … it just comes natural to you as a nurse to use those words of comfort. I say carry on and do what you know is right for your patient!

  10. I am not Australian born and I always find problems accepting young people or people of addressing me by my first name or calling me “darl” (sweetie) or someother informal name, Funnily I have no problems if someone older or same gender as me calls me the same names, maybe its my cultural upbringing.
    This is not a big issue for me when receiving care I wouldn’t raise a complaint if addressed by any of these terms.

  11. I am a student in my 3rd year, we have been taught NOT to use terms of endearment to address our patients. Having experienced life on both sides of the fence (as Nurse and Patient), I have no set determinants as to whether to call my patients by an endearing term or by their given (or chosen) name. It is my professional opinion it is preferable to ask the patient what name they wish to go by… One patient set this very clearly to me when I shortened her name, that “only my friends call me Maggie, my name is Margaret”. As a result of this patient feedback I will always ask which term my patients wish me to address them by and feel that every one of us should do the same. This simple task empowers the patient in an otherwise traumatic and oft times difficult situation.

  12. Tonight at work, a very confused lady was trying to leave because she had to “go feed her cats”. It took a lot of talking with her to get her to return to bed (1 am) and I can assure you, using “Mrs Brown” would just not fly! She was scared and the authoritarian manner “Mrs Brown” just does not work.
    A simple “it’s ok darling(or whatever term you use), the cats are all cared for” had instant positive results all around.

    I do agree though, as a health professional we do tend to use these terms very easily and I am guilty of this a lot. When we think about it, doctors don’t use these tems, physios and OTs dont.

    Maybe that’s what makes us nurses a little special 🙂


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