"You're so Cute" as an Insult
July 23, 2019 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Every so often I'll do or say something that someone views as ignorant or not done well, and they will say "Aw, you're so cute". This has happened multiple times with different people. I don't know how to respond other than feeling annoyed. It feels like I'm being belittled, and that they know it has feminine connotation when they use it as an insult. (I have been called cute in kinder ways, but that term still bothers me for some reason.) Did they mean it as an insult, or is there a better way to look at it?

I also get the same feeling when I hear someone say to someone "Don't be a sissy" (again, a feminine term), "Don't be a retard" (hurtful towards people with disabilities), and "Ha, I eat like a fatty" (assuming people who are overweight love to eat).

I know I'm politically correct - maybe too much. I try to avoid potentially offending others when I can out of respect. However, I'm also aware that the meaning of words change over time, and that it is impossible to be politically correct all the time. I tend to be conflict-adverse, so I usually ignore it when I hear it.

When I do later ask other people if they feel the same way, I'm told that I'm "too sensitive" and "geez, everyone's so sensitive these days" (which then also bothers me!), and they act like I'm making a big deal out of it for bringing it up and say that people say those things all the time. When someone I'm dating uses one of these terms, I'm turned off by them have trouble letting go that I know they would say that. If I try to bringing it up to them to have a discussion, then they quickly lose interest in me.

I'm not bothered by it as in thinking of it for hours, but I hear these from various sources at least once a week or two, so I get a feeling of irritation in the moment. I feel bothered that they are unaware of the connotations and how it could be hurtful. I feel like I'm what people would call "a stick in the mud". Am I being too strict, and how do I navigate these when it comes to making friends and dating?
posted by LovingMyself to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No you're not being too strict, you are calibrated at an appropriate level of political correctness (for whatever that's worth) and these people are just being jerks and trying to make it seem like you're the one who's too sensitive.
posted by peacheater at 10:20 AM on July 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

Every single one of your examples are belittling, dismissive, and incredibly insensitive. You are not 'too PC' or 'too sensitive.' They are the rude ones.
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2019 [29 favorites]

If someone says 'You're so cute' to you in a condescending tone, they know they're insulting you. They just don't appreciate being called out on it.
posted by hydra77 at 10:24 AM on July 23, 2019 [30 favorites]

I validate your feeling that “you’re so cute” belittles you. Some people may not specifically mean to offend you, but it is still not right. I also validate your feeling that all of the other comments you cite are entirely inappropriate. It may be useful for other answerers if you tell us if you’re encountering these comments in a work setting or in your personal life, and, if in a work setting, what state you live in.

I think that the term “politically correct” is a strange line nowadays, as the line has shifted so much and so suddenly since the 2016 election that it seems as if much of what might be labeled as “politically correct” nowadays are simply elements of human dignity. In your case, I think you’re simply acting empathetically and thinking of people’s feelings and the dignity of human beings.
posted by WCityMike at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

If you feel offended, then its probably intended to be so. Even when they feign ignorance, people intuitively know how language works, and they use it that way - context and intent are part of how we speak.

I do think there's a material difference between your first "cute" example, and then the others - the three additional examples are all name-calling.

Cute is a description, so at least in my experience, its *somewhat* less rude to be described as such. But my reaction to being called a sissy, r*tard, or fatty would be stronger than the sort of passive-aggressive, aw you are so cute thing. Especially r*tard, no one should be saying that anymore. I've definitely called people out for that.
posted by RajahKing at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Did they mean it as an insult

In that context, yes. I tend to think of it as more implying childishness or cluelessness than femininity, but either way it's an insult.

It doesn't really matter what word they're using, politically correct or not. They're belittling you and that's almost always inappropriate (an exception would be friendly back and forth between partners or friends where both sides are fine with a little verbal sparring).
posted by Candleman at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’ll second the first response as my read is it’s a not-subtle variation of the distancing “bless your heart”. Some people genuinely want to bless others, but if you’re not sure & afraid to ask, it’s tough to read without adding social standing if it’s being communicated to an adult.
posted by childofTethys at 10:26 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

An appropriate response is to let them know that you know it's an insult, but without losing your cool.

Usually the best way to do that is flipping them the bird and rolling your eyes.
posted by hydra77 at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

And in a dating context, every one of your examples is a solid deal-breaker. No one who says any of those things and then dismisses your objections is worth wasting another minute with.
posted by Huck500 at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

Best answer: "Aw, you're so cute" is definitely insulting and probably gendered. It implies that you're naive or dumb or both and that your contribution to the conversation wasn't serious or worthwhile.

In a certain kind of teasing relationship, it might be okay in some circumstances -- like, I have certain friends who will make what they know are naive, perfect-world arguments, and I'll be like 'Aww, it's so cute that you believe that could happen' and they will do the same to me. But as a one-sided thing that's always directed at you, and when you're contributing something you believe to be a serious remark, it's very belittling and I can't see another way in which you could interpret it.

As for the friends who think you're too sensitive, I mean, they're not wrong that lots of people use that kind of phrasing, but lots of people do lots of things that are shitty and that doesn't make those things not shitty. I would expect that kind of defensiveness from the people who made the comments in the first place, but I'm surprised you get quite so much pushback from all the other people around you, as well.

From how your question is written and your past posts, it feels like you are a pretty meek person, someone who seeks approval from other people and looks for their opinions over your own. Some of that headpat, you're so cute bullshit is likely being directed at you because of your personality, and some of the pushback you're getting may be because of the way you go to other people and ask them how they feel about these phrases, rather than just venting about how annoying you find them. I don't say this to suggest that you deserve that treatment because you are meek -- no one deserves to be treated poorly like that -- but that your "friends" are dishing it out to you because they see you as a target for this kind of thing.

It might work better for you if you were just a bit more assertive on how you push back on things. You can call things out in a way that isn't approval seeking but doesn't directly lay blame, either. Say to someone who says it to you: "Ugh, sorry, but I just really hate that phrase. It always makes me feel like a tiny wayward child." (And if it's a date, and they don't immediately agree to stop, dump them or be grateful when you get dumped.)

Rather than asking friends how you feel about it, say something like "Ugh, so-and-so said this today, and it always grates on my nerves when he does that. Like, dude, I am not a tiny adorable child who needs a pat on the head." Venting is more likely to get commiseration than asking a question is to get agreement.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:37 AM on July 23, 2019 [16 favorites]

It's something men say when they want to insult you but they think you're attractive and maybe too dumb to understand that you're being insulted. So no, you're not being PC, and you should not interact with people who are this condescending.

That all said, people never say this to me. Maybe I am too old or tall or something, or maybe you are spending a lot of time around people who are honestly quite jerkish. The latter is not necessarily something you can change, but to the extent that this is a pattern when dating you might want to think about trying consciously to avoid men with a sort of sneering or sarcastic attitude about them.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:52 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also them losing interest when you set a boundary is GREAT. Boy, bye. They want someone who they can sneer at consequence-free, and that's not you, and good for you --- well done! Keep that part up 100%.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:53 AM on July 23, 2019 [25 favorites]

Sometimes in my team at work we say to each other "You're so cute" as a shorthand version of, "You have a childlike innocence & optimism which working here has not yet spoiled. I rarely see such a fresh, unsullied worldview in this office, because the workplace culture has many negative aspects! It is remarkable for its rarity -- and, sadly, its short lifespan. i weep for all of us."

In that way, it's more of an expression of dark amusement at our own cynicism and shared misery (which of course loves company!), and not really at all about the speaker as a person.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

As to the first one: Let's suppose you've just announced that you voted for Politician X, who is controversial in your circle, and Random Jerk responds, "you're so cute."

If you want to discourage it but let it slide: raised eyebrows.

If you want to flush out the disagreement and stick with your position: "Thanks, and you are, too. But it's irrelevant. I'd say it was discerning of me to vote for X, wouldn't you?"

If you want to flush out the criticism, and you agree that your action was a mistake: "Thanks, and you are, too. But it's irrelevant, because I now think that voting for X was a mistake, and I plan to do better next time."

And you can skip the first part, and go right to "It's irrelevant ..."

I.e. it all depends on where you'd like the conversation to go.

And when someone you are or might be dating says, "you're so sensitive", the best answer is "I know. Isn't it great?" If they recover gracefully, it may be worth sticking around. If not, you'll know what to do.
posted by alittleknowledge at 11:06 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

If I try to bringing it up to them to have a discussion, then they quickly lose interest in me.

That’s a feature, not a bug. If you try to bring it up with them, their response will tell you a lot about their values and personality. If they say “Oh, I’m sorry. I never thought of it that way, and now that you’ve brought it to my attention I’m going to stop using that phrase” then great! You know they’re worth pursuing a relationship with because they’re capable of self reflection and admitting they’re wrong.

If they get defensive and/or lose interest in you, also good! Because it tells you they are not worth dating and you don’t need to waste any more time with them.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:17 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think in your place I would be somewhat offended at being dismissed, particularly when someone I'm dating uses it in a condescending manner. (Actually it's a great filter- thats now someone you don't want to date!). I have one context at work (see below) where it wouldn't offend me, but its quite situational.

(possibly finance industry specific) A different angle to the above versions, but one that doesn't actually seem to apply to your situations; I hear "that's cute!" or "stop being cute" or "stop trying to get cute charts" when someone is trying to be clever at the expense of thorough. Depending on the context it can be positive for conveying an idea in a very concise manner, or it can be negative when someone is actually asking for fewer short cuts. We definitely have a guy on our team who is known for making "cute charts and graphics" that is the go to for more senior level presentations, but woe unto you if you use his style of work when trying to talk through complex points with more quantitative teams. At work if someone tells me to stop being cute, 99% of the time it's referring to the work I've just presented or a point I just made and they're telling me that I need to give more background around the thought process behind it. They aren't referring to my appearance or dismissing my intelligence; often times they are telling me to stop assuming things about my audience and actually go through the work.
posted by larthegreat at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would add that the big distinction in my comment above:
"You are so cute"= I'm offended/personal attack
"that's cute" = depending on context: well done summarizing that in one quick thought/image/chart, or "eh, maybe make it less of a summary and work through it"
posted by larthegreat at 11:32 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree that 'you're so cute' is dismissive and insulting. It sets the insulted up as naive and childish. It definitely has a gendered component.

For the 'you're too sensitive' bullshit (it's total bullshit; you are the right amount of sensitive), I am a fan of Captain Awkward's advice, which is basically to flatly state 'yes, I am sensitive about [being belittled; being called cute; having my intelligence insulted; (insert offensive thing here)]. I have no sense of humor about [subject].' I can't find a particular post of hers at the moment, but when someone calls you too sensitive, that is a sign that they know they are pushing boundaries and they're mad you called them out on it.
posted by carrioncomfort at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

Without smiling or trying to be please or softening your words, say "I actually find that extremely condescending. Please don't do that again." Say it matter-of-factly and move on. If they try to make a thing out of it, say "I appreciate you didn't mean it that way" and be done. If they keep making a thing out of it, or they do it again at a later time, tell them "there's nothing enjoyable about spending time with someone when I have to wonder if they're being condescending or not", and leave.

Don't try to make them see the light, or apologize for asking this of them. Just be willing to move on or to leave. If they tell you you're being too sensitive, tell them "I guess I need you to respect that sensitivity", and end there. Don't let it become an argument.
posted by trig at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all! I've heard "that's cute" (as opposed to "you're cute") said to me as well after I've done something they considered dumb, and it's usually said with a mocking tone.

jacquilynne, I think you're right that I'm getting pushback from my friends because I asked it in terms of how should I feel versus needing to vent. I asked one of them about the "fatty" statement, and they said people say it all the time, and started arguing with me about it using examples. Eventually I told them I just wanted validation, and then they started validating me.

Now the other three examples I gave, I've never been called those personally, but I hear people around me say things similar like that often. Maybe it's a location thing? I live in California. I don't usually hear these in a work setting, so I guess that means something. Being called "cute" in that manner mainly occurs with family members, while dating, out and about, and with friends. I've also gotten that thrown at me online as well when I'm anonymous which is interesting because I haven't given any indication of meekness other than asking a question that was considered naive to them.
posted by LovingMyself at 11:40 AM on July 23, 2019

you're so cute used in the way you described is definitely insulting, and most often leveraged against young short women. It's a great time to break out your most sarcastic voice to reply with something like "thanks, that's just what I was going for" It's a fake compliment, and deserves the fakest of responses.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a general statement, anyone who tells you "geez, everyone's so sensitive these days" is someone who frequently is an insensitive ass, knows it, and does not want to be confronted about it. People today are not "too sensitive" -- frankly, we've still got a long ways to go till we are "sensitive enough". But, as things (mildly) improve, there are a lot of people who are used to being allowed to treat other people very badly who suddenly at the mildest pushback will declare that the problem is not their behavior but everyone else asking them to change their behavior.

There's nearly no situation where a defense of "people are too sensitive" (or particularly "you are too sensitive") is valid, and you should not feel badly about refusing to accept that in lieu of an apology or a change in behavior.
posted by tocts at 11:44 AM on July 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

I am someone who can absolutely mean "cute" or "adorable" in a way that is completely authentic and sincere and not at all patronizing. I don't know if this is generational or regional, but it often means sweet, charming, and attractive all rolled up into one, when I'm thinking of a romantic partner. I had a male partner tell me I was adorable once when I was particularly effervescent and vivacious and laughing about something. Some people might suffer from failure of imagination when it comes to adjectives, and some people have particular sensitivities around certain words, even those intended as compliments (I recently dated a man who knew and felt it positively when I told him he was "super cute" and another man who bristled, even though my emotions around the words were the same).

Having said that: yeah, I can get why this would bug you, especially in a work context. I'm wondering if it's one particular person who calls you "cute" at work? I know you said you are conflict adverse, but what if you practiced being a bit more direct in response? You can get away with a lot if you smile when you say something (you might have to practice this advance): "Hmm, cute? What do you mean by that?" or perhaps "Hey, cute isn't my favorite word. Please don't use it. Thank you!"

As for dating: presumably these are folks who like you and are trying to compliment you.
When someone I'm dating uses one of these terms, I'm turned off by them have trouble letting go that I know they would say that. If I try to bringing it up to them to have a discussion, then they quickly lose interest in me.

It sounds like you are turned off by their use of the word "cute," but you are wondering if you are applying meaning to it that they don't intend. How are you discussing this? You might try practicing something like, "Hey, I know you mean well, but 'cute' doesn't always feel like a compliment. Can you try to find another word?" If you are trying to get them to agree with your definition of the word, and somehow they hear that as you saying they meant it that way -- I get that that's why it would be bothersome to them, because maybe they truly did mean it positively, even if it didn't feel that way to you. So you could express this as your thing, as a boundary, especially if we are talking about early in dating stages, rather than wanting them to agree that their use of the word is always problematic (that can be a conversation that can come later, if you want).

have trouble letting go that I know they would say that
This is something to look at. I totally ended things with a man who made a homophobic "joke." You're allowed to feel your feelings. But it seems like you are casting judgment on them for using a word in a way that's pretty common? If you're having conversations with your women friends, maybe ask them how they feel about being called "cute" in positive romantic contexts. Are they hearing it the same way? It could be that you are sensitive about it because of how you've heard it before, and that's fine, and you can ask folks not to use it. But maybe see that there's a difference between asking people to respect a boundary and not use that word with you and them agreeing that it means to them exactly what it means to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:58 AM on July 23, 2019

Response by poster: I think when I gave my example, I cast a wide net so that they are jumbled up.

So to clarify:

For dating: I've had dates tell me "you're cute" in an endearing way, and I don't think less of them or lose interest from that; although I do start thinking how they might not be liked being called that because masculinity, but I may be projecting. I haven't heard any dates tell me I'm cute in an patronizing way. It is when I'm dating someone I hear someone say "Ha, I eat like a fatty," or tell their friends, "quit being a retard", that I feel turned-off by them for saying it.

For working: I don't encounter any of these examples in a professional work environment.

For Friends/Family/casual acquaintances: These are where I get the patronizing "You're cute" or "that's cute". I also hear the other examples occasionally from this group.
posted by LovingMyself at 12:11 PM on July 23, 2019

It is when I'm dating someone I hear someone say "Ha, I eat like a fatty," or tell their friends, "quit being a retard", that I feel turned-off by them for saying it.

Good! You should feel turned off! They're showing you that they're an ass.

If I heard any of these things the date would be over.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:31 PM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

It is when I'm dating someone I hear someone say "Ha, I eat like a fatty," or tell their friends, "quit being a retard", that I feel turned-off by them for saying it.

Hell yeah, I'd find these comments a huge turn off too! These are huge red flags! I feel like this is sort of basic among people I spend time with. Sometimes we might use words that are problematic; someone points it out; we stop using that word. "Fatty" and "retard" are words that well-meaning, thoughtful folks should have purged from their vocabulary ages ago because fat-shaming and mental disability-shaming are not okay. Punch up, not down, right?

As for men maybe not wanting to be called cute: yeah, that's what I was thinking about in my comment. They might also not want to be called pretty. You might not want to be called handsome (a "handsome woman" means something quite different from "a pretty woman.") Compliments are often gendered. If you strive to avoid gendered language, that's noble and great, but many folks aren't there.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:44 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been many times called cute by romantic partners, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, it's intended as a compliment and I appreciate being seen as happy, attractive, and energetic. On the other, being cute is a reductive description that carries a whole load of entailments: We generally don't think of cute things as having vivid internal lives or needs. We don't think of cute as equaling competent and thoughtful, having long-term meaningful goals, or having personal challenges that one overcomes.

So, my take is that being cute is a positive thing socially but only as long as it's recognized as being only one aspect of a full and rich whole personhood.
posted by past unusual at 12:54 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've used "cute" as an insult to imply naiveté or gullibility, e.g., "It's so cute that you believed the Republicans when they said they wanted to fix health care," or "It's so cute that you still think humans only have XX or XY chromosomes." In that case, there's no ambiguity intended, and the target is definitely meant to know they've been insulted. I've never thought about the gender markings of the term, though, so I'll have to keep that in mind.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:55 PM on July 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yep, cute is totally used as an insult all the time, and if you are hearing it as one then it is one.

It can also be a genuine compliment and come on, in 99% of cases, I feel that it's unambiguous which interpretation the speaker is going for.
posted by gaspode at 5:15 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jerk: “Oh, you’re SO cute!”
You: “And you’re incredibly patronising. And kind of an asshole. What? I thought we were just swapping unsolicited observations about each other and it was my turn.”
posted by Jubey at 7:41 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

You've gotten some great advice. One person made some excellent points above, but in creating examples of statements you might make in response to these people, they began the sentences with the word "Ugh." Yes to everything else they said, but don't start sentences with "Ugh." (You probably don't do that anyway.) That kind of thing would just entrench others' perception of you as childlike, cute, dismissable, etc. (Again, I'm pointing out that the suggestion was off, and I'm not criticizing you in any way.)

Yes, you're being gaslighted. That's when someone attacks or needles you, or rolls their eyes, or gives you a backhanded compliment, or calls you cute as an insult. And then they assail you again when you complain about it. These people suck. You are way more wonderful than they are. And for your mental health, you need to get right away from them. Your purest gut instincts are telling you to do this, so listen to them.

Don't expend further anguish over this. There are kind people in the world with whom you have a lot in common, and who will appreciate you. Go find 'em!
posted by cartoonella at 11:51 PM on July 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am the youngest and only girl in a large family. I was called Little Girl occasionally as a child and it bothered me but what could I do about it then? I was a young shy girl in a home chock full of boisterous boys.

As I got older it was used to belittle me when I asserted myself. It was usually accompanied by a sneer and the feeling that I was powerless. Then I guess I got old enough to know I was being firmly put in my place when I stood up for myself. I don’t see or interact with those people anymore and my life is much happier now. I haven’t been belittled like that since. You are not too politically correct and should not accept being belittled. I suggest avoiding people who do that as much as you possibly can.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 9:23 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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