Lo thinks that baby talk is an expression and facilitator of intimacy, that it encourages pair-bonding and protective instincts in romantic relationships. Which is to say, hating it outright is like hating kittens. Em thinks that baby talk is gross. So we decided to settle this once and for all like grownups — in an iChat debate:
LO: So, Em, how long have we been writing together for?
EM: It’s been exactly ten years this month since we started our original advice column on Nerve. Happy anniversary!
LO: And in that time, how many issues have we ever disagreed on?
EM: Pretty much just this one, if you don’t count the fight we had in the car on our cross-country road trip for the Big Bang book tour.
LO: Let’s not go there. So what, exactly, do you have against baby talk in relationships?
EM: Don’t you want to coo that to me in baby talk instead?
LO: No, because I know your frozen heart wouldn’t appreciate it.
EM: To use the S/M phrase, it just squicks me.
LO: The fact that you just used the word “squick” squicks me.
EM: I know, I can’t believe I said that either. It’s probably because I associate baby talk with kinky roleplaying — that’s the file I put it in. For whatever reason, most people don’t file it there, though — I think that babytalk has an undeservedly vanilla rep. Do you think it’s because I’m British that I can’t stand baby talk?
EM: Hard to do with a stiff upper lip.
LO: When I think of baby talk, it’s less about kinky sex, and way more about pair-bonding in romantic relationships. Think about it: parents use baby talk with infants to help them learn how to communicate, but it also has a bonding function. (Please don’t tell me you haven’t used baby talk with your own baby!)
EM: Of course I have! I think we’re programmed to. I thought I’d feel like a phony doing it, but you do it without even realizing it. And actually, you feel like an idiot talking to a baby in a regular voice.
LO: So it just follows that it would work for couples, too — it gets you closer, breaks down walls, makes you want to protect each other. It’s all about intimacy.
EM: That’s funny, because I remember one of the characters on “Sex & the City” saying that men use baby talk to AVOID intimacy. Not that S&TC is my sexual touchstone or anything.
LO: One study found that baby talk in adult relationships “functions in the process of intimate personal connections.”
EM: What the hell does that mean?
LO: No idea. But this bit from the researchers is a little more accessible: “We suggest that baby talk . . . expresses and facilitates intimate psychological connection…” And they found “Individuals who had baby talked to friends or romantic partners tended to be more secure and less avoidant with regard to attachments in general.”
EM: Is that because it taps into the unconditional mommy-baby relationship?
LO: I would assume so.
EM: Can we just take a moment to define what exactly we mean by baby talk? When I talk to my daughter, I use a high voice and simple language, and that’s it, really. But it’s my understanding that baby talk among adults means using words like “widdle” instead of “little,” etc. Is that right?
EM: It’s a serious question, I actually have no idea.
LO: I think it varies from couple to couple — I think both your definitions above can apply to romantic relationships, with “widdle” being on the more extreme end.
EM: So here are my other (totally serious) questions: Does it happen in bed? At dinner? Cuddling on the couch? When? And what is the topic of conversation when you’re using baby talk? The weather? Bodily functions? True love? Mawwaige?
LO: Before I address your questions, let me just state for the record that I’m not an expert baby talker myself, I don’t even use baby talk in my own relationship (okay, maybe once or twice, a long time ago). I’m just defending people’s desire and right to use baby talk within a relationship (in moderation) without being labeled mentally impaired.
EM: Okay, but you DO use pet names, which we’ll come back to in a little bit. So, what’s normal, average baby talk, then? “I wuv you”?
LO: I think in most cases it’s more about tone and pitch. You’re cuddling, you’re feeling that good cozy rush of oxytocin, and you’re giving each other lots of little kisses when you say “Oh, I could just eat you up, you’re so cute” — not necessarily with a pretend speech impediment, just in a tone and pitch that you would use if you were talking to a baby.
EM: Huh. Well, I guess I’m not going to march in a parade against THAT sort of baby talk. Take away the lisp and it’s hardly controversial. Though, for the record, it still gives me mild heebie-jeebies. But on the extreme end of things, I guess I can see how being totally retarded in front of each other (sorry, being silly wabbits together) would be sort of bonding, in a we-could-totally-blackmail-each-other-about-this-later kind of way. It’s like exploring a new orifice together, but without all the lube.
LO: I would definitely agree with you that adults who use baby talk incessantly and in public might have a screw loose. But for the most part it’s the rare playful moment between couples that accesses that unconditional protective parent-baby love we were talking about before. I think the same applies to couples goofing around and tickling each other.
EM: See, we’re back to the S/M thing. Tickling and baby talk are BOTH forms of kinky bonding. Which I mean as a compliment, for the record: You have to be seriously bonded with someone to not laugh or roll your eyes when they make you wear a dog collar and bark for your dinner.
LO: Well, people seriously into the BDSM community do talk about how intense and emotional it can get — in a good way.
EM: For the record, I don’t think baby talk has anything to do with kinky adult baby play, other than the fact that they’re both forms of roleplaying.
LO: Maybe that’s just a super-duper far-out extreme on one end of the baby talk spectrum: ending up in adult diapers not because you need them.
EM: Something tells me I’ll never find out. So here’s another question: How do you break out the baby talk in a relationship, how does it come up? How do you know your partner won’t freak the fuck out (either openly or just on the inside)? Is there a gateway drug? I’m just wondering whether it’s pure luck that I’ve never been accosted with it, or whether I put out a no-baby-talk vibe without realizing it.
LO: I would hope it comes up naturally, gently, and in small doses. Ideally, it should be almost inadvertent, like you’re so overwhelmed with love that you can’t help yourself. And I don’t think just because you said something in baby talk one day means you’ll be constantly talking to your partner like Elmer Fudd six months from now.
EM: So baby talk that happens during — or in the vicinity of — sex is an entirely different breed of baby talk, right? I assume “I wuv your tittie-witties” isn’t the kind of small-dose pair-bonding that you’re talking about?
LO: Yes, I would say the majority of baby talk is done in romantic situations. The minority of baby talk happens in actual sexual situations, where I would classify it as kinky, like you said. The whole “Someone’s been a very naughty boy/girl” thing. And I would assume that those two categories are often mutually exclusive — that partners who engage in one version probably don’t engage in the other.
EM: But if it happens OUTSIDE the bedroom, isn’t there the risk of it hurting sexual chemistry. Once you’ve baby-talked together, can you really have hot monkey sex again?
LO: Well, that would be like saying that once you know each other really well, and are totally in love, and feel completely comfortable, that you can’t then have hot monkey sex together ever again.
LO: And maybe you can’t, but I’m still holding out hope.
EM: For newbies who want to experiment, I suppose the mildest, most innocuous form of baby talk is having squishy wushy pet names for your partner, right?
LO: Right. Don’t tell me you don’t have one for yours.
EM: Not a unique one, no.
LO: Not even a nickname that only YOU use in private?
EM: Am I a total cold fish?!
LO: Not ever in the history of all your relationships?
EM: NO! I use a term of endearment with my husband — “love,” it’s a British thing — but it’s the same term I use with my daughter and my sisters.
LO: Oh, THAT’S sexy!
EM: When we first dated I called him “baby” a lot, and then one day I heard myself and was totally grossed out by how whiny it sounded. I was using “baby” like punctuation, at least once a sentence. Even when we were arguing — which is totally ridiculous, obviously. Not exactly the point of a pet name.
LO: Well, in those situations, it’s good to remember that you do actually love this person, so the pet name may act as a small subconscious reminder during arguments not to cross the line and say something you really regret, something that ends the relationship.
EM: Good point. Though it kind of dirties the word, too — just like when people say “Excuse ME” in a totally sarcastic way. That’s another pet peeve of mine — don’t steal that nice polite language for your rude means. So are your pet names things that you’d never let anyne else overhear?
LO: I’m all in favor of keeping your pet names private, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal if you let one slip in public, so long as you don’t say it as part of mushy and romantic baby talk in front of other people (that’s just wrong). More like when you’re out at dinner with friends and out of habit you say, flat affect, “Could you pass the salt, Tush.”
EM: See, when you say that, I feel like I just overheard some dirty talk, or overheard you having sex. Then again, I get really uncomfortable seeing people tongue-kiss in front of me.
LO: How can you write about sex for a living and be so uptight?
EM: It’s a mystery. But can we at least agree that the lisp-variety of baby talk is extreme and out there and kind of freaky?
LO: It’s all about context! If a really hot, amazing guy you’re totally in love with says “I wuv you” ONCE in a lighthearted way while nuzzling your neck and cuddling up, it’s not extreme or out there or freaky — it’s awesome!
EM: Well, it’d freak me out.
LO: You’re ARE a cold fish…. but I still wuv you.