With five decades behind me, I’m at a place in my life where the last thing I feel is “too young” for it. I’ve learned from life—I’m still learning from life—and have grown to appreciate the experiences that have brought me to this particular place in it. And I absolutely do not object to being called “ma’am” now.
“Sorry, I can’t help it,” she said. “It’s how I was raised.”
“It’s how I was raised” explains a lot of Southern habits. This was Memphis, Tennessee, and so it was almost certainly true that she was raised to do it. She meant well by saying it and had been raised to say it with respect. But I hadn’t been raised in Memphis, and at the time, I was barely thirty years old. As far as I was concerned, I was nowhere near old enough for a coworker–particularly one just a few years younger–to be calling me “ma’am.”
I no longer live in “the South,” but I do live in a “Southern” location…and in Southern California, twenty-some-odd years later, something strange has happened. People closer to my children’s ages than mine are no longer calling me “ma’am”—they’re addressing me as “miss.” Not as “Miss (Firstname),” mind you—another Southern habit, used for less-formal reference to adult women—but in the context of “And for you, miss?” And it throws me every time it happens.
One reason I objected to “ma’am” in my thirties is that it’s a form of address that nearly always makes a woman feel aged. Granted, I’d already been married for years by then and was the mother of a preadolescent son, but most of the time I felt like I was too young for my life; maybe I just didn’t appreciate the suggestion that perhaps I actually wasn’t. On the other hand, it’s a stereotype that Southern Californians don’t want to look aged—and like nearly all stereotypes, it does contain some kernels of truth—but feeling aged is equally unwelcome; given that, one might think the younger-skewing “miss” is a safer choice.
However, when someone is calling my husband “sir” in one breath and me “miss” in the next, it feels wrong. I wish I found it a flattering indication that I don’t look like I’m over fifty—but neither does he, so why not call him “dude,” then?—but I just can’t take it that way. If it’s meant as flattery, it’s seriously misplaced, it’s not fooling anyone, and I can’t appreciate it. If it’s meant in any other way, it’s diminishing and I really can’t appreciate it. And if I suspect that you’re close to half my age, I really don’t understand why you’re doing it. Honestly, a form of address that acknowledges my adult status wouldn’t hurt my feelings in the slightest.
I welcome “ma’am.” I’ve earned “ma’am.” I respect “ma’am,” and I am finally able to recognize the respect it conveys when a woman is addressed as “ma’am.” Please go ahead and say it. To my surprise, I’m really missing it.