When I was a freshman in high school, I walked into first period one day to hear a senior girl angrily recounting to her friends something that had happened at the grocery store the day before. She was so mad, she said. She couldn’t believe the cashier would say that to her. His offense? He had addressed her as “ma’am.”
Growing up in Oregon, “sir” and “ma’am” weren’t really part of my vocabulary, but it hasn’t escaped my notice that most women on the west coast don’t exactly take kindly to the title. A friend remarked on Facebook a while back that she wasn’t sure how to feel about being “ma’am”-ed; a high school ex once asked me what I would do if someone called me “ma’am.” (“Um… I don’t know, probably nothing?”) When I surveyed some friends, I got plenty of negative reactions to the word (including this gif). The internet is full of articles by and about women who hate the phrase. One of my favorite singers even brought it up on Twitter recently:
Here’s a tip – don’t call me “ma’am.” Ever.
— Ingrid Michaelson (@ingridmusic) June 28, 2014
And yet I just can’t bring myself to hate it.
I never thought of DC as really being the South—sure, we’re below the Mason-Dixon line, but this isn’t exactly the land of sweet tea and seersucker suits. Even so, I’ve found that since moving here I’ve become a “ma’am” even though I’m clearly in my early 20s. I get it from bus drivers, from customers at work, from the new (male) staff member in my office. I’ve even found myself saying it.
The logic behind the offensiveness of “ma’am” is, from what I can tell, that it’s code for “old woman.” Most official definitions will tell you that it refers to a woman who is married or has kids, and it seems to me that many people who use the label simply apply it to all adult women. (It’s also worth noting that “old enough to be married and have kids” means different things in different parts of the country.) I’m told that in some areas, you become a “ma’am” as young as 15 or 16. But if you’re not from one of these places, “ma’am” means that you’ve crossed some invisible line dividing you from “miss.”
The real problem, then, is in the fact that we as a society have decided that the older a woman is, the less valuable she is as a person. We tie worth to attractiveness, attractiveness to youth. We hide women over the age of 40 from our TV screens; we tout age-defying products like they’re going to cure cancer; we analyze every pound of “excess” flesh that remains at a new mother’s waistline because heaven forbid she look like someone who just squeezed a human out of her own body. If this is the mindset that has been drilled into us all our lives, it’s no wonder that some women are dismayed to find themselves being suddenly labeled as “ma’am.” It’s telling that the first page of Google results for “don’t call me ma’am” includes a line of beauty products by that name.
While I cast no judgment upon the women who think this way—after all, when there are whole industries built upon making you feel bad about every wrinkle, it’s an understandable mindset—I reject this, at least where “ma’am” is concerned. After all, what is the alternative? “Miss”?
If “ma’am” means I’m old, then isn’t the corollary that “miss” means I’m young? Youth comes with its own set of negatives. When I was a teen, one of the quickest ways to get on my nerves was to treat me like a child, and I still get frustrated when I feel like people are talking down to me because I’m young. And why shouldn’t I be frustrated? My thoughts are no less valid simply because of my age. If my choices are “too old to be a model” or “too young to take seriously,” I’ll choose the former every time. (And don’t even get me started on the waiter at work who greets me as “young lady.”)
Are there other options? Sure. But let’s be real—we’re not going to see the total disappearance of “ma’am,” “miss,” and “sir” anytime soon (at least in my part of the country) and I don’t see anyone picking up “madame,” “m’lady,” or any of the other replacements I’ve seen bandied about. So if you’re going to call me anything: please, call me “ma’am.”