Just Don't Call Her Ma'am
When a polite salutation feels like a slight.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point I crossed the line in the sand that determines how I feel about getting carded. What once was an annoyance (“Are you suggesting I’m a teenager? I’m married, for Pete’s sake!”) is now a delight (“Me? Under 21? Of course you can see my ID!”).
The staff at Trader Joe’s is particularly near and dear to my heart, as it must be their policy to card anyone who looks a day under 40. The one thing they do wrong is call me “ma’am,” forcing me to age from 20 to 80 in all of three seconds.
I know the conundrum that faces parents and kids—and apparently folks in consumer services—alike: how do you show courtesy? When I was a kid, all the moms on our street were “Mrs. Jones.” Now, my husband and I default to Mrs., Mr. or Miss when introducing someone to our children, but ultimately go with the title most comfortable for the adult.
For instance, most of our neighbors are Mr., Mrs. or Miss Jones. Except for the neighbors who prefer to be called Mr., Mrs. or Miss Chris. Add moms who kept their maiden names, prompting a Ms. Smith (whose kids’ last name is Jones). Then there are family friends who are simply Chris or John. And that’s if you know the person!
So what about adults whose names we don’t know? Friends who were raised in the South had it easy—“sir” and “ma’am” were not optional. “Sir” is easy enough, and “mister” is a decent try. But “ma’am” just doesn’t work for me. It makes me tired. And crabby. And prone to yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
If not “ma’am,” then what? Miss? Toots? Mama? Lady? Hey, you? I’m partial to “m’lady” or, as my darling husband suggested, “bella.” But I suppose I’ll settle for “miss,” although it has a tendency to make me feel like I’m being scolded rather than greeted.
As for our kids, the only time my son uses “ma’am” is when he’s addressing his taekwondo instructor. And I’m not sure where to go from there. He’s still young and his sister still feigns shy, so honestly it hasn’t come into play. I figure we’ll stick to the essentials of speaking politely for now, and address the rest later—at the end of the day, respectful behavior trumps what anyone calls me.