(Post Featured on Freshly Pressed!)
There is a single word in the English language that has the power to ruin my whole day. That word is Ma’am.
I could be having a perfectly fine day – a great day even – the kind of day where my car starts on the first try, my kids get off to school without a ton of screaming and, when I check myself in the mirror I actually think, “Hey, I don’t look half bad.”
Then I stop by the local coffee place and the hipster barista dude, the one who wears the gross earring gauges, hands me my non-fat latte and says, “Here you go, Ma’am.”
Ah, come on. Really? Did you have to?
Of course I politely say “Thank you,” back to the little whippersnapper, but in my head I’ve added a very irritated, “Don’t call me Ma’am, d#$%khead.”
Because whenever I hear the term “Ma’am” I feel anger inside me. No, that’s an understatement. Ma’am makes me feel homicidal. I realize it’s not healthy.
Ma’am is a slap in the face. It feels like one day you’re young and turning heads and everyone treats you nicely. When they talk to you, they call you, “Miss.”
Then suddenly, almost overnight, people start to talk to you like you’re a doddering old fool. They speak louder. They over-explain things like they think you can’t understand simple transactions; “Use this stylus to sign your name. You see it’s like a pen, but it’s not.” Then they put salt in the wound: they call you “Ma’am.”
I know it’s vain of me to care. Obviously I’m in the age range of the Ma’am group. I’ve had three kids. I won’t be having any more. I’m clearly not a young Miss, but I don’t feel like a Ma’am either.
I don’t like that our culture makes this separation with language, especially on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. One day I’m allowed to stand in the group with the other young and fertile maidens, then the next, “ No, no, no. You come out of that group and move over here. You belong with the old and the barren now. And what are you doing shopping in Forever 21 anyway? I hope that skirt in your hand is for your granddaughter and not for you . . . Ma’am.”
Men don’t have this issue. They’re only called “Sir,” end of story. It’s viewed as a sign of respect. Even when they’re in their twenties, people don’t say, “Would you like a drink, young dude?” They say, “Sir,” and it never changes. When men reach middle-aged, the valet doesn’t suddenly say, “Here are your keys, old man.” Not if he wants a tip anyway.
I understand that when people use “Ma’am” they intend for it to be a sign of respect, and that the term is more common in other parts of our country. In fact, a friend from South Carolina once told me that his child got in trouble for saying, “Yes Ma’am,” to his teacher at his new Los Angeles area school. My friend had to convince the principal that his son was not being smart-mouthed, and was just using the Southern manners they had taught him.
But where I’m from, people only use “Ma’am” for women of a certain age. I’d feel really silly calling a twenty-year-old, “Ma’am.”
At work, we’ve eliminated the distinction between married and unmarried women by using the title Ms. on emails and letters. I wish we could somehow eliminate the distinction between young and old women when we speak.
There needs to be another option, a term that could be used when speaking to women of all ages – the young, the old, and the in-between – regardless of marital status.
I say we ditch both “Miss” and “Ma’am” and for lack of a better idea, bring back the antiquated Victorian term, “M’Lady.”
Isn’t that a nice word, M’Lady? Any woman could be a M’Lady without feeling insulted because it’s a mixture of Miss and Lady. It is like you’re addressing both the young misses and the sophisticated older ladies at the same time. M’Lady is sort of sweet and elegant sounding too, isn’t it?
I realize that using a different word might feel a little funky at first, but I’m sure over time we’ll get used to it. Really, all we need is for one rapper to use it in a song and it would instantly become the norm; “I’ll tell you what the sitch’ is, Straight up from McShady, You hangin’ with your bitches, But I’m hangin’ with M’lady.”
I can already imagine how much better my mornings will be, “Here’s your double espresso, M’Lady.”
“Well, thank you, kind sir. I will see you, and your repulsive earlobe, anon.”
So much better.