I remember the first time I was called ma’am. I was barely into my early 30’s. A young service station attendant (I believe he was a teenager) said “thank you, ma’am.” I was shocked and appalled, and all the way home I worried that I looked old enough to be a ma’am.
And that is truly the crux of the matter. Whether an accurate definition or not, to us Real Women, “ma’am” makes us feel old. At some point, all too early in life, we slide from being a Miss to a Ma’am. It is a painful passage that sticks with us. Just last night, I was out to dinner with a BFF, and the perky young waitress called her ma’am. I saw my BFF physically cringe. As the waitress walked away, my friend muttered “please, please, don’t call me ma’am. I feel old enough without that.”
This of course begs the question: if not Ma’am, then what? What would we rather be called by strangers who don’t know our real names? Men seem to have it easier. They have the short and respectful “sir”, or the more friendly “guy”, or even just “man”, as in “Hey, thanks, man.”
But what are our options? Madam? Eeek, that makes me feel like either I’m an old has-been cougar working the streets, or I’m an elderly Dowager. Hey you? Wrong. Babe? Nope – especially if we are being addressed by a man, that’s not exactly appropriate. One that makes me cringe even more is when a few of us are being addressed as “girls” – especially at work. As in “the girls in marketing.” I have found a way to stop this, however, by in return calling them “boys”. So we aren’t 10-year-old little girls…but we don’t feel old enough to be “ma’ams”. Where is the middle ground? The safest route for a group would simply to be called “women.” But that doesn’t work for a singular situation – “excuse me, woman?”. Ha, I don’t think so. Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, the all-too-sweet-and-familiar: last week I went to pick up a pizza, and the young woman behind the counter called me “sweetie” – and a customer I used to call on would call every woman on the phone “honey”. Call me crazy, but I’d rather only have a family member or my husband call me that.
Of course, if we are with a group of our own friends, these rules don’t apply. Virtually any term can be used and we can get a way with it – cute or rude, it doesn’t really matter, they are all seen as terms of endearment. I frequently call my BFF’s chicks, or chickie-babes. But if a stranger tried that, my response would be something like “who you callin’ chickie?!”.
For the most part, I really don’t think any term is necessary. How about just stopping after “thank you” or “excuse me” or “bye”….why add on another word that could either get you in trouble, or make the recipient cringe? I think we need to either let go of these nicknames, or revert back to the old, more proper, days reflected in Downton Abbey. Perhaps we can start calling each other Countess or Lady and the men in our life can be Lord, Master, or Earl.
We’ll just have to practice saying it with a straight face.