Celebrating Women’s History Month!
How could this happen?!
Oh, for the love of heaven, God, and little green apples. Yet one more time, while recently reading a book with a female, first-person protagonist, I was subjected to the main character’s whining, moaning, and kvetching about being addressed as “Ma’am”. Oh, the horror of it! How could this happen? Was she really THAT old? How is it that the person speaking to her could not recognize her youth, her with-it attitude and trendy, modish clothes, hairstyle and makeup? How could they possibly address her by courteously using a term of respect?
It was one of those moments when I wished that I were not reading on my Kindle, but on a plain, old-fashioned hardback book. There is very little satisfaction in merely clicking off a Kindle. I always derived far more gratification from slapping shut the covers of an irritating book; hardbacks were even better than paperbacks. The same is true of ending an unsatisfactory conversation on a cell phone. It was a thousand times better when one could slam a receiver into a cradle on a house phone. Stabbing the end call button just doesn’t suffice. (Oops! Getting off the track here!)
Sooo… Here’s my rude and altogether honest response to the hapless heroine’s whinging: Give it up, you pathetic loser! (Well, actually, what I thought was, “Oh, for Chrissake! Grow the hell up and get over yourself, bitch.”)
Yes, times change and so do people, but the simple truth is that I have almost never heard a man complain about being called “Sir”. His own age, or the age of the person addressing him, is not even considered in his response to that title. The word is recognized as precisely what it is: an honorific. Courtesy. A term of respect. (Or, in ex-President Trump’s case, the preface to a bald-faced lie, but we probably shouldn’t even go there.)
Admittedly, I am old. I was raised in an era in which respect was not only expected, but demanded, and not just for one’s elders, but for anyone in a position of authority. As I determined early on in life, not to just protect myself from imminent peril but, cynically, to further my personal agenda, I did not actually have to feel respect for anyone in authority over me–they might very well not have earned it–but I had to behave respectfully.
Teachers, other adults, supervisors, traffic cops, whatever: Anyone in a position of power or influence had to be taken seriously and addressed respectfully, and that respect began with titles. At the very least, one spoke to such individuals using the honorifics Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., or perhaps even Reverend, Rabbi, Your Honor, Officer, Captain, Chief… There were many such titles; “Ma’am” and “Sir” were just further extensions of respectful speech. The titles had nothing to do with the age of the individual being spoken to, but everything to do with both the power they wielded or the courtesy and esteem they should be granted.
At the opposite end of the respect spectrum lay the words used by those both older and excessively conscious of their exalted positions; words used to belittle and to put one in one’s place: the sarcastic “Young lady!” or “Young man!” The word “lady” itself had mutated from a term of respect to just a general and/or slightly rude form of address for any woman of unknown name: “Whaddya think you’re doing there, lady?!” Now, those terms did indeed often call for a response of resentment, or even antipathy. To this day, I clearly recall being addressed as “young lady” by a supervisor at the first job I ever held. That rotund old fart happened to be shaking some file folders (which he’d just had to spend his precious time hunting for because they had been carelessly misfiled) — shaking them right under my nose, as he snarled out the insulting sobriquet. I glanced at him and at the age-browned, misfiled manila folders for which I could not, patently, have been the miscreant responsible, since they’d been locked in a vault since long before my time with the company and probably even before my birth. Then I answered his snarling, “Just how did this happen, young lady?!” with a forced look of concern and a sweetly musical response of, “I’m afraid I really couldn’t say, SIR, since I didn’t work here then.”
But, returning to my primary point in this missive, it is long past time for every woman over the age of 20 to get over this ridiculous concept of, “To be called ma’am means I am old”. In the first place, there is nothing inherently wrong with aging. It happens to all of us, if we’re lucky enough to continue living, and is usually accompanied by wisdom, which is a good thing. But in the second, and far more important place, “ma’am” is an honorific, a term of courtesy, and above all, an expression of respect and regard.
Deal with it, young lady.
One thought on “Yes, Ma’am! Yes, Sir!”
One Day 1 of school, I refer to my students as “sir” or “ma’am”, even when I taught at an alternative school. Some students pick up the habit and, at first, use those terms in a mocking way. I ignore the mock and, eventually, they are using those terms for real. I’m so proud of them.