Thursday, April 22, 2010


So, I've been getting ma'amed a lot lately, and it's giving me a complex. Some of you are not from the South, so let me explain:

Southerners are evidently serious about respect. (I say "evidently" because, although I've spent most of my life in the South, I kinda don't understand all the stuff we do. Maybe I should just say that we're serious about maintaining the appearance of respectfulness. Sorry, Cherokee Nation. So sorry, black people.) One of the ways in which we demonstrate that we respect others is by opening doors for them and letting them pass through ahead of us. Another way is by teaching our children to always, ALWAYS to refer to adults as ma'am and sir, and if they transgress, threaten them with scalping or disembowelment.

So, when I was 9, my family moved to Georgia from California. We had lived in Georgia when I was in kindergarten and first grade, but since then, my dad had been working on a cattle ranch in the mountains outside of Fresno, with a Hare Krishna commune on one side of us and a cult called The Church of Synanon on the other. There was no ma'aming going on in Badger, California, I can assure you.

Anyway, then I started school in Georgia, and think I might have responded to a teacher with a "yeah," the first week. And, you guys...I was sent to the principal's office. I'm not exaggerating. So, I learned to ma'am with the best of them. In fact, I can still dazzle an old lady with a pretty fierce ma'am when occasion demands. And "yes, sir"? Well, I don't like to brag, but one of my yes-sirs could put your eye out.

And so, let me be clear: I am not opposed to ma'm-ing. I appreciate our nutballs Southern conventions, and even embrace many of them in practice. For instance, I routinely address people I don't know very well as "Honey," smile even if I don't feel like it, and acknowledge the utility of applying cheerful passive aggression when people don't act right. That said, I will not teach Odessa to ma'am and sir because I think it's largely unnecessary these days, and sometimes just not at all what an adult wants to hear from a 7 year old.

So, the point:
Lately these 24-year-old grocery store clerks and waitresses have been calling me ma'am. I appreciate that they're trying to be polite and it's way, way better than if they were accidentally calling me sir (honestly, why risk it? It's like asking a lady "when's the baby's due?" when she's actually just fat around the belly area.... So awkward.). But why call ME ma'am all of a sudden? Am I starting to look old and wrinkly? Have I become matronly at the tender age of 32? Here's what I thought: I thought we had a collective cultural understanding that Ma'am and Sir are strictly to be used by little kids to show deference for people who are old enough to defend their country, and for the rest of us to use as a tool for buttering up old people. THAT'S WHAT I WAS LED TO BELIEVE! Have I been wrong? I'm concerned.



  1. Brandon reflexively ma'am's any woman he perceives to be in a position of authority, regardless of age. This gets him into some amount of trouble (especially when we're not in the south), but he can't seem to break the habit.

  2. Wait till everyone younger than 50 starts calling you Miss Jesslyn...seems to be the Southern thing to do to show you are older than 50...not that you are, but you will be sooner than you think...remember the hissy MIss Ginny had?

    I've schooled hundreds of younger "southern gentlemen" about this MR Pat crap...broken bones tell no tales...but it seems to be in the genetic ma'ming...a curse of Southern culture.


  3. You know what really sucks? Knowing that someone 10 years younger than me is getting Ma'amed all over the place and that it's a relatively new phenomenon for her. 'Cause I have been deluding myself that those polite whippersnappers who used to ma'am me when I lived there were just super-nice and did it even to the very young, like me. The fact that you are now old enough to be ma'amed means that I am really freakin' old.

  4. I'm all for the ma'ams, no matter what age. But I'm also secretly 75 in the body of a 31 year old. Oh, and FWIW, I ma'am anyone that looks older than me that either 1) is helping/serving me or 2) may have something that I need and thus requires buttering up. Maybe everyone is just trying to get on your good side? ;)

  5. I have a tendency to ma'am almost any woman my age or older as a sign of respect. I've upset many a Pacific NW customer service representative/barista/waitress with my ma'aming, and I try to explain that it's basically subconscious at this point.

    All that said, I definitely fret when the young 20-somethings call me sir. :)

  6. Synanon? Aren't those the people who say "howdy" by putting a rattlesnake in your mailbox? Now that's a far cry from "sir" and "ma'am".