I can admit when I’m wrong, and I’ve been doing a little happy dance all day because being wrong in this case is net positive for the many Formerlies who reside north of the Mason-Dixon.
You might recall that I wrote about the first time I was ma’amed a few years back, and how that was one of the first indications I had that my self-definition (as the young, relevant, in-the-know hot chick I’d been for the previous several decades) was just a wee bit out of sync with what people saw when they looked at 40something-year-old no-longer-groovy me. At that time, the good people of the South very kindly rose up to reassure me that the term ma’am, I was told is simply what nice boys are raised to call women who are not obviously teenagers, particularly ones who wear wedding rings.
Here’s how I handled it back in 2009 when a nice young man (yes, yes, that sounds old, but that’s what he was!) working at IKEA in Brooklyn ma’amed me.
I said, “Look, I’m going to give you a tip: I can tell you’re from the South, but up here, women who may still think they’re maybe young–even if they’re kind of not–don’t like to be called ma’am. If I were you, I’d err on the side of “miss,” even if you’re pretty sure they’re married and have kids.”
“Oh, no, I have to call them ma’am. It’s what my mama taught me and my brothers. That’s the way you show respect,” he said. “I couldn’t not say ‘ma’am.’”
“I hear you, but in New York, part of showing respect is respecting people’s vanity, and pretending that they’re not old, you know?” I said.
“I guess I do, yes, ma’am.”
It wasn’t as if I didn’t believe him, exactly, but it still smarted. Ma’am meant nothing more or less to me than “I do not want to have sex with you but if you recommended a brand of butter substitute to me in the supermarket I’d trust your opinion.” Not so much where I wanted to live my life and still don’t.
Fast forward two years later, and I’m spending a week working in Birmingham, Alabama, where I have been ma’amed up, down and sideways several times a day. At this point, I’m more used to it, and, like a boxer who has been pummeled for several rounds, I don’t even really feel it anymore. Please, sir, may I have another?
And then: Last night, I was out at this Greek restaurant near my hotel, and the cute, ponytailed waiter was flirting as he took my order.
“This is a good place but between you and me, there’s lots of good food here in Birmingham,” he confided, leaning over the bar. “Not to be too forward, ma’am, but I’d be glad to take you around.”
“Did you just call me ma’am?” I sputtered.
“What, now? Yes, ma’am,” he answered, perplexed.
“But you were flirting with me!” I said. He looked a bit taken aback, like he was worried I was offended.
“Well, no, I mean, yes, I guess, but I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable…” he drawled.
It took a few minutes for me to untangle the whole thing for him, give him a little Northern Formerly perspective and explain my particular associations with the word ma’am, and to assure him that while no, I was not going to go out with him, I appreciated that the thought would cross his mind.
Then I realized that sounded too pathetic, so I had to explain that of course the thought would cross his mind–thanks, and why wouldn’t it?–but that I didn’t think a ma’am was someone one considered asking out, let alone having sex with.
He looked horrified, so then of course I had to back it up and blather on about how I know he wasn’t trying to have sex with me, but that the thought might have occurred to him, and if it did, that was OK, flattering even, but…
It went on like that, me digging myself in deeper, until he couldn’t wait to get away from me. But that was OK, because the cute ponytailed waiter at the Greek restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, has forever uncoupled “ma’am” and “frumpy asexual female being” in my mind.
Thank you, kind sir.
August 19, 2011 at 7:22 am
The last four paragraphs are hysterical! Who hasn’t dug a hole for themselves like this in our pasts? That was good. 🙂
August 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm
I’ve heard college-aged girls referred to as “ma’am.” I’ve been getting it myself since my early 20s. I’m not sure it’s as age-triggered as some women fear. (I live in New England.)
August 23, 2011 at 10:13 am
And let me tell you somethin’ – those southern boys will ma’am you right through intercourse itself…if you choose to go that route…so don’t be surprised…
August 24, 2011 at 12:52 pm
I suppose having spent so much time in the South (Alabama, Georgia, S. Carolina) I’ve become quite accustomed to the ma’am distinction. Which is good because it is something that is instilled into soldiers as well. It seems no matter where they were raised, a soldier (male or female!) will usually defer to ‘ma’am’. I think my husband thought it was a bigger deal than I!!
August 25, 2011 at 9:07 am
Wow, Steph, you’re like a semiotic Rambo, a one-woman army roaming the country, blasting the enemy floating signifier, yelling “Well, this is what it means to ME…”
When you travel, you don’t head for the nearest McDonalds, so that you can feel like you’re at home. So why expect everywhere to be like New York linguistically? What bothers me more than being addressed as “Sir” (which doesn’t really happen, and is not really analogous to “Ma’am,” but I just threw it out there for sophistic rhetorical purposes) is the Walmartization of the world, the movement toward a homogenous future in which all restaurants are Taco Bell. Let us all rejoice in the diversity of the local, whether it be eating deep fried monkey toes in Indonesia, or some Southern dude politely asking whether he can fetch your walker for you.
Besides, as a writer, aren’t you supposed to be following The Prime Directive anyway?
August 31, 2011 at 9:09 am
Nearly died laughing! Poor kid.
September 14, 2011 at 10:56 am
I just laughed through “My Formerly Hot Life” and have recommended it to all my friends before perimenopause can sneak up and wreck our sense of humor about it (http://bit.ly/qNwO6f).
As to the Ma’am dilemma, I realize I have raised my kids to always say “ma’am”, but I’ve decided to recommend that they stop the practice at age 18 when they can, theoretically at least, be fellow adults.
Glad you got to try some of the great restaurants in Birmingham while you were here!