I was 29 years old the first time someone called me "ma'am."
I was 29 years old the first time someone called me “ma’am.” It was at a movie rental place in Durango – back when movie rental places were a thing – and I was hungover.
“Do you have ‘The Empire Strikes Back’?” I asked the clerk behind the counter.
He looked at me blankly.
“You know, the second Star Wars,” I continued. He looked relieved. “Oh, you mean ‘Attack of the Clones.’”
“No, that’s from the second trilogy that came out. I’m talking about the original trilogy. Those new movies suck. You seriously haven’t heard of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’?” I countered.
That’s when it happened. “Maybe. I think it came out before I was born. Can I help you find something else, ma’am?”
Whamo! He’d ma’amed me! I was a blond hippie who’d been out late dancing like a maniac to live music and drinking like I’d just turned 21, but to him, I might well have been a wizened crone asking where they kept the prune juice so I could move my bowels.
Time passed with thankfully few “ma’am” incidents. But just before I turned 40, people started calling me “ma’am” again. It was too frequent to ignore. I was still a blond hippie who danced and drank at concerts, but I was staring down MIDDLE AGE. How could they tell? Every time I heard “Thank you, Ma’am,” I’d think they were really saying, “I don’t have the slightest urge to have sex with you” or “I’d never be friends with you in a zillion years – because you’re old.”
Neurotic? Indeed! Unwarranted? Probably! Ego-reducing? Definitely! So I acted like a crazy lady and started calling people on it.
“You know, you shouldn’t call someone ma’am unless they have white hair and use a cane,” I counseled one young woman at a pharmacy. “And maybe not even then.”
“I was trained by work to be respectful, ma’am,” she said by way of apology.
To the guy who called me “ma’am” at a grocery store, I said, “I know you’re trying to be nice, but ma’am makes women feel old.”
“Ah, I hate when people call me ‘sir,’ too. What should we say instead of ‘ma’am’?”
“Honestly, just not saying anything would be better.”
But it made me think: what would I prefer being called to “ma’am”? I’d heard “miss” a few times and thought that was slightly better, but it’s pretty formal, too. Adding the extra consonant to the original word “madam” is cool since it calls to mind tough broads running brothels in the Wild West, but could seem pretentious. Was “goddess” too much to hope for? They’re starting to call 40-and 50-something women who eschew mom jeans for yoga pants “perennials,” but I doubt that’s going to take off in greetings anytime soon.
Now I’m facing down 45, and I’ve stopped correcting people who call me “ma’am.” There are such bigger fish to fry in the grand scheme of things. I’ve endured enough health scares and deaths of loved ones and presidential elections to put true problems into perspective. I barely flinch when someone “ma’ams” me, though I also leave ridiculously large tips for anyone who cards me. (Sadly, this happens much less frequently than being called “ma’am.”)
But thanks to a recent experience, I think I’m done flinching for good. I went to pick up a to-go order from a restaurant, and a girl of 10 or 11 was waiting ahead of me. Her hair was pulled back into neat pigtails. It seemed strange to see someone so young by herself, but she smiled and nodded at me as if I’d just entered a board meeting, the picture of poise.
A guy in his early 20s rushed out of the kitchen and bagged her food. As she paid for her order, he looked her in the eyes and said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Chin high, she responded, “Have a nice day” and strode out the door. I looked at the server in wonder. “How old do you think she was?” “Oh man, she couldn’t have been more than 11, right? She knew what she was doing!”
Then he handed me my bag of food and said, “Sorry for the wait, ma’am.”
I just smiled and left him a huge tip, knowing I was in good company.