How are you today, sir? Back from vacation, sir? Can I help you, ma’am? Oral English seems to require a title of address after certain greetings and interrogatories. When a female is addressed, these little words camouflage a whirl of social complexity.
My grandfather called my friends and me missy when we were little. As a teenager I was proud when a sales person handed me my package and said, “Thank you, miss!” (Of course, I also had the car keys, then!) And thus it went through high school and college, as miss gradually morphed into Ms.
Then I got married and moved from Michigan to Texas. I stopped at the grocery store to fill the pantry, and the checker, a long tall guy about my age, handed me my change and intoned, “Thanks for stoppin’ in, ma’am. Y’all have fun with your green pepper now, ya heah?”
The green pepper remark flew over my head. Did he really call me ma’am? How old do I look?! Does the wedding ring age me 30 years?!
By the time I got the groceries home, I had calmed down enough to realize that ma’am and sir are deeply ingrained in the South and his comment was polite, not derogatory. But years later, I still remember how it felt to be forcibly moved into the next age group.
With husband and children in tow, I eventually settled into ma’am-hood. I smiled at the WWII veterans who called me young lady because to them, I was. Some of them were my father’s friends. My staff calls me ma’am, and tradespeople use Mrs., which I counter by saying they should use my first name.
Now I’m beginning to see the issue from the other end. I am now a grandmother, and while that biological progression doesn’t necessarily denote old age, I certainly bristled when the baggage handler cheerily asked, “Can I take that for you, honey?” Perhaps it wasn’t so much the title as it was the smiling assumption I couldn’t lift my backpack. Or maybe he was just working for a tip.
But that doesn’t explain the waitress who cocked her head, put her hand on my shoulder, and asked, “Would you like some coffee, dear?” Two feelings arose in that moment: that I should be leaning on a walker, and that if I were, I’d bean her with it.
How about you? What does miss mean to you? Who would you call ma’am? Does honey have a place north of the Mason-Dixon line? Particularly with a Northern accent?
Maybe the Canadians have it right, eh?