The other day, I found 15 extra minutes in the morning and used it to blow dry my hair and dab on some concealer and gloss. I also managed to squeeze into a pair of my pre-pregnancy jeans. So I was feeling F-I-N-E fine when I strode into my coffee place, only to have my self-image shattered moments later by a barista’s thoughtlessly cruel question.
“Would you like anything else, ma’am?” she asked.
Just hearing myself referred to as a "ma’am" deflated me like sad balloon. I instantly went from hot mama to frumpy old hag.
Now, I realize that as a married woman, I technically am a ma’am. But that doesn’t make it OK with me. Maybe it’s that “ma’am” conjures images of grandmas complaining to customer service. Maybe it’s that “ma’am” always seems to be uttered with an annoyed tone of voice. Maybe it’s that no one ever addresses someone they think is sexy as “ma’am.”
It doesn’t matter that “Miss” passed me by about 10 years, one marriage and two kids ago. “Miss” is a young lady with a life full of possibilities. “Miss” is who I will always be in my heart. “Miss” will get you a big tip and a huge smile, people. (Seriously, I don’t know why more customer service departments don’t train people in the art of a little harmless flattery—it really does get you everywhere!)
Ironically, I would be fine with the more formal “Madam,” which seems very polite, yet slightly naughty, since it’s also the name for the proprietress of a brothel.
Where I'm from, it's called respect.
I’ll admit, not every woman feels as negatively as I do about the M word. In my informal survey of moms around the U.S., I’d say about half are totally cool with being ma’am-ed, particularly if they are southerners, mid-westerners, military spouses or teachers. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“Where I'm from, it's called respect. My teenage daughters and my 6-year-old son refer to anyone they don't know, and most certainly those they do, as 'ma'am' or 'sir.' No matter the person's age.” — Tami M, 36, Oklahoma
“I've been called 'ma'am' for a long time now. Doesn't bother me as I think it's a sign of respect. Besides, I've been called worse.” — Renee A., 53, Indiana
“I don't care what you call me—just don't call me late for dinner. 'Ma'am' has never bothered me. Manners are like seasoning; sprinkle it everywhere.” – Christie M., 40, Texas
"I don't mind. I admit that the first time I heard a young man call me 'ma'am,' it shocked me and I almost didn't know how to respond. But then I decided that it's nice that this young man has some manners." — Kristel A., 31, Florida
“I have reclaimed the word. 'Ma'am' = Middle Aged Awesome Mom. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.” — Sheila Q., 47, Illinois
By saying 'ma'am' you're insisting on aging me.
But the other half of the women I surveyed—many of them coastal moms—are far less enamored with being called ma’am:
“People who call me 'ma'am' suck. Because I still feel like a 'miss'! And by saying 'ma'am' you're insisting on aging me. And, let's be honest, 39 isn't that old.” — Heather S., 39, New York
"I hate it. I think every boy should be taught to only call women 'miss' lol. EVEN WHEN THEY'RE 85." — Eve P., 34, Connecticut
“Once I turned 40, I decided it was time to accept that I'm ‘ma'am.’ I still flinch though when I hear it and I'm sure a look of sheer horror flashes across my face!” — Libby M., 42, Pennsylvania
“It makes me cringe. At least call me ‘queen.’” — Meredith G., 46, California
"Whenever someone calls me 'ma'am,' it's like a wake-up call that I'm old. You can make someone's day by calling them 'miss' and ruin it by calling them 'ma'am.'" — Lisa H., 50, California
“It doesn't bother me as much if it's from someone older than me who probably calls everyone that. If it's someone my age or younger—rage.” — Sarah C., 33, Missouri
In conclusion, "ma’am" may be correct, but it's also an honorific that makes many of us feel neither honored nor terrific.
So to the baristas, sales clerks and waiters of the world, here’s a suggestion: If we are in Georgia and you are carrying a mint julep, “ma’am” is completely appropriate and I will not be insulted. Ditto if you are a soldier or a small boy from the past. Otherwise, I would prefer “miss” but will accept “Yo,” “Dude” or “Miss Jackson” if you’re nasty. Thank you.