By Kathleen Purvis
“Ma’am” has cost me many things in my life. It cost me precious time in my youth, in every exchange that involved a reply to my mother. We followed the standard Southern script, repeated more often than “please,” “thank you,” and the name of Jesus:
Answers to my father followed the same script, except for the threat of a backhanding if we skipped the requisite “sir.”
I never questioned it, and it didn’t need to be explained. Every person who isn’t your age or younger is older than you, and until you’re in your 20s, that’s a good percentage of the world’s population. No matter what the age difference, any person older than you required “ma’am” or “sir” on any occasion that involved opening your mouth without putting food in it.
There were other times when “ma’am” or “sir” was either required or just plain handy. If you didn’t know a person well enough to know if they wanted to be called Mrs. So-and-So, Aunt Family-Friend or Miss Insert-First-Name-Here, you fell back on “ma’am.” If you needed to catch the attention of a waitress or a sales clerk, “ma’am” came out a whole lot nicer than “Hey, you.”
“Ma’am” was both a sign of respect and a handy honorific, safe in any time and circumstance.
And then, “ma’am” turned on me. Maybe it happened in the 1970s, when a rethinking of power dynamics and language swept the culture. Or maybe it was just that I was in my 20s in the ’70s, so it was the first time I stumbled on it.
But somewhere along the way, “ma’am” became a four-letter word.
Women decided “ma’am” — an acceptable shortening of “madam” or “madame” since at least the 1660s — was a heinous crime, focusing attention on a woman’s age in a live-forever youth culture and her marital status in a self-supporting world.
“Ma’am” even cost me one of my first real writing jobs as a cub reporter at a small daily paper in Florida. Like most small, family-owned newspapers, the place had more cutthroat politics than “Dynasty,” including a senior female reporter who worked at home to keep her vitriol from dissolving the skin of younger co-workers.
Sent to her beachfront condo to pick up some copy one day, my editor coached me carefully: Whatever you do, don’t make her angry. I balanced on the edge of my chair as she kept me waiting uncomfortably while she “did” her face in the bathroom and hurled questions about my credentials through the open door.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered one question, using the most respectful tone I could manage and the language I’d been taught to trust in any situation when I didn’t know the social rules.
Lady Godzilla turned to me, face half-daubed with foundation, a dragon-like gleam in her eye.
“What did you call me? I don’t take back-talk like that.”
Back-talk? Using “ma’am” with someone who was, without question or judgment, older than my own 19 years was back-talk? I noted her accent, with its New England tinge, and put it down as another time when I didn’t speak the same language as a lot of my neighbors in South Florida, a place geographically Southern but culturally anywhere but.
I tried to explain it’s just how we talked where I came from. And got a “Where are you from?” hurled back.
I’d had enough. I lashed back: “I guess where people are raised better.”
Wrong answer. By the time I was back at the office, she had notified my editor I was mouthy and had an attitude. I was soon looking for another job, with a new understanding of the prickly nature of age issues.
As the years unspooled, poor “ma’am” picked up even more baggage. Women shriek and sink from it as proof they’re becoming their mothers. People of color stand against it (understandably) as a relic of an era when anyone who was white was a boss and addressed as such. Instead of a sign of respect, it’s litmus paper for the baggage Southerners carry.
“Sir” doesn’t seem to have the same ability to set off age wars. I’ve “sirred” all my life, but never gotten anything more than a nod of appreciation (and maybe expectation). Sorry, world, but it’s true: Men get to be elder statesmen; women just get to be old.
In 2010, “ma’am” became a full-fledged news kerfuffle when then-U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer rejoined a brigadier general who had addressed her as “ma’am”: “Could you say senator instead of ‘ma’am’?”
I could see Boxer’s point. Senator, she noted, was a title she had worked hard to earn. But I could see Gen. Michael Walsh’s, too: In the military, every ranking officer who isn’t a “sir, yes sir” is a “ma’am, yes ma’am.”
I absorbed the mixed nature of “ma’am” in ways I didn’t realize. While I continued to use it, and certainly kept it whenever I was in the presence of an older Southern relative, I also found myself conflicted.
When my son was born into a world I like to think is becoming more egalitarian, he pushed back when I tried to engrain him with it. It was too old-fashioned, too much a part of a Southern heritage that made him uncomfortable. It was too much of an assumption that a person deserves respect for doing nothing more than stacking up years.
Seeing his point, I didn’t ride him hard on it. Why send him into the world encoded with language that will bring him unanticipated trip wires?
When I crossed over from the age of street whistles to the age of respect, I did try to resist the inevitable controversy over ma’am. I embraced “Ms.” with no hesitation and kept my own last name when I married, but I also promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those women who define their self-worth by getting offended over a simple courtesy title.
Once I entered my 50s, though, I started to think about the implications of “ma’am” and any conversation that involves age. There is a point now being hammered home that my own age is something I’m supposed to regret and try to hide, as much as I’m supposed to duck “ma’am.” When I bring up my age — as a sign of pride, of survival, of rueful humor — younger friends are quick to shush me: You’re not old. You shouldn’t say that.
Why the hell not? I’m earned every wrinkle and silver hair. Age is a badge that just means “I was smart and lucky enough to stay alive.” If I admit my age and you don’t, which one of us is really saying there’s something wrong with getting older? If ma’am is an insult instead of deference, what are you saying about your own fear of aging?
“Ma’am” isn’t a sign I’m leaving. It’s a sign I’ve arrived and gotten comfortable, right here in my own slightly baggy skin.
Instead of treating “ma’am” as a commentary on what people think of us, maybe we ought to disarm it by embracing it, as a nicer way of saying there’s nothing wrong with looking 30, or 40, or 50.
I am ma’am, hear me roar. Especially if you call me “Hey, you.”