“Thank you, Ma’am. You have a good one.” The 20-something gate guard hands me my ID card and I drive on through. At the military installation where I work, everyone must show a military ID card in order to enter the base. The gate guard may be military or civilian, but the greeting always contains a “Ma’am” – and that’s just fine with me. Ma’am, after all, is the polite term of address for a grown-up female human whose name one does not know. And at 50, I’m certainly a grown-up female human.
I’m aware that some of my fellow grown-up female humans object to this term of address, saying “It makes me feel old,” or some such silly twaddle. What would you prefer: Honey, Miss, or perhaps Young Lady? Please, my sisters, get a grip.
A few years back, I was dining with my parents, my daughter, and my ex in one of those obnoxious chain restaurants – let’s call it “Blue Sparrow.” Our waiter was forty if he was a day, and when he approached our table, electronic order pad in hand, he purred greasily, “Now what can I get you young ladies?” I looked over at my daughter, the only young lady present at our table. No, he wasn’t addressing her. He was talking to my mother and me.
“Excuse me?” I inquired, my left eyebrow – the snarky one – reaching for my hairline.
“What would you lovely young ladies like to drink?” he oozed at Mom and me.
Now, this is not the first time that I’ve encountered this disrespectful, slimy, angling-for-a-bigger tip tactic, but for some reason I was especially offended this time. Even as I fought for control, I felt my eyes squinch, my lip curl and my hackles rise.
“This grown woman will have an ice tea,” I snarled at him. He was clearly taken aback – the poor schmuck seemed to have no clue what he’d done wrong, but he could see his fat tip melting away.
“Mom!” my gorgeous daughter poked me after he left. “That was mean!” My mother just laughed. She and Dad told me about the patronizing language and tone they so often encountered: “You young folks, you dears, you sweeties, you kids…” Salesmen, clerks, cashiers and waiters felt justified in treating my dignified, educated, grown-up parents, both in their early 70s, as if they were children. Unbelievable!
Alas, I’ve seldom been blessed with a quick retort when insulted, but here’s what I should have said to the waiter, in front of his manager, back then:
I find your patronizing tone offensive. I am obviously not a ‘young lady,’ and neither is my mother. We don’t buy your phony flattery, which is clearly intended to get a bigger tip from us – but you won’t get a tip by insulting your customers. Let’s look at the assumption behind your comment, shall we? You think that young is better than old, and that we’ll be flattered if you refer to us as ‘young.’ As it turns out, we’re both perfectly content to be the age we are – 48 and 70 are both lovely ages to be. Young is not better than old, nor is old better than young. Any age that a person happens to be is a perfectly fine age to be. And the proper way to address an adult female customer is Ma’am. Now please send us a different server – you’ve spoiled my appetite.”
I live in Germany now, and one thing I enjoy about this culture is the polite formality of business transactions here. My doctor’s receptionist does not call me by my first name; she calls me “Frau S-.” So do clerks, salespeople – anyone who is conducting any kind of business with me. I appreciate the sense of respect that comes with this old-fashioned politeness. We’re not pals, after all – I’m your client, your patient, your customer. And if you treat me politely, I’ll be your repeat customer. Thanks for calling me Ma’am.