Question: What do these three ladies have in common?
- A Southern grandmother tending her wisteria
- The Queen of England
(If you guessed something having to do with hats, you’re wrong).
Answer: We should be addressed as “ma’am.”
I’ve heard all the excuses and protests from my modern New England neighbors. “It makes me feel old; just call me Judy!” says a 50-yr old mother to her teenager’s one friend with any manners (the ignorant kid just moved here from Nashville). “It’s so formal – don’t be so old-fashioned!” declares an authority figure at an elementary school. By all means, let the little urchins verbally trample your dignity. They never recognized you had any anyway.
Sometimes I’m tempted to head south on I-95 until I get to a town where even the kid passing my French fries through the drive-through window calls me “ma’am.” I LOVE it. It speaks to a certain order in the world, a blanket of decency and respect that we can all sit on while we sip sweet tea.
I started answering to “ma’am” when I was 22 and I’ve never grown tired of it. As an Ensign in the US Navy, I was the lowest of the low among the officer ranks – wet behind the ears, a complete novice, a junior officer who was more junior than officer. And yet – I was “ma’am” and “Miss McTaggart” all the time. There’s a certain comfort in being afforded the respect of your position.
Sometimes I hear Southerners criticized for being hypocrites: “They are so sweet to your face!” “They act so nice when they don’t even like you.” Yes! This is exactly the idea. Please apply to teenagers.
Act nice even though you don’t like me! Be polite when you’re seething inside from combination of hormones and righteous anger! Call me “ma’am” when you feel like calling me, well, anything unprintable. Other sins will be forgiven.
If you’ve been told to be authentic and truthful, that’s a lie! Act nice. Be polite. Who says it’s what’s on the inside that matters? I say keep it in there. No one wants to see it or hear it.
Sometimes the words we choose aren’t reflections of our current attitudes, but predictions of our future ones. It’s hard to craft a sentence using “ma’am” or “sir” that also includes a swear word. Try it. See? Proper clothing has the same effect. I’m convinced to this day that the military insists on uniforms not because they look good, but because being pressed and starched and spit-shined makes a motley crew of 18-yr old boys behave more like men. Most of the time.
Every once in a while, I’m delighted to hear someone use the “m” word. Good for them. Cling to tradition. Remember that it’s what’s on the outside that counts. To use a Southern expression, put some lipstick on that pig! It may still be a pig, but it’ll be a pig you can dress up and introduce to the Queen of England.