The Civilized Minute

a minute of manners and musings

yeah, i hate it when people are nice to me, too

The New York Times recently published an article that, at first, made me mad. Then it made me sad. Then it made me glad I am as old as I am. That means I have lived enough of my life to be at this point – the point at which I can blog about it!

The article, which you can read by clicking here, brought to the reader’s attention that many women are offended by the word ma’am. 

A professor at Pennsylvania State University is quoted as saying “she cringes and feels weird” when students use the word in her classroom. If she buckles at ma’am, I wonder how she feels about the word crap.

The article goes on to use a woman from the current political scene along with primetime TV show characters as examples of ladies, well, females, who dislike the term and view it as offensive. First, I must dispute the use of TV show characters as figures whose behaviors and opinions we should take seriously.  I hate to state the obvious, but they are not real people. Second, the remark made by Senator Barbara Boxer to a brigadier general during a hearing wasn’t an indication of her opinion of the word ma’am. It was an indication of her (rather inflated) opinion of herself. You see, she was unhappy that she was addressed as ‘ma’am’, rather than ‘senator’. So, the NYT article quotes her as saying, “I worked so hard to get that title,”…“so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.” Now, why exactly, did you run for office, Senator? Business etiquette tip of the day: Never give yourself an honorific.

One point the article makes that I can not argue is this: being called ma’am can make you feel…well…dated.  Recently, I was chatting with a young teacher at my children’s school. I don’t remember what I said to prompt her reply, but she said, very casually, “Yes, ma’am”. Like a ton of bricks, it hit me. I hear it from my kids and their friends, but it is still shocking to hear it from someone I view as my cohort. My contemporary. My age. Given the apparent size –2 jeans she was wearing and her yet-to-appear crows feet, she is clearly not my age and I’m ok with that. I just prefer not to be reminded. I joked back to her that she “better not” call me ma’am. Honestly, I regret those words because I made her feel uncomfortable. So, just to make sure we are on the same page: She said something I didn’t love to hear, so I said something she didn’t love to hear. Well, that’s productive. Don’t I tell my children not to do things like this?

The irony is actually funny.  We act like children when someone says something that makes us feel old.

So, did I leave insulted? No. I might have had a little ponytail envy, but I wasn’t insulted.

Here’s the sitch (that’s young person talk for situation): when someone uses the word ma’am, they are simply being nice.  They are not announcing how old you are or how much you weigh; they are not implying you are behind-the-times in your viewpoints and abilities.  They are just. being. nice. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. That’s really all there is to it.

September is National Good Manners Month, ladies.  Participate.


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