One day as I was crossing Michigan Avenue, I heard a woman’s voice from behind me shouting “Ma’am! Ma’am! You dropped your scarf!” It wasn’t until I heard “scarf” that I realized she was talking to ME, and that indeed the scarf I’d worn that day was no longer around my neck. But I was mortified that she referred to me as “ma’am” instead of “miss”! When did I turn into a “ma’am”?
I think the first thing I noticed was that “Miss” generally doesn’t wear neck scarves – except the bulky type to keep warm in winter. Misses don’t wear the type of flat, rubber-soled, practical shoes like I was wearing. Generally, they are obviously younger (under 30) women – in stiletto heels, short, tight clothes, with trendy handbags. Though I’m one year away from my AARP membership, I’m lucky enough to look 5-10 years younger than the age indicated by the birth date on my driver’s license. But like most women my age, I dress for comfort rather than style and fashion – a sure sign of “ma’am-dom”!
My informal research on this topic included asking my friends and associates “When do you call a female “Miss” versus “Ma’am”? Most hadn’t given the issue a conscious thought. Neither had they noticed or remembered which term was used when someone addressed THEM. So my thought-provoking questions included: Do you call someone you perceive as younger or who is obviously younger than you “Ma’am”? Do you call someone who is perceived as or obviously OLDER than you “Miss”? One of the responses I’ve received so far, was based on culture. “Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am” was used extensively in and by her family. It was a sign of respect for one’s elder – related or not. (Note: “Elder” is a major component here). By contrast, the women in my immediate and extended family had a very distinct dislike for the term so it was banned from use. (YIKES! Have I somehow inherited their dislike?) No matter how old a woman was, if she wasn’t an “Auntie” but close enough to the family to BE one, she was referred to as “Miss So-ï¿½n’-so”. And now, as I’m dating a man with children in their early 20s and young grandchildren, and we’ve started discussing marriage, we are starting to discuss what they will call me. He’s insisting they call me “Miss”. That’s fine – I’ve been childfree all my life so I’m not ready to be called “Mom” and certainly not “Grandma”!
Oh well, as I approach senior-hood, I guess “ma’am-dom” is one of those stepping stones along the way. But in my mind, the journey is right up there with keeping the gray hair hidden for a while longer!!! My contribution to the “Miss” versus “Ma’am” dilemma is to refer to EVERY woman – regardless of perceived or obvious age – as “Miss”. One reason is because it is MY preference to be called that. The other is because it makes my day when someone calls me “Miss” (or, OHMYGOSH – “young lady”, usually by someone who looks or I perceive old enough to be my father or mother!). So perhaps I can make some woman’s day (and HAVE) by calling her “Miss” or “Young Lady” instead of “Ma’am”.
Sidebar: While writing this, I turned the TV to “Lake Placid”. It had already started but was still near the beginning. There’s a scene of a verbal confrontation between a 25-ish young woman (Bridget Fonda) and the local sheriff who looks to be 35-ish. He refers to her as “Ma’am”. She responds angrily “DON’T call me ma’am!”
Back in my early, mid, even late 30s, if someone had called me “Ma’am” I would have been as angry (and mortified) as she was! And I think any young woman would. They have that right. Aging is hard enough without others ï¿½aging’ you before your time. And I’m having difficulty realizing that the time has come. I guess I became a “Ma’am” around the same time I realized I was turning into my mother! But that’s another story!