A few weeks ago, I went to Chipotle for lunch with a co-worker. I knew exactly what I wanted. Steak. A bowl full of yummy steak, sprinkled with black beans and brown rice. MMMMMM. As the teenager dished up my food, all I could think about what how delicious this bowl of yumminess would be. As he sprinkled it with shredded lettuce and cheese and I selected between the assortment salsas for my chips,I really paid no attention to anyone or anything else.
As soon as we sat down, my coworker (who was also my student teaching supervisor almost 10 years ago) said, "I'll try not to take offense to that." Bewildered, I asked what on earth she was talking about? I had been so excited for my steak bowl, that I hadn't realized if I was being offensive in some way.
"The kid. Behind the counter. He call YOU darlin' and he called ME ma'am," she said with a pout. I laughed it off because I hadn't even noticed. "No, really," she said. "Why do you suppose he called you darlin and me ma'am????"
Not only had I not noticed, but I didn't have a good explanation for her.
After enjoying two cherry cokes and my entire bag of crispy tortilla chips, we wove our way through the crowded lunch area to leave, the kid was carrying some used trays of food, and he said, "Excuse, me darlin," to me, and then a few seconds later, "Excuse me ma'am." to her.
Growing up, my mom, a true Texan, insisted that we respond to her with 'Yes ma'am' or 'No ma'am' if we were in trouble. She would force us to say it in response to a command or a firm reminder if we were misbehaving, especially in public. In Missouri, it is uncommon that a student would ever call me ma'am....and I rarely hear anyone say ma'am except in formal situations or in public.
The logic behind the offensiveness of "ma'am" is, from what I can tell, that it's code for "old woman." Most official definitions will tell you that it refers to a woman who is married or has kids, and it seems to me that many people who use the label simply apply it to all adult women. (It's also worth noting that "old enough to be married and have kids" means different things in different parts of the country.) I'm told that in some areas, you become a "ma'am" as young as 15 or 16. But if you're not from one of these places, "ma'am" means that you've crossed some invisible line dividing you from "miss."
Obviously, my co-worker wasn't raised with a Texas momma, so she took offense to being referred to as ma'am.
While I cast no judgment upon the women who think this way—after all, when there are whole industries built upon making you feel bad about every wrinkle, it's an understandable mindset—I reject this, at least where "ma'am" is concerned. After all, what is the alternative? "Miss"?
In college, I worked with a woman who dealt with a lot of gruff old men who brought their rebuilt hot rods and formerly wrecked mini vans for inspection. It was her job to crawl under the cars, climb inside, and peak in and around the engine for part numbers and she was very knowledgeable about car parts, she was also very firm with the mechanics and had to make sure they were following the law. Nancy wore a brown uniform and carried a red tool box. She had a long silver telescoping mirror she would use to inspect vehicles and part numbers. Often, she would roll under the vehicles on a brown wooden scooter. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
She watched Andy Griffith every day at noon, and was the first person to show me how to eat a fresh pomegranate. She had a soft, quiet demeanor most of the time. I remember Nancy ranting about those men with their piles of paper work and VIN numbers. I'm sure they were trying to sweet talk her into bending the law, which she never did.
On a daily basis, the men would call Nancy 'miss' or 'little lady' or the completely infuriating (to her) 'hon'. I tended not to notice the pronouns that particularly incensed Nancy when they were applied to me, but occasionally if a someone calls me ma'am, it does take me aback.
Am I really old enough to be called ma'am? I'm torn between being offended (because it means I am old) and recognizing it as a sign of respect and appreciating it.
I suppose as I get older, I will hear ma'am more frequently, but I guess I will just appreciate the 'darlin' for now. Sorry Mrs. Clark, ma'am.
This is my 'slice of life' blog.
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