Being ma’amed isn’t parallel to a guy getting sirred (I went ahead and added an “r” because otherwise it would be sired and that’s a whole other thing). Sir is always either polite and deferential, (“Right this way, Sir”), hostile and sarcastic-polite (“Yes, Sir, Mr. Total Dickhead!”) or indicative of Knightood, as in Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Ma’am, a contraction of Madam, on the other hand, may have started out as a polite way to address a married woman, but has come to mean I wouldn’t dream of having sex with you.
I was in an airport in the Deep South for my first time, and the boy who ma’amed me couldn’t have been more than 15. It is still considered good manners to use ma’am down there, pretty much to anyone older than you or any woman you’re not hitting on. I was only 35, but to him that must have seemed as old as Dick Cheney. He was taking my pizza order and asked, “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”
“Did you…what did you call…me MA’AM?” I coughed. Then, laughing (I thought) breezily, I told him to (ha ha!) watch it. I must have had a bit of a demonic look in my eye because he just gave me my change and didn’t say anything else. Not even “Thank you.”
Rebecca, a kindred Formerly out in Laguna Beach (thank you, Rebecca, for reminding me of the trauma of being ma’amed–I’d blocked it out) says she gets ma’amed not infrequently now and it never ceases to shock her. “I just turned 40 and I have two little kids with me and I’m at a supermarket. Who am I kidding? I’m a ma’am.”Ã‚Â It’s part of the whole Formerly phenom–your young groovy insides haven’t been keeping pace with your outsides, which are, in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy from Arkansas or a bagger at a grocery at least, the epitome of all that is ma’amorific in this world.
One solution could be to never leave New York, where most men are pretty well trained not to ma’am anyone who doesn’t have visible grandchildren. You still have to educate the newbies, however. My family and I went out to Ikea in Brooklyn a couple of months ago, and this nice young man from South Carolina (oh, God: calling someone a young man is sign number 768 that you’re a Formerly) said the lighting department was “Just up the escalator, ma’am.” He was so sweet and had a mouthful of braces and cornrows, I just had to bring him up to speed.
I said, “Look, I’m going to give you a tip: I can tell you’re from the South, but up here, women who may still think they’re maybe young–even if they’re kind of not–don’t like to be called ma’am. If I were you, I’d err on the side of “miss,” even if you’re pretty sure they’re married and have kids.”
“Oh, no, I have to call them ma’am. It’s what my mama taught me and my brothers. That’s the way you show respect,” he said. “I couldn’t not say ‘ma’am.'”
“I hear you, but in New York, part of showing respect is respecting people’s vanity, and pretending that they’re not old, you know?” I said.
“I guess I do, yes, ma’am.”
Right. I’ll look in lighting for some other bright ideas.