If you call her `ma'am,' she might hear `grandma'

Long a gesture of respect, now it's a comment on age


July 10, 2005|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,HARTFORD COURANT

When Lauren Brody was growing up in suburban Atlanta, families in her neighborhood had "ma'am jars." If a child neglected to address his or her mother in a "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am" manner, he or she had to put money in the jar.

One wonders just how much change Southern mothers made off their children with these "ma'am jars." Probably not enough to buy a soda.

Ma'am - and to a lesser extent, "sir" - is a manner that divides North and South. People in the South were generally brought up using the nicety; so much so that it's instinctive no matter the age of the woman being addressed. Folks up North, for the most part, can get along very nicely without it.

But more than just a North-vs.-South thing, is "ma'am" also divided between yesterday and today? Is it an old-fashioned greeting that has worn out its welcome? A sincere term of respect that has become almost insulting?

Yes, sir, it seems so. Take a look at the recent television commercial in which a youngish woman chortles over the fact that her friend was called "ma'am" by a young man. "You just got ma'am-ed," she jokes, barely able to conceal her glee. The ma'am-ed woman looks mystified and slightly hurt.

Recently, on the "Today" show, American Idol runner-up Bo Bice "ma'am-ed" anchor Campbell Brown and "sir-ed" Matt Lauer. Both appeared uneasy with the greeting; Brown even joked about being called ma'am.

Ma'am appears to be a casualty, a once-automatic gesture whose presence may go the way of the petticoat.

"I'm from the South, and I understand the conflict," said Brody, senior features editor for Glamour magazine. "The typical Glamour reader does not want to be called ma'am. Not now, not ever.

"First of all, ma'am desexualizes you. It instantly turns you into a grandma. We're a sex-crazed culture and a youth-crazed culture. Nobody wants to be outed as being middle-aged," Brody said. "If you think of Edie on Desperate Housewives or Samantha on Sex and the City having some young man call them `ma'am,' you better believe they'd find a way to prove him wrong."

Time was you could separate misses from ma'ams quite easily. Not anymore. "It used to be that at age 40, we were chopping off our hair and getting multiple sweater sets," Brody said. "At 40, maybe you're still single and dating. We're doing things later in life today - getting married later, having kids later. I think that most women find `ma'am' incredibly aging."

Ma'am touches not just age issues but class issues. "I think `ma'am' makes some women feel like the maid or domestic servant," said etiquette doyenne Letitia Baldrige.

Which might make an even stronger argument to retire ma'am.

Baldrige says it's only a matter of time. "It's a changing society. When the old-timers die off, the new ones won't use it. It will die off eventually," she said. "Manners are dying to begin with. In the race to be equal, we're losing genuine kindness and consideration of one another."

Is yes-ma'am or no-ma'am simply splitting hairs?

"I don't care what people call me, as long as they call," joked Connecticut-based marketer and event promoter Harriet Dobin. "I'll be ma'am or mom or Harriet or Mitzi - my husband's nickname for me - Ms. Dobin or Mrs. Fischer - my husband's name. You can `yes ma'am,' or `no ma'am' me any day. I'm happy to be here, happy to be alive and well to hear it. It's when I can't hear anymore that I'll worry."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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