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“Don’t Call Me Ma’am!” [Oh, It’s Tuesday]

Like many women raised by women from the south, I am not all that formal with friends, but I try to be unfailingly polite to strangers. I don’t expect the same from others. In fact, I consider the French person’s and New Yorker’s infamous skills for being rude to people they don’t know, to be both curious and delightful. While I was in Paris, my heart nearly exploded with anthropological glee the first time a French person acted rudely toward me — the shop clerk at an expensive mustard shop called the next person in line forward after I said, “I’m trying to decide between this kind of mustard and that kind of mustard.” Then after checking him out, she huffily offered me two small bread sticks dipped in both kinds of mustard. The whole experience was truly amazing and made me feel like Jane Goodall.

However, there is one kind of stranger rudeness that I just can’t abide. Often, when I need to get a stranger’s attention, I address him or her as either “sir” or “ma’am” respectively. I’ve never had a man answer me in any way but cordially. However, I’ve had 4 or 5 woman huff and say, “Don’t call me ma’am!”

The latest incident came a couple of Tuesdays ago at yoga of all places. “Excuse me, ma’am?” I said, trying to get a fellow yogi’s attention.

“Don’t call me ma’am!” she snapped.

“Sorry,” I answered. “I was just hoping we could switch places, so that I can be next to my friend.”

Looking injured that I had dared to call her ma’am. She switched places with me without a word, not even a “you’re welcome” when I thanked her for doing so.

Now that I think back on that exchange, I somewhat wish instead of “sorry” I had said, “Why not?”

“Because I’m not a ma’am,” I imagine her saying. “I’m not old.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that ‘ma’am’ was anything but a form of polite address. Also, I didn’t realize that being old was a a pejorative. I’m quite happily aging, and I don’t consider it an insult to be addressed formally.”

I’m not sure how woman who say “Don’t call me ma’aam” want to be addressed by people who don’t know their names. And quite frankly, I don’t see why I should be expected to tiptoe around their issue with growing older. But then again, I’m the type of person who answers, “Are you serious?” when I ask another woman how old she is, and she answers, “I don’t tell people my age.”

I’m interested to hear how the rest of you feel about this. Do you have any issues with being called “ma’am” or “sir”? And if so, how do you think you should be addressed by people who don’t know your name but need to get your attention.