I had the shock of my life the other day.
I was at a Labor Day church picnic having a nice chat with an older woman I had met the Sunday before.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Only about a month.”
“And you’ll be going to the university here?” she asked me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“Oh, goodness, don’t call me ‘ma’am.’ It makes me feel old! Just call me Bonnie”
“…” I stood there, staring at her, mouth gaping and eyes unblinking like a beached trout.
I was raised in a household and, in fact, a region of the country where it is always, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” If I were to have ever called someone older than me and/or in a position of authority by their first name, I would get smacked. The exception was if there was a title or something in front of it. It has really stuck with me. There are people I have known for more than 20 years who are still “Miss A” or “Dr B”.
“I always brought up my kids to call people by their first names and to keep things casual, you know. That’s how we do it in the big city,” Bonnie said condescendingly. “However, I can see it from your point of view. To some people, calling people by their first names might appear rude.”
Hmm..maybe because it is? If a kid came up to me and called me by my first name and their parents did not correct them, I would immediately suspect some sort of defect in the parental unit. What other liberties do you allow your child? Do they get their own packet of matches and pair of scissors to do with as they will? Are they allowed only one hour of slasher movies before bed? Can they ride their bike in the street at night, but only if they don’t wear a helmet?
I really don’t get it. When it comes down to it, titles are all about respect. By calling you “ma’am” I am starting off our relationship by showing you that I have respect for both your age and your position in the community. I’m not calling you “ma’am” because I am acting under the assumption that a woman of your age must be married and that you are only defined by your marital status! I bet you’re one of those sets who think that when men hold open doors or help ladies to their seats that they are somehow flaunting the triumph of the patriarchy and passive-aggressively trying to dominate the womyn they are performing these actions for.
This is exactly why society is the way it is. No one has any respect for anyone else anymore. I don’t care where you’re living: Big city or not, respect goes a long way and is necessary element in any social situation. Contrary to popular belief, having manners is not indicative of being a slave to a patriarchal hierarchy or being stuck in the past. Can’t I call you “ma’am” and say, “Would you be so kind as to pass the salt?” and have a door opened for me and everyone be OK with it?
Well, Bonnie? Well?!
Actually, what I ended up saying was, “Oh, I do apologize, Bonnie. So how about this weather we’ve been having lately?”
But in my head, I called her “ma’am.”