I am the second oldest child of Mr. and Mrs. Ruffin. They taught their four children to call adults Mr. or Mrs., but never encouraged us to use the words, “sir” or “ma’am”. As an adult, right out of college I called my co-workers Mr. or Ms. …until they told me to stop. But I would often continue to call them Mr. or Mrs., to their chagrin. Today, I really understand that old axiom … what goes around comes around is smacking me in the face.
There was a woman that did the weather at the TV station where I worked in Cincinnati I was a 20-year-old college graduate. I used to watch her on television when I was a kid, so I called her Mrs. Hardwick…either out of respect or just because I just could not bring myself to call her by her first name, Maxine.
It was the same with my high school gym teacher, Mrs. Sanders. We both attend the same church. For awhile there, whenever I ran into her I would say “Hello Mrs. Sanders”. One day she pulled me aside and said, “You can call me Lolly”. The following Sunday, I forgot and called her Mrs. Sanders and she looked a bit perturbed. Having to call one of your teachers by her first name is just plain uncomfortable.
Now, 30 years later, there’s a youth minister at church that keeps calling me ma’am. I really hate the “m” word. I think that word should be reserved for movies where men tip their hats and say “Howdy, Ma’am.” I sometimes call older people ma’am because I think they expect it. They grew up in a very different time.
I don’t have a complex about getting older. That’s not it…however when I worked at a college campus (University of Cincinnati) as an associate public information officer, there was a constant reminder that fall quarter had arrived. You could be stopped at least five times by different students looking for a certain building. Giving them directions was easy, but dealing with their response was hard …they would say “Thank you ma’am.”
Sometimes I would look around for the “Candid Camera” crew. They were just being polite. Just like the youth minister, it shows good training.
Even though I’ve told him a gazillion times that I do not like being called ma’am…he still does it. But, sometimes it reminds me of the “Eddie Haskell” character on “Leave it to Beaver.” Eddie’s just not sincere.
I really think ma’am is a slave term. At least that’s what an 80-year old usher at a church funeral told me. I asked her for a program and after she handed it to me. I said “thank you ma’am.” Then she gave me the riot act over that term. She said it was a term that people of color in her home state of Georgia were forced to use during slavery, whenever they spoke to a white female. I think that’s why I really detest the word. It is historically seen by some as a negative term. I also disliked the term because my mother told me that she did not use that word because of its slave connotations.
So, if you see me at City Hall in Cincinnati or visiting the UC campus, don’t call me ma’am. Ms. Moore will do. I’ll even settle for a “hey you”.
If I have on a hoop skirt, a bonnet and a parasol in my hand. And if I’m in white-face with a band of minstrel performers playing, “Dixie” well then and only then you can call me the “m” word. Otherwise, just wave your hand.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.