Monday, September 06, 2010

My lady

Natalie Angier correctly defines what makes one "ma'am" rather than "miss" in our society as whether or not one was born before the Clinton years. Given my delight at getting an iced coffee at the same place Chelsea Clinton gets hers (where no doubt we were both called 'ma'am'), I find Angier's definition entirely convincing. (Katha Pollitt's suggestion of a switch to "Madame" ignores, alas, that where there are Madames, there are also Mademoiselles.)

One problem with ma'am that neither Angier nor the letter-writers mentions is how the age cut-off itself is an issue, particularly in the context of the trappings of adulthood beginning later and later. When a 22-year-old gets ma-am'd, she's reminded of the grown-up existence someone her age ought to be leading. Home ownership? Husband? Finished with schooling? Any babies on the way? The miss-to-ma'am switch has not caught up with the Age of Transition. It's not that 20-somethings are under any illusions that we look 14. It's that "ma'am" reminds us how little our lives have changed since then.

Conversely, for the 20-something who isn't meandering and finding-herself towards adulthood, ma'am is a reminder of how staid and square one appears. This is particularly true of ma'amming that takes place at hipster coffee shops, which I've found to be prime ma'amming territory. The baristas, male or female, will ma'am female customers their own age, as a reminder of what life in a cubicle does to one's skin elasticity.

The pro-ma'am counterarguments don't strike me as all that convincing. Yes, it's regional, but is every single person working in NY from the South? If 'ma'am' were a quirk that went along with a different region's accent, we could all chalk it up to diversity, and those who resent being called ma'am could be chastised for anti-Southerner discrimination and sentenced to 20 straight hours of "Designing Women." But it's clearly, clearly, a term used in the Northeast, by those native to the region, with its own set of connotations here.

The argument that ma'am is a term of respect, and that women should be proud rather than ashamed of having reached a certain age, also falls flat. It's not that we're self-hating old people. It's that our non-nubility isn't something we feel needs to be acknowledged in a greeting, especially, as Angier points out, when men who are no longer fit 19-year-olds don't get a special term of address. I could think of any number of descriptive terms that would bring up other visible-at-first-glance qualities I'm not ashamed of but don't need announced: 'here, short person with very pale skin and very thick if frizz-prone hair, here's your iced coffee.'


Anonymous said...

Guys get called "sir" all the time, no?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, but at all ages. An adolescent being greeted at a fancy restaurant is a "sir."

gabbiana said...

I like "ma'am," but then, I live in the south now, and I'm not ma'am'ed all that frequently (I'm 27), and also, "miss" is much, much worse. "Miss" is what you call a waitress you're about to slap on the ass while asking her to get you some rolls, toots. Ugh.