It just happened again last week. There I was, minding my own business as I walked into a store in a mall. There it was, a disembodied voice coming from some at first indeterminate location, saying “Hi Ma’am.”

‘Hi Ma’am?’ What is that supposed to mean and to whom was the voice speaking? Since I was the only visible soul around, I guess it had to have been speaking to me…but ‘Ma’am?’ Am I a ‘Ma’am?’

I think I first became aware of my unbidden transformation to Ma’am status when I returned to Atlanta after living out of the country for five years. Suddenly I was struck by the fact that I was being addressed as Ma’am. Every time it happened I kept looking around me to see whom exactly was being spoken to–just like I continue to do today. Certainly it could not be have been–or be–me, for I was not, and am not, and never will be a ‘Ma’am.’

Ma’ams are old, at least in my mind, and they are stuffy, matronly, and condescending. The word alone conjures up images of aged and overly plump sausage-like female bodies crammed into corsets known only to another era, hats affixed to heads, and sitting stiffly in deck chairs on a barge cruising the Nile. I hardly want to be identified as one of them, as I feel that I unwittingly am when addressed with the M-word.

And then, I came to wonder, is this a southern thing? Must be. Growing up in the north I must confess that I was not aware of this apparent over-population of Ma’ams in the world. Now, here in the South, it seems that almost everyone of the female gender over the age of 10, corseted or not, or on a barge or not, is in danger of somehow being taken for a Ma’am.

Today in the grocery store I was shocked, horrified really, to hear a mother of a young girl of around 4 or 5, instructing–no, chastising and then threatening her.

As I turned into the cookie aisle I heard the mother before I saw her.

“If you don’t call me Ma’am, young lady, you’re going to have to have a time-out. Do you hear me?” the loud angry voice scolded. Then I saw the mother’s wagging finger in the little girl’s face, repeatedly slicing at her nose as if it were a carrot being chopped for a salad.

The little girl seemed totally unconcerned. This was likely an often repeated performance.

“Can I please have those cookies?” the girl next asked with a polite innocence that managed to completely disregard what her mother had just said about attaching a ‘Ma’am’ to everything she directed to her. “Can I please have some cookies?” the mother’s voice ended in a higher pitch. What do you say when you’re talking to me?” the mother goaded her daughter with a verbal cattle prod, exasperation overflowing in her voice. “Can I please have some cookies, Ma’am??”

The little girl ignored her and said nothing as she kept on playing with the toys she had with her on her perch in the grocery cart. She was in her own world. Lucky for her.

I was back in this world with her mother and fully aware of her mother’s building anger and frustration at not being addressed in the manner she apparently considered to be her birthright.

I wanted to say to this mother, “What are you doing to her? Don’t you realize that there are legions of us out here who never want to be a ‘Ma’am,’ much less be addressed as one?”

Yikes! What planet have I landed on? I thought this insisting on the use of the M-word had long since gone with the wind. Apparently not. This mother was young. I was shocked.

Again, not being a Southerner by birth, and perhaps that is the only kind there is, this pervasive use of the M-word, especially when directed at me, is most distasteful. I’ve lived in the South for over 20 years and I still am not used to this form of address that I consider to be archaic at best and usually reserved for the very old or the very vain. I am neither, and so when the M-word is directed at me, I am anything but flattered. I should have told that young mother that.

What I found interesting was that the little girl being so rudely reprimanded, seemed most resistant to the idea of using ‘Ma’am’ at all, and yet she did not openly protest. She just went on, merrily not using the M-word despite her mother’s best threats. This little girl’s instincts knew better than what her mother was telling her. She seemed to know that times have changed and there is a much larger world out there than the one to which her mother is trying to force her to conform.

I know am speaking for hoards of my contemporaries. I don’t know a soul among us who wants to be called ‘Ma’am.’ In fact, I think I will start selling t-shirts that say “I AM NOT A MA’AM.” Would you like to place an order?

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