It’s really just a little thing but, honestly, I hate being called ma’am. The only person who can call me ma’am is a tall thin Texas cowboy with his thumbs hitchin’ up his jeans and a cowboy boot brushing floor as he says something like, “Aww, shucks, ma’am, you’re just so pretty I don’t know what to say.”

I thought about this on Saturday, as I munched a delicious muffaletta at the new Parish Cafe (you can read my post about the new cafe here). As I sat there, watching chef Rob Lippincott cook and listening to the buzz and hum of conversation, I realized only two things were missing. One is the age of New Orleans, the funky 100-year-old building and the visible entropy of the subtropics. Things seem older and both more fragile and more enduring there. It is something impossible to duplicate here and, when we want a touch of it, there are just a few choices, like the Washoe House, the Depot Hotel, the Casino Bar and Volpi’s.

The other is classic southern hospitality, the easy way terms of endearment roll off the tongues of service people from airport security guards, rental car representatives and shopkeepers to hosts, waitresses, bartenders and even policemen. Early one evening, my daughter and I were heading back to the car after shopping in a used book store and fabulous vintage shop when we passed two cops frisking and handcuffing a Caucasian man who looked to be in his mid-40s. I started to make a wide berth when one of the cops looked over his shoulder, smiled, winked, said “How ya doin’, baby?” and then turned back to the task at hand.

I know this is not necessarily the best example of southern charm but it works for me. I laughed all the way back to our hotel and now, two years later, I smile when I think about it. I thought about it yesterday at the Sebastopol farmers market when two policemen were frisking, handcuffing and arresting an old drunk man who had been sleeping in the plaza. Their faces were stern and they studiously avoided eye contact with passersby.

I’ve been hugged by a 400-pound waitress and been called “darlin’” in a Mississippi barbecue joint. “Have a good day, sugah” they say instead of “thank you, ma’am.” They call you honey, sweetie, babe and missy and no one gets offended or acts huffy or says “I’m not your baby.”

Now and then here at home–which is to say, California, not just Sonoma County–I respond to “ma’am” with one of these stories. I try to do it really nicely and sometimes it goes over well and sometimes it falls flat.

I also try to do my part.

“Here’s your change, ma’am,” someone says.

“Thanks, darlin’, have a great day.”

And then I walk away, before they have time to look at me like I’m crazy.

If it’s crazy to be lighthearted and friendly in public, to use terms of endearment to show warmth to a stranger, then I say bring it on. We need more of this kind of crazy.

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  1. stephanie

    Love this piece–good memories of New Orleans and the South! I don’t mind ma’am (even though it’s a little disheartening to realize that, in my mid-40s, I’ve crossed over into “ma’am” territory) but I do hate, especially in a group of women my age or older, being called “guys,” as in “What can I get you guys?” This is standard lingo for every server/serviceperson under 30 now, regardless of who they’re addressing. When I point out that none of us are guys, and that we’re twice their age and could use a little respect, I get a dumbfounded, why-are-you-hassling-me look.

    October 22nd, 2012 2:47 pm

  2. A. Gal

    I enjoyed reading this for a couple of reasons. One is that I grew up in a family that used terms like honey, sweetheart, sweetie pie, etc. all the time. In fact when I started kindergarten the teacher asked my what my name was and I told her my name was AnneHoney. That’s what my Mom, Dad and Granna all called me so I really thought that was my name. To this day I call people honey, or hon all the time. Most of the time (as far as I can tell) folks like it, sometimes they tease me about it and occasionally I can tell I’ve annoyed somebody.
    The other things is that I totally agree with the notion that people should use these terms of endearments more easily because it just makes everybody seem more friendly.

    October 22nd, 2012 3:01 pm

  3. Leah

    Having just spent the last 9 years living in the south, I am very accustomed to using ma’am and sir. It was taught in my son’s elementary school, and it is a sign of common respect. In the south, no one blinks an eye at being called ma’am unless you are from another state. Not everyone uses sugah, and darlin’ and sweetheart. In fact, a friend was kind of forced into early retirement, from his job with the city, because of complaints that he was calling customers sugar and sweetheart. More often than not you’re going to be called ma’am than sugah. I picked up all of them and found in the south it’s best to err on the side of ma’am than sugar, because not every one is comfortable with the familiarity and you never know who you are talking to.

    October 22nd, 2012 3:31 pm

  4. MicheleAnna.Jordan

    Leah, it must have to do with where you are because I have rarely been called ma’am in the south, though I do hear sir all the time. And on those rare occasions when I have been called ma’am, it’s a bit different, not so distancing and patronizing as I find it here.

    October 22nd, 2012 5:58 pm

  5. Chris

    Some of us were raised to show respect to people older than us and it was ma’am and sir. Throw in the Marine Corp and time as a police officer.

    I can understand your point but for the first 30 years of my life that was required as part of most sentences when dealing with elders, officers (both military and law enforcement) and the public. And still 30 years after leaving that life I use ma’am and sir to everyone out of habit and without thinking.

    October 22nd, 2012 7:58 pm

  6. MicheleAnna.Jordan

    Chris, absolutely I agree with you about children and showing respect and I totally understand the military aspect, too. My father was an officer in the Marine Corps and I respect that, as well. Maybe I”m talking about something that is absolutely southern, than can’t exist in some other geography, though I do prefer it when someone I consider a peer (but a stranger) uses a term of endearment instead of ma’am. Thanks much for your comments.

    October 22nd, 2012 8:02 pm

  7. Mary Jarvis

    Great story. I have a few friends who detest being called “dear.” “I’m not your dear” they say with a grimace. And certainly there are other names for them.

    October 23rd, 2012 1:26 pm

  8. Cindy

    I remember the first time my husband called my grandma (a third generation sonoma countyian) ma’am. Her exact words back where “Don’t you ma’am me”. She took it as sass. Being raised in Mississippi and in the military, he thought he was being respectful.

    My kids frequently thank people with “Thank you, ma’am or thank you sir” Since they have taken up martial arts, I have even caught them saying “yes, ma’am” or “yes, sir” when asked to do something. They have even figured out that you get a lot more Halloween Candy at doors by saying “Thank You, Ma’am”, simply because kids in California don’t respond to elders that way. Personally, think we need more of it!

    October 23rd, 2012 2:25 pm

  9. MicheleAnna.Jordan

    Thanks for your reply, Cindy. I understand the child-to-elder use of the terms and have no problem. I am questioning the peer-to-peer use. It is in that arena where I enjoy the southern style. I’d be taken aback if, say, a seven-year-old addressed me as “babe” or “sugah.”

    October 23rd, 2012 7:43 pm

  10. The.Village

    My favorite is “young lady”, even though I think I might be past the age of a young lady. And I may not find it as charming once I hit an elderly age. However, I could be called darlin’ or sugah every day of my life, and I’d love it just fine. Ma’am? That makes me feel old – unless, of course, it’s as you envision it kindly on the lips of some admiring cowboy. ;-)

    October 24th, 2012 1:35 pm

  11. MicheleAnna.Jordan

    Ahh, young lady! I love it, too.

    October 24th, 2012 3:15 pm

  12. Nicolle

    Many people call me ma’am –especially my students–so much that I don’t even flinch anymore. It is simply a sign of respect, and I appreciate it as that. I certainly enjoy it when I get “sugah” or “baby” instead but alas, that doesn’t happen very often here in Mississippi–which may just mean I’m not going to the BBQ joint or the po-boy shop as often as I should.

    October 26th, 2012 8:27 am

  13. A.K.

    I love this post. I moved from Yankeeland to the Deep South. I’m in my late 30s but I think I look young for my age, and I’ve always hate being ma’amed. But it happens on a daily basis down here and I hate hate hate it. (I would make an exception for your shucks-y Texas cowboy, though, as well as for a Southern gentleman in a military uniform or a suit who has a drawl and either bows or winks flirtatiously as he says it.) Anyone else can &&%**$$ off.

    I know people down here teach their kids to say it, and I honestly think it sounds really smart@ss coming from a kid in that deferential tone commonly used, especially when they become a teen or young adult. My husband teaches college, and there is one student who must be in her early 20s and still does the ma’am, looking down, polite, too-deferential-to-voice-my-opinions thing and I just want to say, “Stand up straight, look me in the eye and drop the constant ma’aming. You’re a grownup now.” I can admit this anonymously — it’s especially galling when the ma’amer in question is a hot 17 or 18-year-old girl — I hear, “I’m young and hot and you’re old and decrepit!”

    Anyway, add me to the camp of the hate-to-be-ma’amed. And, for all those who insist it’s done out of politeness, I have to wonder how polite it is to do something that seems to have a 50 percent chance of grievously offending the person in question or at least make them feel like cr@p for the next hour. I’d err on the side of not offending, myself. There’s no term of address needed. Just say what you want to say in a polite tone, smile and all will be fine.

    January 8th, 2013 10:17 am

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