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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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Comments

13 Comments

  1. 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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