Call her anything, but don’t call her ma’am



Odds and ends as I pack for the Labor Day weekend. Should we go with flipflops and board shorts, or the rubber Wellies, raincoat and water wings?

It’s unfortunate that all the rain expected as I write this will come too late to save my grass and all my expensive decorative plants, which burned up and died in the heat.

Gosh, I hate this summer.

• • •

Where I grew up, the older women who were responsible for our socialization — our moms, grandmothers, aunts and sometimes their friends — were consistent taskmasters when it came to proper behavior and respectful terms of address.

And if we got out of line, they weren’t above giving us a thwapp on the back of the head. These blows weren’t painful, and certainly not delivered with enough force to give us concussions. They were just the kid equivalent of jerking on a puppy’s leash to get his attention and keep him from pulling. Here’s what I mean:

Say we were at the ice cream shop.

Counter lady: “Do you want jimmies on that cone?”

Me: “Yes! And cherries!” Thwapp!

Grandma: “Yes, what?”

Me: “Yes, ma’am. Jimmies and cherries, please.”

Or say we were at Parent-Teacher Night at school.

Teacher: “Did you show your mom and dad the frog dissection exhibit?”

Me: “Yes.” Thwapp!

Mom: “Yes, what?”

Me: “Yes, ma’am, I showed them the exhibit, including the guts.”

I realize that insisting children use the word ma’am was more common in certain geographic areas, the South and West, for example. In those days, and in those places, however, it was just considered polite behavior for men and boys to address women they didn’t know as ma’am — whether they were teachers, waitresses, mothers of friends or older female relatives. Girls were also taught to call older women ma’am.

Woe betide the young whippersnapper who didn’t say “Yes, ma’am,” when Aunt Ruth asked if he or she wanted another piece of fried chicken. In that instance, failure to observe proper social convention would earn a thwapp from Grandma, Mom and Aunt Ruth.

The female village that was responsible for raising us was relentless in our training, and like those Pavlovian dogs, most of us learned the lesson well. We’ve used the word ma’am throughout our entire lives, and we get a little jumpy if we forget, expecting a cosmic thwapp, since Grandma isn’t around to dole it out.

We just can’t help ourselves. About 10 years ago, however, I started noticing that some women did a double take when I called them ma’am, and others actually cringed.

I figured that was just an East Coast reaction, but I was mistaken. According to a recent article in The New York Times, an informal survey of professional and blue-collar women showed that almost all women — from all geographic parts of the country — hate being called ma’am these days. There are lots of reasons for this, including the ideas that calling someone ma’am is dismissive and sexist.

I don’t really understand that, but since I don’t want to offend people I speak with, I’ll try to learn this behavior.

But I could use a little help. If we can’t say ma’am anymore, what can we say? Hey you sounds rude, and Madame sounds French.

Maybe some of my female readers have a few suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll just substitute dear for ma’am.

I’ll let you know how it works out.


• • • From the Department of Truly Bizarre News:

Last week, members of the ’70s funk band War filed a $10 million lawsuit against Pepsico for using one of the group’s songs in a commercial for Pepsi Max.

The song? “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”

• • •

I’ve written before about how much I love The New York Times style magazine “T” because the women’s clothes in there are sometimes so funny I fall out of bed laughing.

The last time I mentioned some of the shoes advertised in that magazine, and noted they looked more like torture devices than footwear, however, I heard from some female readers who said I didn’t know what I was talking about. They get a lot of good ideas about their wardrobe from the magazine, they said, so “Back off, buckaroo!”

OK, fair enough. So I looked at the latest edition with a fresh eye and saw some things I think would look wonderful on some of the women I know.

Like the outfit in this ad. Called “Outré Mongolia,” it features goatskin leggings and a Cavalli belt worn around the chest (?).

Cost for this stunning ensemble? That would be $4,460, not counting the cost of the hat, the belts, the necklace, the bag, gloves and shoes. I don’t know what those things on her shoulders are, but I’m guessing they’re expensive.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at