Darin's Point of No Return

I’m a “ma’am” guy.

To be honest, it’s almost a reflex as much as anything else at this point in my life. My parents drilled “sir” and “ma’am” and “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and “please” and “stop trying to flush your sister’s head down the toilet” into my head at every chance they had. And it just got reinforced more when the people giving me my second-to-second instructions in life wore drill-instructor hats and threatened my ability to walk without a limp if I didn’t use one of those titles.

Look, I’m certainly aware it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to be addressed as such. I’ve had both men and women, of various ages, tell me to call them by their first name, and it’s something I try to remember for our next encounter. Of course, that old reflex usually kicks in the next time I see them, and I revert to the generic titles of respect that I bestowed upon them the last time — and they go back to correcting me, with the promise from myself that I will try to do better next time.

And it’s not an age thing. I call 5-year-old boys that I meet “sir,” and teenage female cashiers at stores “ma’am.” For me, it’s just a way of addressing people in a manner that conveys a certain amount of civility and deference. It just seems polite to me.

Of course, I completely understand that each person digests words and expressions in different ways, and I’m also fully aware that assuming, or assigning, pronouns for anybody is not always a respectful path to take these days — and it kind of defeats the purpose of trying to be respectful if your words are not being perceived as respectful from their recipients.

So, it’s kind of an odd time to still be a “sir” and “ma’am” guy. I get that. But an article on this very subject by Janelle Davis on CNN last weekend caught me a bit off guard. I’ll give you the opening paragraphs to see what I mean.

“An unexpected rainstorm. A traffic jam on your morning commute. Realizing you forgot to put on deodorant.

“There are many things that can turn your day from good to bad. But there is one thing you’re probably not thinking about.

“Being called ‘ma’am.’”

I completely understand and appreciate that people have a right to be addressed how they see fit. In fact, I remember once telling my father that a kid I grew up with came back to the next school year and wanted to be called by his middle name. I said, “Why would someone want to do that?”

And my dad kind of laughed and said, “Why would that bother you? Just call him what he wants to be called. What’s the big deal to you?”

But that’s a different situation than the “ma’am” conundrum, isn’t it? With that situation, there was one individual who specifically said what he wanted to be called. “Ma’am” is kind of a generic title to give a person you’ve never met.

As Davis said in her column, “What are we supposed to say? ‘Your excellency?’”

My wife would agree with that, I’m sure. But don’t tell her I said that, OK? Be cool.

Per Davis’ article (which admittedly got more interesting to me as I read further), blogger Kristen Hansen Brakeman suggested “we bring back the antiquated Victorian term, ‘M’Lady... M’Lady is sort of sweet and elegant sounding too, isn’t it?”

It’s kind of cool, I guess. But I feel like I need to wear tights and give a little bow if I say that to somebody. I’m not entirely sure that’s something I can commit to on a regular basis.

Let’s look at some other options:

• “Madam” — No. That kind of conjures up thoughts of a big-haired woman running a bordello.

• “Miss” — We get into a complicated game of “Guess the relationship status” with this one. Do we go with “Mrs.” or “Ms.” or “Miss?” I think I’ll just roll the dice with “Ma’am.”

• “Hey, you” — Safe, in terms of some of the conflicts we’ve come across. But it also has a “police vibe” to it, like I’m trying to get your attention to ask you a couple of questions about your whereabouts on the evening of July 23, 1976.

• “Mademoiselle” — That’s a lot, isn’t it?

• “Ladyship” — It has potential, but, again, I feel like a man has to wear tights and bow a lot to say this.

Why are things so complicated anymore?

Executive Editor

Darin is a native of Washington, D.C, and studied journalism at Temple University. He is a combat-veteran Marine, and has worked as a reporter and editor throughout the country. He is married and has one daughter, who doubles as his harshest critic.