Who You Calling ‘Ma’am’?
“Is anyone using this chair, ma’am?”
He was a tall, lanky young man, one of several about to sit down, as I had, to eat a quick pizza before heading to the gate for boarding. He was making sure that his buddy would have a seat at their table, and he was paying respect to his elder.
Twenty years ago, when I arrived in Austin to teach at the university, I was, by criteria both objective and subjective, still a young woman. More significantly, I was a Yankee, where we didn’t traffic in the politesse of “sir,” or “ma’am.” When I was so addressed, I bristled. Not just at the advanced age it implied, but also at the social conservatism I inferred from its formality.
Back then I’d request not to be addressed that way, or suggest that it wasn’t necessary. Of course, this confused and sometimes even panicked the students. I was told once by a friend that it wasn’t fair to mess with their golden rules.
But in the airport pizza parlor, I relented. Something inside unexpectedly slackened, and I offered no resistance. I’m 50, how else is a proper young Texan gentleman going to address me? I have more significant causes to invest in now.
Besides, it’s good training for when we’ll all be hearing the reporters preface their questions with “Madame President . . . ”