“Yes ma’am,” I said, and winced instantly, with a furtive glance at the grocery clerk I was directing it to. Stout in the eyebrows, sure, and kind of a mustache, sure, but otherwise a doughy feminine model of a face, with no offense registered on it. I get this wrong a lot. To be fair, I always have. I grew up saying “Yes ma’am” to pretty much everybody and I’d have had to be in a heap of trouble in a formal situation to let fly with a Yes Sir. To my way of thinking, “Ma’am” is Yes’s last name.
It doesn’t always go over well. People can get prickly about their pronouns and they can’t be expected to know that I Ma’am universally. I always feel bad and embarrassed when I get corrected and it would be worth my while to work on eliminating the whole locution, but it runs deep. The worst one was the day I was facing a gang of mailboxes (don’t laugh, that is what they’re called) poking letters into them and someone came up behind me and asked, in a highish voice, if I was done with Apartment 503 yet. “No ma’am,” I sang out, and my new friend immediately said “Sir.” Which threw me into the usual jumbled panic syntax and I turned around to apologize, only to find I was face to face with a person completely covered in tattoo ink, including every side of his head. Jot this down. If you are an individual of the checker-headed persuasion, it would be more considerate not to spring yourself on someone from two feet away.
None of the words in my apology were in the right order to begin with, and after I turned around and caught sight of the man, it all just collapsed into unrelated syllables. I do not know if he enjoyed my discomfiture, because his checkerboard interfered with his expression. We ended up becoming friends, which is how I found out he wasn’t completely covered in tattoos after all–he was still missing half of one sleeve and the palms of his hands, I believe, plus his eyeballs, but I understand these omissions have now been rectified. Nothing has been left out, which you can see for yourself at his website, as long as you check the “over eighteen” box.
That was the worst episode, but we’re conditioned to feel bad when we get someone’s sex wrong. People feel strongly about it. I don’t, myself. Or, at least, I don’t think I would care if I got Sirred. I can’t remember it happening. No one ever thinks I’m a boy, even though I lack couth, fart audibly, and don’t clean up after myself.
One time when I was a little girl I pulled my hair back severely and said to my parents, Look, this is what I’d look like if I was a boy! There would be no reason to remember this episode except for how quiet it got afterward. Real quiet. My folks were quiet anyway but when they got that quiet it put a spotlight on the Thing That Must Not Be Said. Their sudden silence framed it like the city painting around a pothole. You can’t miss it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my father’s sister had declared herself a boy at a very young age and there was no precedent for such a thing in local society. Not in the early 1900s. It didn’t work out for him or anybody else in the family, not that that was Uncle Bill’s fault. I didn’t meet him until I was grown, and by that time he’d fended off the Ma’am thing by wearing a suit jacket, fedora, and wingtips from the boys’ department at all times. He had an unusually thick head of hair and his mustache wasn’t that great. I’m pretty sure I never ma’amed him. I would have felt awful. But it wouldn’t have been the worst thing that ever happened to him.
He deserved better. We all do, so don’t tell my friend from the mailbox that I call him Checkerhead. Or That Colored Boy.
I've never been "sir-ed", but my husband gets an occasional "ma'am-ing", as he has long, curly hair that many women would kill for. He otherwise looks male, but waiters who aren't paying attention will sometimes ask "What are you ladies having?" We just laugh about it, but find it odd that people seem to have such fixed ideas that long hair = female when the reverse doesn't seem to be assumed. (Unless there is visible mustache hair. Then all bets are off.)
Dave had simply gorgeous long hair when I met him (he was 25). He had a guy once catch up to him and go a little ahead and look back, and then he said "Oh, sorry, I thought you were the tallest girl I'd ever seen."
Well! That kinda narrows the options for the peri-menopausal ladies!
I still do a lot of ma'am-ing. Just an old habit, I guess. I know several youngish women(50-ish) who have little peach fuzz mustaches. Because the women are cute, so are their fuzzy upper lips. I must be plenty secure in my own beardiness.
Fully bearded women are not all that unusual in my neighborhood, though.
When I have long hair, I get ma'am-ed or lady-ed sometimes, especially when I'm with one of my knitting groups. I don't correct people; it doesn't bother me.
I think I do better when I "Yes'm" instead of "Yes ma'am." By the way "Larry" is a very beautiful name for a (female) cat.
I have a friend who had a female cat named Norman. I grew up with older cousins who had a big farm and were fabulous folks. Cecil and Rita. It was just so normal I never really thought about gender but Rita did do all the cooking. I digress….
One of our neighbors has a tame crow named Norman. We feed our crows ALL THE TIME and not one of them deigns to be on a first-name basis with us.
Madonna: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots 'cause it's okay to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you'd love to know what it's like wouldn't you
What it feels like for a girl"
Yeah. You sure don't want to be mistaken for the thing you look down on.
We don't have the "sir" or "ma'am" thing north of the border. (But we do "sorry!" like nobody's business. I've apologized to inanimate objects more than once.)
Maybe this is why cashiers like to use "dear" and "honey" – those have no gender and you don't even have to spare the brainpower to glance at the customer.
I have a terrible memory for names, which is why I tend to call minor acquaintances "Sweetie".
Also, I used to work in the restaurant business, and they are basically gypsies. I sometimes was so dispirited by the high turnover rate that I would tell people, "No! Don't tell me your name. I'll only get attached…."
Ha ha! Now, I've read many a thread from people who absolutely hate being called "Honey."
My mother absolutely hated when the waitperson said "you guys."
You start a thread about these kinds of things and you will discover huge lists of locutions that some people love and other people can't stand. We're a prickly bunch.
I remember that checkerhead. This is good writing, again.
We also don't do the sir or ma'am thing. And, fortunately the 'honey' thing hasn't taken off either.
What? Do you just use actual NAMES?
I can't answer for EC, but up here, in the northern wastes, "darl" (short for 'darling" I think)is paramount. Works for ANY gender. I'm just not sure about its being confused with "dahl." Especially in an Indian restaurant.
Makes you wonder how people who have three-compartmented languages manage …die, der, das….
When I was 8 or so, maybe after watching my brother try to get the Elvis look just right, I combed that wave thingy into ( onto?) my hair for a time. Of course with the dress it just wasn’t working for me. When my daughter was 3 she insisted she was Johnny.
"I combed that wave thingy onto my hair…" Let's go with that!
30 years in the Navy will drive "Yes sir" straight through your skull. I used to work for female Admiral and she charged me (and everyone else) a quarter when they called her "Sir". It's just habit. I had to keep a supply in my pocket!
Oh, I get that. Now we need to develop new habits. "Yes, punkin'!"
Hmm, I'll get M'am on the phone sometimes, which I chalk up to a sometimes-high voice that doesn't sound like the typical straight-boy monotone. African American women (usually in service industries) will cheerfully call me 'sweetie', which I think means "I know you're gay" and/or "I acknowledge that you're not an oppressive man." (Either way, it seems to establish a special rapport between us.)
Oh golly, I was just thinking about your aunt/uncle the other day! What I remembered was that you spotted him on the street in Boston once, and that he avoided you. So the pic here is the two of you together?
That is us together, but that thing you remembered never happened! And he was never in Boston. Your memory is so much more reliable than mine, I'm wondering what you're thinking of? (I probably avoided SOMEBODY on the street in Boston.)
We're not a Ma'am-ing country out here although in my school days we did say Yes Sir to the male teachers. Female teachers were Yes Miss (name) or Mrs (name). Life is hard enough still for trans gender people, I can't imagine what it would have been like way back then.
Life did not go well for him. He believed that if "the operation" had been available when he was younger, it would've solved everything. I don't know that it would have. He did drink heavily and couldn't hold a job. But his mind was astute.
When I was in 3rd grade my family moved to Virginia. I still remember my schoolteacher introducing me to the new class. She said something like "You just moved here from Texas, right?" and I said "Yes Ma'am". Then she hit me real hard (verbally) with "Don't you Yes Ma'am me, young lady!"
Wow! Harsh! I remember my sister turning thirty or so and telling someone "Don't you ma'am me!" She was kidding, kind of.
Another: I was with my husband in a Walmart, looking to buy him a new pool cue. We weren't familiar with the store's layout. I briefly glimpsed someone dressed in Walmart attire quickly crossing at the end of our aisle. Then saw the same person again, hurriedly moving way far away, just a fraction of a second. I called out "Sir!". Nothing. "Sir, we need some help!" Then this Lady shows up. She let me have it up one side and down the other. She said she was in cancer treatment and had lost her hair, and was deeply offended I'd called her a "Sir." Nothing I could say would have made this right. I'd glimpsed her only briefly, quickly, fleetingly, from many yards away, and why I said "Sir" instead of "Ma'am" I don't know. Could have been her large size, her big feet, her pants, her purposeful stride. But she was hurt and I was the cause.
What we really need are pronouns that are not gender specific. Murr! I'm sure that you can come up with some, as you are good at creating words! If you do, I promise I will use them.
Although I am deeply enamored with the sound of the French language, each object has either a masculine or feminine definite and indefinite article, and it doesn't always make sense. (For instance, vagina gets a masculine article.) So in France, you can not only offend people, but inanimate objects as well.
What we really need is compassion and, on a personal level, enough security in ourselves not to get whacked out by things people say to us. But that's hard won and if you don't have it coming out of childhood you'll probably struggle with it for the rest of your life.
My greatest bias is against tattoos. I'm not proud of it. I work as thoughtfully as I can to simply recognize when my bias is trying to assert itself, and to be sure I do not act or speak on account of that bias. I'd like to lose it but don't know how.
Just about guarantee you would not have done well with this fellow.
I found the perfect line for this situation in the beginning of The Dead Parrot Sketch:
Cleese/Customer: "Excuse me, Miss?"
Palin/Store Clerk: "What do you mean, 'Miss'?"
Cleese/Customer: "I'm sorry. I have a cold."
I use it all the time ("I'm sorry. I have a cold.") and have instructed many a grocery store clerk to use it when they've inadvertently Sirred me. You can never go wrong with Monty Python!
That is weird and wonderful.
I hate being called ma'am. I think of it for a title for an old woman. In my brain I am not old enough for that term…probably never will be. I prefer sweetie, honey, young lady.
I'm pretty tolerant of these things but "young lady" drives me insane.
I agree. Normally, I am a big fan of irony, but not when it concerns me in general, and my age in particular.
Nice Guatemalan sarape, I had a t-shirt with the same bird. And I just stick with "Hey you".
I dislike being called "honey", "hon", "dear", "sweetie", etc. I don't like strangers to use endearments to me or to my husband (also hate to hear a guy called "buddy" by another guy he doesn't know) and I've schooled my husband to avoid using those terms to address waitresses, store clerks, and so on. There really is no good way to get the attention of a clerk whose back is to you if you are unsure of their gender—I guess you could just yell "Associate!"