The Case for Ma’am
There’s a war waging in the way we raise our children, and the battle goes deep into the heart of how we teach them to be courteous to others. Ladies and gentleman, “ma’am” is under assault.
I am a Southerner who says “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” with abandon. These simple expressions are daggers in the fight for politeness and I thank God that my parents equipped me with them. You see, I live in New York City and, in a town that seems to have everything, the one thing Manhattan could use more of is courtesy. But say “ma’am” to a woman here, and she doesn’t see it as a sign of respect. She just gets mad.
Since leaving the South, I’ve said “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” to women in 15 countries and 24 U.S. states — plus the District of Columbia. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the anti-ma’am camp is gaining ground. Why, last month I said “yes, ma’am” to a woman in California and, for a moment, I swore her head was going to spin 360 degrees like that girl on “The Exorcist.”
Sometimes I wonder why it makes them so mad. My initial reaction to ma’am-rage is never positive. But still I say it. I say it to women who are older than me, to women who are younger than me and to women whose age is completely irrelevant because I only need to pass them by on the street. “Excuse me, ma’am,” “thank you, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.”
I say this because I am a Southerner, even though I no longer live in the South.
It’s easy to say, “Raise your child with the manners that work best for where they live.” We say “ma’am” in the Carolinas, so that’s what my child will say. But we’re not raising our children for today, we're raising them for tomorrow. We don't teach them how to be courteous just so they can be polite children; we teach them how to be courteous so they can become polite adults. And, as adults, they very well may not live where they do today. In fact, a 2015 Heartland Monitor poll reported that roughly 46 percent of Americans do not live “in close proximity to where they grew up.” So, knowing that your child may someday leave the South, should you still instruct him or her to use phrases unique to the South?
Yes, ma’am, you should. And here’s why: If I refer to you as “ma’am,” it doesn’t mean you’re old. “Ma’am” is an honorific title that means you are a person who merits my respect. Never once have I heard a man say, “Don’t call me ‘sir.’”
Yes, women on the other side of the Ma’am-Sir/Dixon line may not like it, but wouldn’t you rather your child be admonished for being too polite than for not being polite enough?
Terena Bell is Southern writer living in New York City.