A few years ago, a nice young man offered me his seat on a crowded New York City subway. In his offer, however, he called me “ma’am.” I was confused for a moment. I looked around to make sure he was in fact talking to me. I was surrounded by a bunch of school kids. He was talking to me.
Even though I was over 50, in my opinion I certainly wasn’t a ma’am. I was youthful—even fly—in my skinny jeans, T-shirt, and strappy sandals. I thought that maybe he was a foreigner who doesn’t quite have the American modes of greeting right. I asked him a question so I could hear him talk, and it was clear from his New York accent that he was right at home.
I was a bit annoyed. Not so annoyed that I refused the seat, but I was troubled that he thought I was of ma’am age. Maybe he was teasing me, so I looked back at him, waiting for a mischievous smile and wink. Nothing. Just a pleasant smile from a young man with good manners.
I didn’t want to be addressed as ma’am. Miss would do just fine. Ma’am is my mother. Ma’am is a lady of 50 years or older, which technically I was, but I had a much fresher attitude . . . or so I thought.
When I think about that episode now, I laugh. Since then I have embraced my ma’amhood! Fast forward to a few months ago, when another nice young man called me ma’am and offered to get a flower pot off the shelf at Home Depot and even carry it to the checkout register for me. (And no, he didn’t work there. ) I was happy to have him do it, even though the pot wasn’t that big and I certainly could have carried it myself.
I have come to understand that there are some perks associated with being a ma’am. Young(er) guys offer to help me with all kinds of stuff that I don’t want to do anyway (putting air in my car tires, carrying heavy stuff, hooking up my DVD to my new TV, even though that’s not supposed to be part of the cable guy’s offering). They’re not just doing this because I’m a woman, they’re doing it because I’m an older woman—a ma’am. I know because these kinds of offers have begun to increase.
One of my favorite parts of being ma’am, though, is that it allows me to share my opinion in ways that I couldn’t before. Everybody’s familiar with the stereotype of the older woman who is well-meaning but a bit of a busybody. I’m not a busybody, but I do usually have an opinion. Over the years, I’ve learned—much to my disappointment—that everyone isn’t interested in my opinion. But I think I’m getting a little bit of a pass now, because people are more polite to ma’ams and less likely to take offense.
Giving unsolicited advice can be tricky because it’s not always wanted. I was able to tell the guy who was doing some work on my house—whom I don’t know that well—that he needed to change the profile picture on his business’s website to one that was more professional. He was a little surprised at first, but I noticed later that he did follow my suggestion. There’s a young woman I often see in the elevator in the building I work in. She seems bright and eager, but she dresses as if she’s going to the club instead of work. I suspected this may be holding her back. So one morning I told her that. Let’s just say she didn’t seem exactly happy to hear this from me. I didn’t care. I felt like the wise older woman helping guide a bright young thing. And I noticed a few weeks later that she had on a blazer over her short dress.
I sometimes use being called ma’am as a ticket to an easier life. Whenever someone calls me ma’am, I assume there’s a shift in whatever paradigm ordinarily exists in the situation. The cop who pulled me over for speeding let me go with a warning and “be careful, ma’am” when I told him I was hurrying home because I didn’t like being out so late.
In our culture, the young(ish) feel benevolent toward older people, so they often give us a pass in ways they may not for someone young. And I love it.
Except on a date. You can’t call me ma’am if we’re on a date. I was having dinner with a much too young man who called me ma’am, and it was clear to me at that point that this would be our last encounter.
A version of this post can also be found at Women’s Voices for Change.