Thursday, October 14, 2010
A whole lotta ma'ams and sirs
My friend Tawna Fenske just does not understand the importance of adding "ma'am" or "sir" to yes or no. She, being the Yankee she is (okay, Pacific Northwesterner, but anybody above Virginia can technically be called a Yankee) sort of thinks it is an insult.
Yankee-types do this, making the wrong-headed assumption that being told "ma'am" is the equivalent of being carded in the chain drug store where you've sneaked to buy your beer or liquor on the faint hope that the other Baptists won't see you buying fermented fruit of the vine (or hops.) They think either being carded or being addressed as "ma'am" is a slight to one's age.
They couldn't be further from the truth. In the South, we have highly complex rules of "ma'ams" and "sirs." The rules are so convoluted that it's hard for me to pick them apart to instruct my wonderful Yankee friends all the ins and outs, rather like a native of Beijing trying to explain the Chinese culture to round-eyes.
So here goes my feeble attempt. Proper Southerners say "ma'am" or "sir" when:
You're addressing anybody that is obviously more than 18 and at least five years your senior. (Oh, pooh, you can tell. And if someone isn't quite at the five-year mark, they'll blush and say, "Aw, you don't have to call me ma'am!" You cease and desist, and no harm done.)
You're addressing your parents, even if (the shock of it!) said parent isn't quite 18 yet.
You're addressing your parents' parents, your parents' neighbors, your parents' boss, or anyone who bends down from the waist, cracks a fake smile and asks, "Well, sonny, how old are you?"
You're addressing someone in authority, even if said person is younger than you. By authority, I mean anyone who can make your life even temporarily miserable by saying no or yes when you strongly desire the opposite answer. That includes the return clerk at Wal-Mart, the whipper-snapper state trooper with not a hair of fuzz on his face, or the painted-up tart in the government office.
You're addressing a teacher -- whether it's yours or your child's or even your child's child, even if she's wearing blue jeans, T-shirt, and flip flops and has some mighty weird new-fangled ideas from that teacher college she went off to.
You're addressing a person who might possibly be giving you money for a good or a service. (So yes, it is feasible that you could say "yes, ma'am" to a clerk, and the clerk could say, "yes, ma'am" right back at you, and nobody would go away offended.)
You're addressing someone who is clearly better educated than you are.
You're addressing someone who is clearly LESS educated than you are.
You're addressing a preacher or his wife. Assistant pastors and youth pastors don't count, not until they get promoted up.
You're addressing a doctor or a doctor's nurse. Doctor's nurses actually are smarter than the doctors (well, most of the time) and at the first sign of disrespect, they can lose your chart and make your life immortal torment. A well-placed "ma'am" can avert such travesties.
You know you're in the wrong.
You're in ANY doubt about whether you SHOULD say, "yes, ma'am."
You're addressing anyone with a weird, Yankee-fied accent, because we Southerners love to see Yankees squirm, and what with all of our time being so prim and proper, we've gotta get our licks in somewhere.
So as you can see, down here in Georgia, we're pretty much "yes, ma'am-ing" and "no, sir-ring" all over the place, except the kids who are less than ten and have been corrupted by MTV and the Disney channels, which is pretty much all kids. These types drive us older Southerners slap-dab crazy with all their "uh-uhs" and "Hmh-huhs" and other various grunts and groans that bear no resemblance whatsoever to a very simple "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am."
But since we were the same way (without MTV or Disney to be our parents' scapegoat), I guess after about age ten, it will finally take. I'll keep you posted, ma'am.