This here bringer of the pooper to the fun party

Featured community question with accompanying regional differences

Today’s featured question comes from user wishfullthinking:

Since I grew up in the South and was raised by two very proper, Southern parents, I wasn’t ever to refer to a woman as anything else. It was YES, MA’AM. NO MA’AM. WHATEVER YOU WANT, MA’AM. Same thing with Sir. It was a way of showing respect to anyone older than myself, meaning anyone who had lived more, hurt more, learned more, and knew more than I did. This may surprise you, but there is an old-fashioned part of me that really likes this. See? I’m not just some dirty ho-bag who’d empty her poop bucket in your yard.

I remember an instance from my childhood… I must have been nine or ten years old, and my mother called me from the other room.

“Heather!” she yelled, and I could tell that she wanted me to come to her instantly. But I was nine years old and probably cutting the fingers off of a pair of lacy gloves so that I could accurately recreate Madonna’s “Borderline” video. Important work.

So I yelled back, “WHAT?!”

Yeah. WRONG THING TO DO. Especially when your father grew up in the projects of Louisville, Kentucky and worked his way up and out of poverty. Because he was in my room within seconds, his face a millimeter from my own instructing me that if I ever answered my mother with a WHAT?! ever again I’d never live to see Madonna in her iconic Jean-Paul Gaultier cone bra phase.

When my mother called me, he said, I should run to her immediately and say, “Yes, ma’am?”

Let’s just put it this way: my father never had to tell me anything more than once.

Other practices he taught me: I don’t carry a single penny of debt other than my mortgage. I always say hello and smile to the person checking out my groceries. I’m never late to anything. And most important: MURPHY’S LAW. Watch out for it. My father would never put it this way, but I know he believes that Murphy is one sneaky bastard.

It wasn’t until I got to BYU in 1993 for my freshman year in college that I learned some people might actually take offense to this expression. Like, people actually recoiled when I referred to them as Ma’am or Sir because they thought I was somehow making fun of them, or implying that they were old. When really I was just giving them the respect they were due. And so I didn’t know what to call people. You there? Hey you? Mr.? Ms.? Almighty? Your highness? Shithead?

And then when I eventually ended up in California I learned that everyone expects to be called Dude. YES, DUDE. NO DUDE. WHATEVER YOU WANT, DUUUUUUDE.

Since it’s a no-no in Utah to refer to people as Ma’am or Sir we’re teaching Leta to refer to people as they wish. Meaning, some people prefer to be called by their first names, some as Mr. or Ms. We’re teaching her that it’s important to show respect by inquiring and abiding by what individual people are most comfortable with. I’d love to teach her Ma’am or Sir, but I’m afraid she’d eventually get smacked for insubordination.

However, I do let her get away with calling me Mom when we all know I prefer Wondrous Being of Light and Splendor. We’re working on this one.

  • souphead

    growing up in NY most adults were called either by their first names (most of my parents’ friends) or so-and-so’s mom/dad (“hi Liza’s mom” “hey Justin’s dad. how are you?”). terribly informal.

    My hubby is from Texas where it was Miss or Mr. whoever – His friend’s daughter calls me “Miss Suzanne”. It’s odd, but I do get a feeling of respect and definitely prefer it to being called ma’am. Ma’am just makes me feel OLD!

  • crooked_teeth

    I’m always on the look-out for being “Ma’am”ed as I think of it; give me a “Miss” any day. Makes me feel young and frisky!

  • firefly1818

    I’m used to Miss and Mr., although some people are still confused as to why I would refer to my boss or admin as Ms Mona, etc.

  • The Christine

    Ahhh yes, I’ll never forget the first time someone called me “Ma’am” – I was working retail over the summer. At the ripe old age of 21, hearing “Ma’am” from a tween in the Juniors department of Macy’s was like a knife in the back. I wanted to fall into a grave and die right there next to the Guess booty shorts. Here I am eight years later teaching my kids to call me Mama. No ma’ams around here. Bad mojo.

  • jon

    Her family refers to it as Murphy’s Law.

    I refer to it as “The Glass Never Has Water. EVER. JON.”

  • tonya

    I had the opposite experience. I grew up in the military, but we never lived in the south. If I said, “Yes Ma’am” or “No Sir,” I was being a smart ass. (Only to my parents. I was always very respectful to everyone else!) When I was fifteen, we came to small town, Tennessee, and was I ever in for a culture shock. Early on, a teacher asked me if I was finished with my test. I answered, “Yes.” He said, “Yes, what?” I said, “Yes, I’m finished.” The class broke out in giggles, he was super pissed, and I was totally clueless. He then went off on me and I was quickly educated on the art of Yes Sir. Twenty years later, I ma’am and sir just about everyone, and I’ve taught my children to as well. They also call all adults by “Mr.” or “Miss” followed by their first or last names. That’s another thing I did: called adults by their first names. Seems sort of disrespectful now that I look back on it.

  • quails

    I’m from the West coast, and growing up, everyone– including my teachers, since I went to a funky co-op school– went by first names. Now I do martial arts and everyone, even kids, get called sir and ma’am, and I really dig the mutual respect it fosters. I don’t know if I’d feel the same if I hadn’t grown up on the dead opposite of the formality spectrum, though.

  • ttwiix

    Being born in Michigan I was never taught to say ma’am or sir. It was always Mr or Mrs, so in so… or if they preferred their first names. Moving to Florida as a young child I guess I was too stubborn to pick this up and it wasn’t until I started working retail that I started using this as a way to be polite to customers. However, I didnt think it was my place to try and determine how old or young someone was so I used ma’am or sir with every customer…even if they were my age or younger. No biggie.

  • kayakgrrl

    I promise that I won’t want to punch you in the face if you call me ma’am. Because people with cute accents like yours can totally get away with it.

    (But I still feel OLD when the kid bagging my groceries calls me ma’am. *sigh*)

  • hackmanrj

    I was brought up in the North and the South (all East coast though). In the North it was Mr./Mrs. last name. In the South it was Ma’am or Mr./Miss first name. I tend to go by the Mr./Miss first name for kids if they know the people. It still shows respect, but makes them familiar and approachable. I don’t really mind being called ma’am, but it does give me a little punch-in-the-gut feeling when it’s done by someone 2 years younger than me. Oh well. I’d still prefer ma’am to “hey lady”.

  • deepthoughts78

    I think that most people say Sir and Ma’am (and even Mr. and Mrs.) out of respect. So the proper response to someone calling you Ma’am (even if you don’t like it) is to let it slide and just simply respond to them. It seems very rude to correct someone for saying something out of respect.

  • Peanut22

    Down here in the south, kids refer to women adults that are family friends as ‘Miss’ (and then attach your name). ex. Miss Stephanie.

    I think it’s so cute and somewhat formal without being tooo formal.

  • LuckIsMyMiddleName

    In my women’s studies class in college, the lone guy in the class once related a story of calling a woman “ma’am,” and having her respond nastily, “I work for a living.” As if he were using it as shorthand for “madam.” As in, a madam.

    I don’t love being called “ma’am,” but I really hate being called “miss.” To me–as someone who can look 10 years younger than I am, which is not yet old enough for that to be an entirely good thing–it seems condescending. But I work in retail, so both occasionally happen, and I just shake them off. I very much agree with deepthoughts78.

  • Gypsy

    When I first started teaching at the ripe old age of 21, I was tempted to tell my students that they could call me Bitch or Whore if they would PLEASE just stop calling me Ma’am.

    Now, older and more mature, I kinda like it.

    My kid will be taught to call people Mr. and Ms. So-and-so until he is told differently, and like your parents, I believe in a “Yes, Ma’am?” or a “Yes, Mommy?” as a response when I call him. Call me rigid, but I want a respectful kid. Having been a teacher, I see the effect of otherwise, and they are not good – for kids or adults.

  • Christy B

    I grew up in California and have never called anyone Sir or Ma’am. My daughter even first names her father and I. (We are trying to break her of this habit at the ripe old age of 10…) But I think living in California has given us all that laid back attitude with regards to formality and politeness. It doesn’t really phase me that she first names us but others look at us in horror and remind us we need to break her of it. I think she does it because she’s an only child and hears everyone else call us that…..or maybe she was just raised by unclassy, lazy parents?!?!?

  • MaryAnn

    I grew up in Texas and haven’t left… so I still say Ma’am and Sir.
    But the day I turned 30, I was called Ma’am at the grocery store.

  • acm

    I grew up (Michigan) with Mrs. Smith, Mr. Burns, whatever. Was really hard for me when some highschool/college teachers wanted first names, although I got over that pretty quick.

    I think for my own kid(s) it will be:
    1) Mr. Smith for people in a formal situation (teachers, onetime introduction, etc.)
    2) Uncle Don/Aunt Karen for our smaller group of close friends that she’s likely to see over and over
    3) Mom/Dad/Grandma/etc. for family members (no first names!)
    4) I guess I’d like her friends to call us Mr. X and Ms. Y when the time comes, at least up until they feel like something close to adults (college? thereafter?) — at least, I hope she’d introduce us that way, and beyond that, it might be beyond our control…

    will be interesting to see how any of this evolves!

  • wendirobinson

    completely agree with deepthoughts 78 and wonder why it’s frowned upon in utah. anyone care to catch me up on that one?

    i’m 43 and still say yes ma’am to my mother. she doesn’t expect me to at my age, but it’s how i was raised and it’s a sign of respect. i don’t usually say it to someone my age or younger, but i don’t think “thank you, ma’am” said in a friendly way should ever be looked at as insulting. if you’re so sensitive about your age that being called ma’am is an insult, i say just be glad you’ve been given the opportunity to earn that ma’am. the alternative sucks!

  • Greta Koenigin

    It’s true that in California Ma’am and Sir have the teensiest twinge of sounding tongue-in-cheek since, in our state, it’s, like, kinda weird to be, like, overly formal or whatever.

    BUT, I used to teach high school and would often call the students Ma’am or Sir and only 1.2% of me was making fun of them and, frankly, they expect that from their teachers since students are making fun of teachers 86% of the time. All in all, however, I think they appreciated that someone older was treating them with 98.8% respect. (Is my math right?)

    So, in the end, we Californians like hella mixing our Dudes in with Ma’ams and Sirs. “Oh, Ma’am, I was, like all, DUUUUUUUUDE!”

  • sonjabean

    Well, I’m 35 now. I use the word “ma’am” very rarely and only to get the attention of someone very clearly older than me that I don’t know. (And as I get older, the number of people who fit that description keeps getting smaller. Funny that. And depressing. But I digress.) So if an older woman dropped her purse or something in the grocery store, I would say, “Ma’am? You dropped your purse.” That’s pretty much it. “Sir” works the same way. I would never use either for someone that I knew as a common way of referring to them.

    I think that maybe I used “ma’am” and “sir” a bit more when I was a small child – under the age of 10. I have some recollections of using it. But I don’t teach my children to use it. The most formal we get is to have them call the mothers of their friends (we’re talking the preschool set) by the term Miss First Name. Fathers get no such respect, as Mr. First Name sounds ridiculous.

    I, however, am “ma’am”ed occasionally. How do I feel about it? Well, it’s not great. But it’s not the worst thing ever, and I’m getting used to it as my age advances. I get it mostly from young store or restaurant employees.

  • mylene169

    I grew up in Michigan so no ma’am or sir here either. However most of my friend’s parents were also teachers in our school, so they were all Mr. and Mrs. I don’t recall ever calling any of them by first names until High School or if they were also friends with my parents. I’m actually friends with a couple on facebook and they are STILL Mrs./Mr.
    We’re in Iowa now and still no ma’am or sir. I think we’ll teach our kids the same as Heather is teaching Leta – to ask how other adults would like to be addressed. Right now, everyone is first names and they are all okay with that.

  • kristanhoffman

    Awww, this made me all warm-fuzzy for you and your dad’s relationship. Which I know was totally not the point, but still.

  • elstevero

    I grew up in Arkansas and haven’t left yet. I Sir and Ma’am everyone, even little boys and girls.

  • glam mama

    I, too, am from the south (still live there) and make my kids use “ma’am” and “sir”, I try to use it as well, even though I am thirty-freakin’-five. Once it is ingrained in you… it’s hard to stop.

    I also wanted to comment about what Leta calls you. My kids have to start every sentence with “mama”, I swear! I got so tired of hearing it that I told them they had to start calling me “beautiful” instead. It actually worked for a day or so. It was so nice hearing, “Beautiful, can you get me some juice please?” I told them when I got tired of that I would be called “O Most Intelligent One.” Never got to that though… Mama came roaring back!

  • fairytate

    In response to living in California and everyone wanting to be called “Dude”…

    I live in New Jersey and have a 17 month old at home. My older brother (Uncle Charlie) lives with my husband, my daughter, and I. She knows everyone’s names (Nana, Papa, Uncle Matt, Maggie the dog, etc.) but for whatever reason refuses to even try to say Charlie or Chuck or anything of the sort. Instead, she insists on calling him Dude. We have no idea where it came from, as we try to correct her every time she says it, but he is Dude nonetheless.

  • stumbull

    Southern born, bred, and still residing and we call EVERYONE older than ourselves Ma’am and Sir. I did not know there was another way for a very long time. I personally plan on teaching my kids to say it as a form of respect. I did however get LAUGHED at the first time I visited New York and said it to someone. Oh well that is how we do it in the South and as long I am here that is what I will do.

  • dulcinea47

    I grew up in the midwest (Kansas and Missouri) and never called anyone Sir or Ma’am until I worked in a call center in my early 20s. It was required there. I never use it now, unless maybe I need to get a stranger’s attention, such as “Excuse me ma’am you dropped something!”

  • PinkGator

    Is your father is from Tennessee? I had the exact same experience…except that he was the one yelling for me from across the house. Ditto with the one-millimeter-from-my-face do-better talk.

    And ALL of the other practices your father taught you…mine taught me as well. His personal favorite: Five minutes early is on time. Understandably, mother has a difficult time getting him to understand that it’s okay to be a “few minutes later” to a cocktail party.

  • NatW

    I grew up an hour away from you and was taught the same thing. It’s about respect.

  • Nothing But Bonfires

    When I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, I started tutoring this little boy called John William, and the first time he said “yes, ma’am” I was like WHAT? I’m not a MA’AM! I’m TWENTY THREE. But after that, I kind of grew to like it. At least from little kids — not so keen on it from grocery store clerks.

    I prefer what they say in England though, which is “madam.” Somehow, “Madam, do you have any ID to purchase that large bottle of wine?” sounds so much better.

  • CF74

    I grew up in CA. First names were the norm for people you knew well. The duuuude thing has me cracking up. I say it all the time even though I haven’t lived in CA for 10 years. We’re military now so the Ma’am/Sir thing is just polite. It bothers me when people take offense because I surely don’t mean it that way. I prefer children call me “Mz. First Name”. Our last duty station in VA this was the norm. Now we live in IL and it’s anything from “Hey, you” to “Mrs. Last Name” or “Zoe’s mom”. LOL. Really it’s all about tone and intent. 🙂

  • commasplice

    When my dad moved here (West Coast of Canada) from Baltimore in the sixties, he was forever getting in trouble for calling people “sir” and “ma’am”. He thought he was being respectful, and everyone else thought he was being a smart ass.

    One of my friends has taught all of her nieces and nephews to refer to her exclusively as “Beautiful Auntie Jackie”. As in, “Pass the ketchup, please, Beautiful Auntie Jackie.”

    That’s a practice I can get on board with!

  • Jessica Eiden Smedley

    I grew up in Portland, Oregon and don’t think I ever referred to any adult as “ma’am” or “sir” and “Mr/Mrs” was reserved for teachers. My parents enforced polite behavior, but never titles.

    Now I live in North Carolina and people call me “ma’am”. I know it’s very kind and curteous and a regional thing, but I’m only 29 and some days it is not what I need to hear. However, I am making a conscious effort to use titles myself; one less thing for the neighbors to point out about their tattooed, Godless heathen, Yankee neighbor.

  • a.a.

    Love this post. I moved to Austin from Michigan 3 years ago, and at first, it felt like people were mocking me when they addressed me with “ma’am”. But I recognized it for what it was, and now when I go back to Michigan, I’m put off by how rude everyone is!

    So, does your dad disapprove of student loan debt, even?

  • thegirlmama

    I was always called “Miss”. That is, until I had my daughter two and a half years ago and then it was all, “Thank you, Ma’am” and “You’re welcome, Ma’am” and “Can I help you, Ma’am?”

    I would go home and stare in the mirror and think, “Do I really look like a Ma’am?” Then I would break down in tears.

    Now, whenever anyone calls me “Miss” (I am usually childless and husbandless when this happens) I beam and tell them that they’ve made my day.

    Pathetic? Maybe, but I guess you know what my position is on the matter.

  • Ena Murphy

    Murphy is one sneaky bastard! I know, I’m married to one!

  • wishfullthinking

    Thanks, for featuring my question. It made my day to be able to inspire a post on Dooce!

  • mommica

    You can dump your poop bucket in my yard anytime, as long as you say “Thank you, MISS,” when you’re done.

  • jlkmustang

    My friend and I had this conversation the other day because we’re both under 30 and don’t like being called ma’am. But I do recognize that to most people it’s a sign of respect. I looked it up on wiki, which says it comes from “madam” which literally signifies “my lady”. I’m sure most people don’t know that, but the next time someone calls me ma’am, I’ll just tell myself they’re saying, “my lady”. I can deal with that.

  • sandi

    We are in California, but from Utah. The other day I was ragging on one of my kids about something and ended with a “do you understand?” She responded with a “YES MA’AM.”

    …That little sentence got her butt sent to her room.

    So funny how different we all are.

  • cory212

    I was always referred to as “Miss” until that dreadful day somewhere post-40 when someone called me “Ma’am.” To me, it will always mean “over the hill.” Sigh.

  • Phatchik

    I once dated a southern Gentleman [outrageous! I know!] and he had the audacity to call my mother ma’am. As soon as he left the house, she grabbed me and said, “I don’t like him. Not one bit. He was…he was….RUDE!” My mother was so laid back and rarely ever got her feathers ruffled so I was all, HUH?!?! And she said, “I really didn’t like that he kept calling me ma’am. It’s so condescending!” We’re from NY. In NY, Ma’am = bitch.

  • kazzikots

    I was born and raised in Georgia. My father is from South Carolina, but my mom is from upstate New York. With my mom’s friends, I never said “ma’am” and called everyone by a first name. With my dad’s family and friends, I was expected to behave as any other Southern child was. I got used to the idea of calling a friend’s mom “Miss Jean” or something like that. My kids do that, too, unless an adult tells them it’s OK to do something else. I tend to err on the side of respect.

  • mom interrupted

    I grew up in Louisville and to this day I will “Yes, Ma’am/ No, sir” you up one wall and down the other. It’s just a lifelong habit now. We also do that “Miss” in front of someone’s first name as someone else pointed out. I made sure my kids did this, even though we didn’t live in the South. Guess it’s something I equate with respect (and maybe my mom’s wrath when I didn’t)

    I found it interesting that in Utah people found it somehow offensive. I kind of like it – but maybe it’s like a little payback for all those years of having to say it.

  • J-Ri

    I was raised in the South by a non-Southern Mom, but picked up on “Sir” and “Ma’am” even though I wasn’t required to say it. Moreover, I never called adults by their first names when I was a kid. If I was familiar enough with the family, Mr. “First Name” or Miss “First Name” were used (e.g. Miss Sandy, Miss Sarah), etc. I went to a Southern college for undergrad and professors were always “Professor Last Name”.

    Then I moved to Berkeley for grad school and was *very* uncomfortable for many years calling my professors (especially ones much older than me) “First Name”. Here you’re considered a weirdo if you call someone Mr. or Ms., much less say “Sir” or “Ma’am”. I was surprised that I missed the formality of the South, but I actually do. It’s a way of being respectful. People in Northern California talk a lot about respect, but usually when they use that word it is in the context of “you have to respect my right to do whatever I want however annoying it is to you” not “I’ll show my respect for you by being polite”.

    I’m raising my son to call adults “Mr. First Name” or “Miss First Name” or, for close friends, “Uncle So and So” or “Aunt So and So”. But it’s probably a lost cause– he calls all his preschool teachers by their first name. *sigh*

  • J-Ri

    I was raised in the South by a non-Southern Mom, but picked up on “Sir” and “Ma’am” even though I wasn’t required to say it. Moreover, I never called adults by their first names when I was a kid. If I was familiar enough with the family, Mr. “First Name” or Miss “First Name” were used (e.g. Miss Sandy, Miss Sarah), etc. I went to a Southern college for undergrad and professors were always “Professor Last Name”.

    Then I moved to Berkeley for grad school and was *very* uncomfortable for many years calling my professors (especially ones much older than me) “First Name”. Here you’re considered a weirdo if you call someone Mr. or Ms., much less say “Sir” or “Ma’am”. I was surprised that I missed the formality of the South, but I actually do. It’s a way of being respectful. People in Northern California talk a lot about respect, but usually when they use that word it is in the context of “you have to respect my right to do whatever I want however annoying it is to you” not “I’ll show my respect for you by being polite”.

    I’m raising my son to call adults “Mr. First Name” or “Miss First Name” or, for close friends, “Uncle So and So” or “Aunt So and So”. But it’s probably a lost cause– he calls all his preschool teachers by their first name. *sigh*

  • mom interrupted

    I grew up in Louisville, so “Yes, Ma’am and No Sir” you up one wall and down the other. I made sure my kids did this even though we didn’t live in the South. (and we also did the “Miss” in front of someone’s first name as someone else pointed out) Guess it’s something I equate with respect (and quite possibly my mom’s wrath if I didn’t)

    I found it interesting that people in Utah thought it was somehow offensive. I kind of like it but maybe it’s payback for all those years of having to say it to everyone.

  • thingone

    I grew up in New Orleans, LA with my father from there and my mother from MI. We didn’t Ma’am anyone there. I don’t recall many of my friends saying it. However we did do the Miss Sarah Mr Tim thing, or the Aunt Sarah Uncle Tim if it was a very close family friend.There was also a lot of cher bebe and dawlin’ hawt said there.
    Moved to NC when my kids were young and they were ‘schooled’ rather quickly on the ma’am and sir thing. It didn’t come from me. My inner circle of friends preferred all the kids called them by their first name which was a little unsettling to me and my kids. So they called them Miss so and so and my friends kids took the hint and called me Miss So and So.
    Later, when my friends kids were adults I just said Oh call me…First Name! So maybe all the Miss so and so was a waste of time? How do it know? It don’t and I don’t!

  • doobrah

    I am a civilian employee of the Navy, and it was tough getting used the military response to me, “Yes, Ma’am” or “No ma’am.” Even though I’m a Virginia southerner, I did not grow up with the sir or ma’am thing. I don’t think of it as an age thing at work anymore; it’s just a sign of respect.

    Brings to mind the “Absolutely Fabulous” episode where Eddy and Patsy are in France and the waiter calls the obviously older and aging-ungracefully Pats, “Madame.” And Pats responds forcefully, “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!!”, still trying to be the young, single ingenue.

  • suzmac

    I admit the I am a Sir/Ma’am person. Also when I was younger I never in a million years would have called someone else’s parents anything but Mr or Mrs. Heck I am 42 years old and there are still people that I call Mr. or Mrs.