An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation

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.

  • JetLime

    In England you get to be called Madam or Sir in shops, restaurants, etc., which I always thought was rather nice and proper. I remember visiting California for the first time and being called dude… I had no idea what it meant and whether I should take offence or not. But I suppose it’s just like being called ‘mate’ here which is a general substitute for more or less anything, it works most of the time. Calling your boss (or the Queen) mate might not be such a great idea though.

  • cara

    I love that whole bit- Im from the Northeast, and now live in the South (well kinda- DC is technically in the south), and I think that is a really nice thing for kids to learn to speak to adults like that.

    I also LOVE how many of my black friend’s children call me Miss Cara! Totally going to ingrain this kind of respect into any children I have someday… I think its a perfect mix of familiarity and respect. And I am not, and have never been, a proper- type manners obsessed person. I haven’t picked up many regional things since moving here- saying y’all seems to have crept into my vernacular, and I also love that.

    Despite the belief of many, the South aint all that bad- as long as you can deal with that confederate, dixie-land, racist stuff… and learn to assess the fine Art of Passive Aggressiveness (“wait, did you just insult me? I can’t tell…”)- everything is fine.. plus, they put BACON in everything here! Can’t argue with that!

  • wendirobinson

    i’ve read every single comment here and have yet to see a valid explanation of why being called ma’am is offensive to so many of you, other than a vague inference on your part that the person calling you ma’am is making an assumption about your age. is that really all it is? or is something else that i’m missing? i’m truly curious. someone please enlighten me!

  • eddeaux

    Haha. I love you Heather. You always make me smile.

  • hsp

    My husband and I were at a Mets game last night and I got called Ma’am for the first time – by someone the same age as me and in a delightfully condescending tone. It was definitely a WTF moment.

  • nancyminchew

    I grew up (and still live) in Texas, and I was taught that Ma’am and Sir was the only way to address people. As an adult (grandmother) I am still chided for saying “yes ma’am” or “yes sir” to someone younger than myself, or to a peer. But I am not going to stop. I believe that it is good manners to address people in this manner. I believe that good manners is quickly going out the window – in favor of those slang expressions “cool” and “dude.”

    Keep it up Heather – and teach Leta and Marlo to have good manners too.

  • kelpimarie

    Heather – I feel ya! My dad is from Texas my mom is from Utah – I was born and raised in Utah but with proper southern manners. I myself don’t like to be called ma’am unless it’s by a kid but I do call others older than me ma’am or sir as I was raised believing it was respectful – and how often do people give me shit about it here in the “no manners” state? Constantly!

    I too have yelled back “what” when called – not too bad with mom as she’s from UT but doing that to my grandma got my mouth washed out with soap all the while being scolded for not saying Ma’am in reply…..glad to know I’m not the only one with this confusing dichotomy.

  • karahleigh

    Nancy – I understand that it’s meant to be a sign of respect, but if someone asks to not be referred to as ma’am or sir and you continue doing it, it’s no longer respectful. Referring to people the way they prefer is much more respectful than sticking to what you prefer.

    wendirobinson – For me, it’s partially the age thing. I’m accustomed to only older people being called ma’am and sir, and I’m not an ‘older people’ just yet. Because I don’t feel that I’m at an age appropriate to be called ma’am, when someone does use it, it just comes off as condescending, in my opinion. Same as when someone clearly older than me refers to me as ma’am. It’s like there’s a silent smirk at the end.

  • linuxchik

    ANYthing is better than ‘hey’. i’ve lived here my whole life, and i swear, utah has no culture. and “hey, ma’m – do you have any spare change” does not work, either!

  • The Urban Cowboy

    In Texas, it’s the appropriate thang to say.

  • Figtron


    Politeness in ANY FORM is welcomed in this day and time, and being raised Southern like you, I had this instilled in me as well.

    I am teaching my daughter manners and politeness with Southern sensibility. She is 2.5, but knows how to greet people, speak with respect, and say bless you if you sneeze. You should see the gob-smacked looks on adult faces when she says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

    Yes, she says ma’am and sir…and so do I to this day.

  • Mandaray26

    Growing up in Southern California the use of ma’am or sir was never in my vocabulary. I distinctly remember the first time I used “sir” and it was met with much disdain. I had recently transferred to a private school where the hierarchy between students and teachers appeared to be rather established, and the use of sir appropriate. My teacher, who couldn’t have been more than 30, was appalled when I called him “sir.”

    At 28 I move to Louisiana to pursue my doctorate, and with it I’ve been introduced to a whole new set of social protocol and appropriateness. After 3 years of living in the south, ma’am and sir are now a constant in addressing anyone, regardless of age, as is the use of Miss/Mr . I have a professor, Louisiana born and raised, who frequently refers to the women in his class as ma’am. Initially, I was put off by this, particularly since he is 17 years my senior. But, I have come to realize it is simply a matter of the social etiquette he was raised with. He also refers to us as his junior colleagues, so the use of ma’am is somewhat a sign of respect. Granted, he is also prone to just shouting our last names down the hallway, so occasionally it is a little hard to follow his logic.

    I’ve grown accustomed to some of aspects of social etiquette in the south and would like to instill in my children practices that encourage politeness and respect, like ma’am and sir.

  • dtelisman

    I’ve never been “ma’am’d, but then again I’m a man. I have, however, made the mistake of calling my old boss “dear.” I was in my late 20s, and she in her 50s. We were close, but when I referred to her as “dear”, she reprimanded me that only “old ladies” are called that.

    Lesson learned.

  • Auburn

    Call me weird, but I’d rather be called Ma’am than to be called Guy, as in, “How is your meal, guys?” That’s what I’m called in Arizona. Guy.

    After recently researching my genealogy, I believe I qualify for the title of Lady. So, you may refer to me as Lady Auburn, thank you ever so. Somehow, “May I refill your rather large wine glass, Lady Auburn?” would be much preferable to “You guy ready for your check?”

  • vwbusnut

    When I first moved to Florida from New Jersey, my kid’s friends called me Miss Sally. I thought that was a super nice was to refer to adults without making them feel old. If anyone had asked me what I wanted to be called I’m entirely sure I couldn’t have come up with that, but I think it’s really a nice way to refer to people older than we are.

  • Harmony_W

    I grew up in the South and had “sir” and “ma’am” drummed into me however, I don’t like being called “ma’am.” I won’t be offended if someone happened to refer to me that way. But I won’t be teaching my kids to call any one ma’am or sir.
    It isn’t about age for me it’s because it implies inferiority. One can show respect without having to lower one’s own social standing. An example of how to do this would be to refer to elders as “Mr. So and So”, “Mrs. So and So”, “Ms. So and So”, and “Miss So and So.” You can also convey respect with your tone and body language.
    I understand that in the South it is a cultural thing, a means of being polite. I just don’t approve of it for my family.
    In the end everyone can teach their children what they want. While one person’s family means it as a form of politeness, another may see it as a sign of professing inferiority or being smart.
    What’s more, there is a distinct line between offering “sir” and “ma’am” as tokens of respect and another for expecting/demanding to be addressed as such.
    My suggestion (if you ever need an alternative to “ma’am” or “sir”) is to try “excuse me” or “pardon.” A large population of the country manages to be polite this way.

  • jcause

    Oh my heck! (said with the Southern drawl) I’m glad someone else has had this experience. I probably need to practice not answering every question with “yes Ma’am or yes Sir” if I ever want to move out to Utah.
    I fumbled my way through New York, and it was a nasty, ungraceful journey. It makes my skin crawl, though, to call someone over 35 by their first name if I don’t personally know them. I’m terribly socially awkward, and I blame it on my Southern roots.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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