Saturday, January 19, 2013

Call Me Madam

RHYS BOWEN: The other day it happened—that thing I’d been dreading for quite a while. The worst, irrefutable sign that I am growing old. No, it wasn't creaking limbs, failing eyesight or hearing...far, far worse.
I was in a grocery store,  and the clerk handed me the bag of groceries and said—and I quote—“Here you go, dear. Would you like some help out?”
Dear. Me. Jaunty, fashionable, lively and feisty Rhys Bowen. Reduced to dear.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I was not his dear. I would never be his dear and what’s more I could definitely hike more miles than him and whip him at tennis.
But I swallowed back the comments and walked out to my car, feeling crushed. I have to add that I was not looking my best—wearing sweats, no make-up, hair not styled. But all the same, that some young person thought I had reached the age to be spoken to with that gently patronizing tone was a wake up call. I will never leave the house without make-up again, not even if I have to be rushed to emergency at three in the morning.

It’s strange because I don’t mind at all when a shopkeeper or bus driver in England calls me ‘love’ or ‘ducks’ because it’s not age related. It's equal opportunity familiarity. I especially like it down in Cornwall where everyone is ‘my lovey’.

However, I’ve become increasingly annoyed recently at the lack of formality in matters of address these days. I suppose it’s because I write about the past when formality really mattered. But within my lifetime I have noticed huge changes. When I was at college our professors referred to us as Miss this and Mr. that. When I was at university in Germany we even called fellow students by their last names until we became friends. Even when my children were young we expected them to call our friends Mr and Mrs, not by the first names. It still feels strange when a three year old calls me by my given name.

And yet it’s the norm, isn’t it? The young doctor’s receptionist, the bank clerk, the barista in Starbucks all expect to use my first name. And it makes me very uncomfortable. First names are for friends and social equals. And while we’re on that subject, if my doctor calls me by my first name, I don’t see why I have to call him doctor. Hey, I have a graduate degree, just not in medicine.

One of the things I enjoyed most about living in Texas was that kids in school said “Yes, ma’am and no, sir,’ to their teachers. In California even teachers are called by their first name.

Actually I was  somewhere recently--doctor's office, pharmacy, can't remember--and the receptionist asked "How do you want to be addressed?" And I said, "Oh, your highness will do." She blanched before she realized I was joking.

So am I becoming old and grouchy? Do you like a certain degree of respect and formality in society or are you happy that we’re all on a first name basis these days?


  1. This whole tendency to call people by their first names, even if you hardly know them, is a phenomenon that I simply cannot understand. I have been regularly chastised for calling someone “Sir” or “Ma’am” . . . but I persist, mostly because I don’t feel right about doing otherwise. Of course, I still write and snail-mail thank you notes, too, but I suppose that might be a separate issue . . . or, perhaps not. It’s all about respect and courtesy and good manners . . . .

  2. Respect and courtesy and good manners have gone the way of the dodo, I'm afraid.

    I blame Jerry Springer.

    By the way, the first photo I posted on my new blog must be from very close to where yours was taken, Mrs. Bowen. :-) Sedona?


  3. Oh, Rhys - I so agree!

    and I'm with Karen - let's blame Jerry Springer and his ilk.

    Actually, this is one of those subjects I could easily go on a major rant about, so I'll just hush before I get too into it.

  4. Yes, Karen. The picture was with my hiking group in Sedona--one of my favorite places on Earth. What is your blog name?

  5. When I was eighteen I was at a store with my 7yr old brother and the friend I had a crush on called me ma'am. I wanted to die. I'm under 30 and get called ma'am all the time. It still bothers me but does come from a respectful place.

  6. I'm used to the constant first naming. In some cases, it's preferable to hearing people mangle my last name.

    In many subcultures (African American, Native American, Latino) at least in the Midwest, children and youth still call their elders Mr. and Ms. You're just hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong part of the country, Rhys! ;-)

  7. I"ve got my answer all ready, though I admit I've never actually used it:

    "No thanks, Sonny."

    (And of course, if we're old enough, we remember that Mary tyler Moore episode... "Ma'am. He called me ma'am...")

  8. Rhys, just click on my name for the blog:

    Scroll down one post for the photo.

  9. My mother does not like to be called "ma'am", something she inherited from her grandmother. (Who didn't like it because it was short for "madam" and she, as she always asserted, was no madam. I don't believe the term carries the same standard definition now as it did in my great-grandmother's time.) Unfortunately, my parents are now living in the South, so Mother is called "ma'am" on a fairly regular basis!

    It's definitely a show of respect to your elders to call them "ma'am" and "sir" - we've taught our children that just like we were taught that, but in this day and age, I think respect is a dying art.

    That having been said, I don't care if she's 101, I'm certainly not going to call a lady of a certain age "dear" ... that term should be reserved for those of intimate acquaintance as a mark of affection. =)

  10. Rhys, thanks for hitting one out of the park. I do have to question one thing--did the doctor's receptionist call your first name in the waiting room? Due to HIPPA, many physician offices do that for confidentiality (which is really funny when you live in a small town and everyone in the waiting room already knows who you are).

    And I agree with Jennifer about "dear". If it isn't family or close friend, my first thought is, "I'll dear you," which of course I would never say. But the desire to kick that person in the shins . . . I know, only in my dreams. :)

  11. Ah, yes. I was raised to say Mam and Sir. In fact, it was so ingrained that as an adult Ihad someone with whom I worked want me to not only skip his last name, but call him by a shortened version of it as a nickname! I had a very hard time retraining myself on that one.
    Similarly, what are considered "acceptable" expletives has changed drastically. It used to be young people making a "point". Now it is everyone, everywhere, or so it seems.

  12. Love the hiking picture Rhys! I would think going to the store in sweats would only make you look younger and sporting...

    Maybe something like "no thanks, I'll totter out on my own..."

  13. The first time I brought my husband to a dinner on the rez he had a difficult time sitting at the elders' table. He thought he was being excluded when he was being respected. When a girl told some younger children to get behind us in line, I had to give him a nudge to keep him from saying anything.

  14. If it were a store I would return to frequently, I would take a few minutes to talk with the young person about why I (and perhaps many others) would prefer not to be called "dear."

    It is the teacher in me to instruct the nation's youth!

    My children can tell you many stories about my embarrassing behavior -- stopping the car, even, and opening the window in order to speak to someone who was acting up.

    But I say that people often act out of ignorance (or out of the habits of their families, etc.). So, why not let them know. (nicely)

  15. “O, Times! O, Manners! It is my opinion
    That you are changing sadly your dominion
    I mean the reign of manners hath long ceased,
    For men have none at all, or bad at least."
    ― Edgar Allan Poe

  16. Although I like all of my doctors, I find that it annoys me that some of them call me by my first name (and never asked my permission) but expect ME to address them as Doctor. It is only because I was raised to be polite(and sometimes I want to yell towards the heavens "Mom and Dad! Why did you DO that to us?") that I don't tell the offending doctors that "I'm paying for your services, which makes me your employer. Therefore, I expect you to immediately start addressing me by my proper title, and I'll start calling you Gail/Richard", etc (changing their names to protect the offenders!)

    I've recently noticed that more and more young people who have served in the military address everyone as ma'am and sir, regardless of the person's age. I like this sign of civility!

  17. Reading this a little late...we kind of combine the two down here in FL. Everyone is Mizz. Lora, or Mr. Bob, and I try to make sure my kids at least do the "Yes Sir, no ma'am" thing. I like it; it's respectful without being too formal. As a teen/adult, I never felt comfortable calling my parent's friends by their first names, and this sort of bridges the two.

    Of course at school it's Mrs. Wentzel, etc. and that is fine and understandable. It's just the tricky family friend line that I've always had trouble with.

  18. I'm okay with most of the more casual forms of address these days, though I like it that my 6-year-old grandson calls his teacher "Mrs." and I used to like it when my oldest granddaughters called their teachers "Miss Melody" or whatever her first name was. But I too have a problem with my doctor--he's a fraternity brother of my son-in-law for Pete's sake. Why am I addressing him as Dr. when I have Ph.D. and he calls me by my first name. I come from a family of doctors, and I respect the profession, but let's get real. I was married to a doctor, and when young residents called our house and said, "Judy, this is Dr....." I wanted to say, "I'll play it either way, but it's got to be on equal terms."