We all know that we should age gracefully.

But here in the South, we age politely. Sometime between graduation and grandmother, a Southern woman becomes a “ma’am.” That’s when we know that we have become a “woman of a certain age.”

Robin Conte is a writer and mother of four who lives in Dunwoody. She can be contacted at robinjm@earthlink.net.

I don’t remember what age I was when I morphed from “girl” to “ma’am,” but somewhere in the thick of ma’amhood, I became a “young lady” again. And I must say that being referred to as a “young lady” when you’re in your fifties is about as jarring as being called “ma’am” when you’re in your twenties.

I was in a grocery store when I became a “young lady” once more; I was stocking up for my household full of kids, and I’m sure that the employee who used the term was trying extra hard to be un-offensive, but I didn’t like the term at all. Really, that’s not a term anybody likes. Young ladies don’t even like to be called young ladies. Maybe 3-year olds do, but I think the address loses its appeal once they pass the age of 5.

What really bothered me about the term is that it felt like the fellow who used it was going a bit too far in the opposite direction. Because the thing is, I know I’m not a young lady. I know I’m not tripping through the streets of Paris with Gigi and Madeline. I find it just a wee bit patronizing.

I pondered this a while longer, as I loaded and unloaded my groceries, and wondered, when a middle-aged gentleman steps up to the register, does that employee call him a “young man”? I think not. What about “young laddie”? No, that would not fly, not even in Scotland.

Maybe men don’t get as bristled at “sir,” anyway. “Sir” has a certain grandeur, a royal connotation that carries it beyond the scope of age-inference.

Maybe “ma’am” is a problem because it’s an abbreviation; maybe if people went around using the full-throttled “madam,” the term would connote something loftier than mere middle age. Even though “ma’am,” according to Sir Mister Webster, is “used to speak to the queen or woman of high rank,” in this country, at least, it is not a term that evokes refined appreciation; rather, it generates a huffy “How do you know I’m a ma’am?” type of response.

It’s kind of a shame, in that aging politely is becoming harder to do. Somewhere, somehow, good manners have become distasteful.

People shy away from being respectful because they’re afraid of being offensive. We teach our kids manners, but they are regarded as insults.

And the root of the problem is that none of us wants to be perceived as “old,” so we pretend like we’ve discovered the fountain of youth by tossing out a moniker.

The fact is, we don’t know how to address each other anymore.

What do you call your parents’ friends, once you’ve grown up and moved out of the house and have children of your own? How do you address the couple you used to babysit for, once you’re employing a babysitter yourself?

There are some monikers that will never change. My former Girl Scout leader, for instance, will always and forever be “Mrs. C” to all of us fully grown Girl Scouts. My parents’ friends will remain “Mr.” or “Mrs.” unless and until they implore me to address them otherwise. Teachers, no matter what their ages, will be addressed using their surnames, by moi.

And when someone, especially a young lady or a young man, addresses me as “ma’am,” I will need to smile graciously and give thanks to the vigilant parents who raised their children with good manners — manners enough to help me age politely.

Robin Conte

Robin Conte lives with her husband in an empty nest in Dunwoody. To contact her or to buy her new column collection, “The Best of the Nest,” see robinconte.com.

One reply on “Robin’s Nest: Learning to age politely”

  1. I’ve noticed you spend a lot of time complaining about lower income individuals in the service industry not living up to your exacting standards.

    Perhaps instead of being quick to ridicule those washing your hair or bagging your groceries, ask yourself what their day entails.

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