The Curse of Southern Politeness

In the northeast, and specifically quaint New England, Ma’am and Sir, are foreign words. They’re ancient relics of language better preserved in nineteenth century books or said upon the stage in period dress than words you would ever hear trailing at the end of someone’s sentence. “Have a good day, Ma’am”, or “How are you today, Sir?” is simply not in our vernacular.

My best guess is because we don’t have the time to waste the words or the energy. Especially as–if you’ve ever walked into a retail store in suburban Connecticut or suburban New York–no one asks you how you are because, frankly they don’t care. I’m generalizing and playing into stereotypes that Northerners are rude and too rushed to care about the people around them. But, to a certain extent, this is true.

I was raised in New England, completed my undergrad in Georgia and continue to drive up and down the east coast periodically to visit family. In the north, the friendliest cashier at Dunkin Donuts or the most cheerful barista at Starbucks, might wish you a great day. But they will never call you “sir” or “ma’am”. Too many words.

Again, I’m joking. Mostly. But on my most recent road trip up north, I noticed such a difference in how I interacted with retail workers, or servers at a restaurant, or cashiers based on likely I was to be called “ma’am”. Often, when my mother and I traveled together, we would be told, “I hope you ladies have a nice day” and I wanted to politely inform them, “I’m not a lady, but thank you.” I never corrected them. It didn’t seem worth the effort to justify my existence to someone I would never see again.

Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, it was almost inevitable to be gendered. Somewhere in Maryland, it stopped and I felt more like a person again.

My mother is from New York and all my life I knew “ma’am” to be an insult. Not because it was gendered, but because to be a “ma’am” is to be an old lady. “Ma’am” holds gender and age observations of a person all rolled into one. And so while I still get mistaken for a first-year in college, I also get called “ma’am” rather than “miss”. Apparently I not only appear to be a woman, but a married woman? A woman who is no longer a maiden (read virgin)? There are sexual connotations to the word as well, especially as ma’am is also derived from madame which could just as easily mean owner of a brothel as it could mean respected woman.

I understand that “ma’am” and “sir” are the rules of propriety in the south, but “ma’am” is an under-examined piece of language that perpetuates much more than the gender binary. Yes, it might be polite in some circles (and some states), but we can be more considerate with our words and work toward a politeness that is more inclusive.

As much as the north might still need to learn how to slow down and be less rude, here are a few things you can learn from how we do it in the north. Instead of “Ma’am” (or “sir”) try these:

  • “Have a great day!”
  • “Thank you for your time/service/business etc!”
  • “Please.”
  • “Thank you.”

The trend? It’s the same words you would ordinarily say, but without the gendered language. Suddenly, you’re not assuming anyone’s gender based on cis normative perceptions of appearance, which makes the world a little safer for trans and non-binary people.

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