Let’s Talk with Diane AS Stuckart

Terms of Endearment
by Diane AS Stuckart

As a child growing up in Texas, I learned that the correct reply was never a bald yes or no when answering an adult’s question. Only yes, ma’am or no, sir would do. (The corollary being that nope, yeah, or uh huh were never an option!) Beyond that, adults were never referred to by their first names but had an honorific assigned to them – Mrs. Carson, Mr. Lawrence, Aunt Minnie, Grandpa Jones. The habit was so ingrained that when I grew up and was invited to call my neighbor Jane instead of Mrs. Johnson, lots of mumbling and glancing about for bolts of lightning ensued.

You might suspect I’m about to talk about how civility has fallen by the wayside in subsequent generations, and to our detriment. Unfortunately, that seems to be true. Many of my contemporaries decided upon becoming parents that being their children’s friend was the way to go. This resulted in the line of demarcation between adults and kids shifting or, in some cases, disappearing entirely over the next few decades. All the “cool” grownups made a point to tell children to call them by their first names, the typical response being Mr. Harris is my dad–I’m Bill. And from there the Apocalypse ensued (just kidding…but maybe not…try watching the news!).

I, however, staunchly remain Ms. (or Mrs.) Stuckart. Or, in a pinch, Ma’am will do. In my view, addressing an adult informally is a perk reserved for other grownups of one’s acquaintance. That said, the more recent problem I’ve encountered is being called something other than ma’am by strangers. Just the other day, a young man working at a fast-food restaurant rushed out to my car to stop me from driving off with the wrong coffee. No ma’ams from him – he called me mama as he handed me the correct latte. And, sadly, there was no hot implied, other than what was in the cup.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve been mama’d since I hit sixty. I don’t mind when my work friends call me that, but I’m not really keen on such familiarity from a stranger. Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin et al) addressed the issue thusly when a reader asked why the use of ma’am has seemingly fallen by the wayside: What happened to “Ma’am” is that the age factor was injected into it from the recipient’s side. Those who apparently consider it reprehensible to grow older, even as they are doing so, took it as an insult, rather than the indication of respect it actually is.

She adds that, “Royal women are correctly addressed as “Ma’am,” whatever their age.” And her suggested response to being addressed as “mama” in lieu of “ma’am”… a gentle, “Surely if I were your mother, I would have remembered you.”

So, are you on team “Ms. Stuckart and Miss Manners” in preferring a bit of formality in day-to-day conversation, or are you good with being on first name (or mama) terms with all and sundry?

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Comments

  1. Great point… I loved Ms. Manners response. My mother never permitted me to refer to anyone who was my elder by their first name. When I moved down south, I discovered my husbands generation for people who were close used aunt and uncle and people’s first names. I knew he had a big family, but it got a lot bigger because of that. Enjoyed your post.

    • Thanks, Debra. You made me remember that we were pretty formal within the family, too. The grandparents were Grandma and Grandpa Last Name. And none of this Granny or Gramps or Nana business 🙂

  2. authorlois says

    I think “ma’am” is regional and much more prevalent in the South. I grew up in the metro NYC area and can’t ever remember anyone being addressed that way. I’ve also never heard anyone use “mama” in addressing any woman other than their own mama. Mostly it’s “miss” or “ms.” and “sir.”

    One interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed from Covid, though, is that wearing a mask makes people I interact with in places like the post office think I’m quite a bit younger than I am. Those masks cover all the facial marionette lines! 😉

  3. I was raised Southern and by a Marine. I ma’am-ed and sir-ed from the time I learned to talk. Sometimes I even ma’am, yes ma’am-ed or sir, no sir-ed, too. I’ve not be called mama by a stranger. Odd that it would be a thing to call someone unrelated to you! No matter what, good manners should always be in style! Thanks for the blog, Diane!

    • dianestuckart says

      Thank YOU, ma’am! 🙂 Come down to S. FL and I guarantee you that you’ll get mama’d at some point. 🙂

  4. maggietoussaint says

    I hope I’m using my manners! I always mean to, just sometimes I don’t want to talk on the phone to the extended car warranty recording who has been trying so hard to reach me that they keep changing phone numbers to redial after I block each one… There’s a place for manners, and that’s in dealing with people. The line blurs when a person does something that in some way harms us or someone we care about. However, when no harm is intended and the person you’re addressing is different from you in some way, all the manners rules still apply, or at least that’s how I see the world.

    • dianestuckart says

      Even with telemarketers, unless they are simply awful I always try to add a please or a sorry before I hang up on them. But for the most part, that’s what voicemail is for. Though I agree there’s a special place in Hades for the car warranty people. 😀

  5. Kimberley C says

    Manners every time! My mother ingrained in me, adults were “M’am or Sir” or by their courtesy title and last name. Even now, at 63, I still address strangers with courtesy.

  6. I have never been called mama, certainly not by a stranger. I am Mom to my kids. For people I don’t know, ma’am or Mrs./Ms. Cohen works for me. In my opinion, there was more respect when we had more formal address. Then again, I like calling acquaintances by first name and vice versa. It puts us on equal footing.

    • dianestuckart says

      I agree that respect is important — nothing snobby about being a bit formal with strangers.Mama is not my preferred form of address, but it’s maybe a step up from, “Hey, Lady!” 🙂

  7. Mrs. Stuckart, I am firmly planted with both feet in your corner. Sad to say, young people (as well as some older folks) are not using manners a lot these days. When I do encounter a younger polite person, I always try to compliment them. I am hopeful that respect will return and civility will prevail in our young people, our world and especially in politics.

    • dianestuckart says

      Ms. Judy, I hope the same. And I, too, always compliment the young boys (it’s rarely the girls) who hold open doors for me. Of course, I hold doors for everyone, gender and age notwithstanding. It’s simply good manners. 🙂

  8. cherylhollon says

    I love me some manners. My mother used to say, “Mind your manners. You weren’t raised in a barn!” Of course, she had her hands full with three youngsters under three in a poor neighborhood. Still, it was something we could afford and we were never permitted to call any adult by their first name. Lovely post, Diane.

    • dianestuckart says

      Thanks, Cheryl. Despite my best efforts a couple of my nieces persist in calling me Diane. As they’re now in their 30s and 40s I guess it’s OK. For myself, I still refer to all my living and long-passed relatives by their titles. 🙂

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