A few days ago I was at work, helping a man apply for a credit card. He would answer my questions with “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” and so on. At one point, he looked right at me, and asked, “Ma’am, if you you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
I had to think. “Twenty-nine,” I answered, truthfully.
“Twenty-nine? I’m almost forty.” He shook his head. “Why do I keep calling you ma’am?”
“Well I am standing behind a desk asking you a bunch of personal questions.”
He didn’t have a response to that.
Honestly, I think the real answer to that question is “it’s a Southern thing”. No one called me ma’am when I lived in DC. When a New Jerseyite worked at the Paint Desk, he asked me why everyone called the guy in Appliances Mr. Blessing. “I thought it was his first name!”
“It is,” I had said. “It’s a Southern thing. A term of respect.”
That answer didn’t satisfy him, and truth be told, it doesn’t satisfy me either. I’ve noticed that different names get different levels of respect. Steve and Thomas in Electrical are both equally respected by fellow associates, by only Thomas gets called Mister. Part of it, maybe, is the rhythm of their names. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Blessing flows off the tongue better than Mr. Steve or Mr. James. Maybe it’s also the Baptist tradition, you know, how Baptists refer to each other as Brother and Sister because we’re all children of Christ or something like that? Or maybe it’s, you know, the slave thing.
Most Northerners really encounter such denominations in old books, like Pride and Prejudice. It’s weird that most people only encounter Pride and Prejudice on these things, because the Bennets are shown specifically avoiding that stuff (which is how all the outsiders to Merrifield know that they’re classless hooligans). In Pride and Prejudice, all the daughters are “out” (able to go out in society and meet men). Usually there was a very specific pattern to all this. Take my family.
Typically, only one daughter is allowed “out” at a time — the eldest. She is referred to by her last name. The other daughters, since they are still basically children in the household, are referred to by their given names.
But then the eldest daughter gets married.
A highly accomplished half-Jew marries a Roman Catholic, who knew? Anyway, the fact that Lacey and I are twins complicates things a bit. Even though we were born AT THE SAME TIME, I AM STILL CONSIDERED THE YOUNGEST, and have also always been considered sickly. So it’s possible my parents wouldn’t have let me “out”, or perhaps would have had me wait a few extra years.
Or perhaps they wouldn’t have, considering that we are only separated by a minute.
And so I married, leaving just the one Miss Hancher.