Yesterday afternoon while I was patiently waiting to speak to a real person who might be able to explain why I still haven't received a gas bill, despite requesting one for 11 months, I was put on hold for the umpteenth time with the words "please hold, Ma'am, while I transfer you to the correct department", and I suddenly remembered the first time it happened.
I was only 19 when I was first called Ma’am. I was working as an au pair in a Toronto suburb and I realised after having gorged myself on strawberry twizzlers and Kraft macaroni and cheese for more than six months that I needed to do something in order to fit into my favourite jeans again. So I decided to join a gym. For reasons I will never understand I chose Gold’s Gym. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but in 1988 Gold’s Gym meant steroids and lots of it; steroids and huge men. But it wasn’t the Arnie clone greeting me as I entered the building that frightened me, it was the uttering of the words “how may I help you Ma’am”, that sent me running. And I have been running ever since, not just from gyms, but from Ma’am.
Unfortunately it’s a word that seems to be coming my way with increasing frequency. As far as I can tell, this is definitely one of the worst aspects of aging. I can handle the wrinkles, the sprouting of a moustache… (not sure if I should point out any other bits, in case I have successfully managed to keep them a secret from my man) but I cannot handle becoming a Ma’am. And it’s not even as if they have to see me in order to address me in this horrid way. Is my voice old?
My man came back beaming from an outing to his favourite café; “the owner called me Sir”, he exclaimed. It’s not fair. As usual I get the feeling women end up with the shortest straw. There is certainly nothing to be proud of in being called Ma'am.
I know I should embrace my inner Ma’am, she won’t go away, and truth be told, I don’t want to become one of those women who calls herself a girl when she’s clearly not. But perhaps I should consider relocation. In Sweden they won’t call you anything but “you”, or if they have access to your name they call you by your first name, which is fine by me. In Turkey you become “bayan”, which as far as I understand is more or less an extension of the word “bay”, which means Mr. So that’s no good. But I could definitely handle Madame or Signora, since both words instantly conjure up images of chic, sophisticated women. Which is what I am. And there simply is no chic in Ma’am.