And We Say Ma’am

Writer Audrey McDonald Atkins discusses a phrase that’s got more to do with respect than age.

Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins

Yes, Ma’am!”

I say it to this day as thoughtlessly as I breathe. As a child, whether I was speaking to my grandmothers, to my teachers, or to the housekeeper, I dared not leave the “ma’am” off the end of a yes, no, or thank-you. As an adult, I still say it. It’s just what one does in polite Southern society.

It was the way I was raised, the way my parents were raised, and the way their parents were raised. It is absolutely ingrained in my behavior. When I was growing up, heaven forbid I answered an adult’s question with an uh-huh or uh-uh!

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“We don’t grunt our responses,” Mama would say sternly. “What do you say?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

When Sonny was a little boy, I trained him to follow every yes, no, or thank-you that passed his lips with “ma’am” or “sir.” Unfortunately, times have changed. As Sonny and I would go out and about, invariably some nice lady would ask my baby boy a question. “Do you like Spider Man?” “Are you in first grade?” “Would you like a sucker?”

Obediently he would respond, “Yes, ma’am!”

Adopting a tone of shock and horror, the woman would say, “Oh honey! I’m not that old! You don’t have to call me ma’am!”

Oh, yes. Yes, he does, because that’s the way I raised him. (And I’ll thank you not to undermine me in front of my child.) The way some women carry on though, you’d think he had angelically smiled up at them and said, “Yes, you old biddy.” 

“Yes, you shriveled old crone.”

“Yes, you ancient, crusty, dusty, so-far-past-your-dewy-prime-it’s-not-even-funny old hag.”

What they fail to understand is that being addressed as “ma’am” is not a matter of age. It is a matter of respect. It is a matter of deference to your elders, and by “elders” I mean anyone older than you. It is a matter of courtesy and manners.

I’ve seen scads of comments where women write how disrespectful and condescending they find it to be called “ma’am.” Most of these women are not Southern. Do they like being treated with disrespect? Being grunted at? Is being addressed politely just a nonissue? Has our society fallen into such a state of disrepair that common courtesy is shunned? Reviled?

Or maybe it’s just that I’m old-fashioned. But if being polite and moving through society with civility and respect is old-fashioned, then so be it. I’m going to keep fighting the good fight one person, one interaction at a time.

Yes, ma’am, I am!

Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog

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