The Worst Thing You Can Call A Girl: It’s Not The C-word, It’s “Ma’am”


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A year ago, I moved from the nice, safe, comfort of the northeast, where I didn’t have to make small talk with strangers or pretend to be nice to people I hated, to the *shudder* south for work. I was excited for a lower cost of living with a higher income (as my previous income was $0), but I certainly had some reservations. I hate country music, and I HATE southern accents. I was afraid I’d start using the word “y’all” in a conversation where I wasn’t making fun of it, and my mother loved to tease that her grandchildren would wear white cowboy boots to their Christenings, which I did not find funny when I discovered that people REALLY wear cowboy boots ‘round these here parts — even men. Mostly, though, I was just afraid that I’d be a fish out of water. Being a typical northeastern diva, who values authenticity over politeness, I was terrified I’d be “different” from the girls I met here — that everything would be different, that no one would understand me, nor I them.

While I am technically living in a major city comprised of transplants, and despite my preconceived notions, did not go back in time 70 years when I crossed the Mason Dixon line, to some extent, I was right in my fears. I’ve conformed to nothing, but I’ve had to get used to the fact that even girls are (for some reason) supposed to be obsessed with football, that outdoorsiness is celebrated, and that people really don’t pump their fists in other parts of the country. There are still some things I will never be okay with — one specifically, is the use of the word “ma’am.”

Not too long ago, I was just minding my own business, placing my order at Starbucks, when it happened:

“Do you want your receipt, ma’am?”

I froze, and slowly looked up from my phone, which I’d been using to avoid eye contact with her, as we’re taught to do back home in the land of Don’t-Waste-My-Time. If looks could kill, I would have brutally murdered that barista, brought her back to life to clean up the mess, forced her to make me another triple latte to deal with the stress caused by manslaughter and old age, then murdered her again.

“No. I don’t need my receipt.”

I stormed out of the Starbucks in disarray. Ma’am?! MA’AM?!?!? When, in my two years post-graduation, did I go through the traumatic metamorphosis from “miss” to “ma’am?” Should I cancel my membership at the tanning salon? Should I boycott all participation in new social media? Should I start shopping at Ann Taylor Fucking Loft? How DARE this little, punk, barista bitch address me this way! It’s as if in that one word she was somehow attempting to assert dominance over me. You might have a real job, but…I’m young, so who’s really winning…ma’am?

Hadn’t she any manners? Does she know nothing of common courtesy? I had never in my life directed that hurtful word at someone and could simply not believe that carefully tiptoeing around women’s ages, always estimating they were ten years younger than I actually believed them to be, for so many years, didn’t earn me some karma points.

I immediately called my mother, which turned out to be a huge mistake. My mother has always been very pretty. Her fashion sense is, in some ways, so out-of-date that her clothes are coming back in style, and she can’t, for the life of her, understand that heels are not appropriate for every occasion (i.e. if you’re running to the grocery store really quickly and can’t be bothered to change out of your sweatpants, you shouldn’t throw on a pair of pumps just because they’re “knock around heels”), but she’s pretty. She’s struggled to deal with aging, as all pretty women do, and it’s become very apparent throughout her Mommy Makeover, complete with lipo, a boob job, and a face lift. To help herself cope, the moment I walked across the graduation stage, she decided I had entered adulthood, making us exact equals. On one mother-daughter beach trip, some guys came up to our blanket to talk to me, causing my mother to spiral, as she was upset that they thought she was the “ugly friend.” No, Mom, they thought you were the 50-year-old friend. That’s why they didn’t pick you over me. I think she truly believed that we could have potentially met up with some douchebags on the beach later that evening at D’Jais. She’s also started wearing more pink, because I wear a lot of pink, and “thinking about growing her hair out” because I have always had long hair. Why I thought this woman, the one who, while absolutely lovely, has taken every opportunity at her disposal to critique me, would be helpful while I was in the depths of despair, is beyond me.

I called her in tears, nonetheless, hoping for some maternal wisdom. How did she deal with this? Did I really look that old? Wasn’t that barista just totally out of fucking line?

“I don’t know, baby girl. I wasn’t called ma’am until I’d already been 24 for about fifteen years. You know, maybe it’s not too early for botox? I told you I noticed some fine lines when you were home for Christmas, but you didn’t want to listen!”

Is this supposed to make me feel better, you nut job? You know, in some families, I hear that mothers tell their children they’re wonderful even when they’re fucking up. You know, to make them feel better. But not you, Ma, you’ve always liked to do things your own way. I have never been able to fully express my gratitude for that.

For the remainder of the day, I sulked around my office, certain that my life, or at least my youth, was over before my 25th birthday. My co-workers were of no help. Being older than I am, they tend to get annoyed when I bitch about getting older. Of course, I’d do no such bitching in the presence of older women, but they are men — men who’d scooped up the women they would later marry before their brides-to-be reached my age, so surely, they should understand why I was upset. Not only did they not understand, but two of them called me ma’am for the rest of the day to rub it in.

My cousin in Virginia assured me that it’s just a word people use in the south to be polite. Polite? POLITE?!?! The fucking south, man. Everyone knows that being on the receiving end of “ma’am” means that the person saying it perceives you as old. You don’t address a cute, young, bubbly girl as “ma’am” no matter where you are, so whether or not this little shit thought she was being polite didn’t matter. All I heard was that I wasn’t young enough to be confused for a high school student, and that, folks, meant I was too old.

It appeared the only cure for my newfound depression was alcohol, so as soon as work ended, I went straight to happy hour. I walked straight up to the bartender and ordered a vodka soda with extra lime. He didn’t card me. Dick. As I was unloading my emotions onto my best friend, I caught the eye of a handsome stranger and shot him my best “I’m desperate and depressed, please come talk to me” look. He obliged. After about 30 minutes of flirting and a refill, he told me he was 36 years old, and I reluctantly gave him my age, to which he responded with genuine envy: “God, you’re so young.”

And just like that, I was cured.

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Veronica (@VeronicaRuckh) is a writer, editor and content manager for Grandex, Inc. After having spent her undergraduate years drinking $4 double LITs on a patio and drunk texting away potential suitors, she managed to graduate with an impressive GPA and an unimpressive engagement ring -- so unimpressive, in fact, some might say it's not there at all. Veronica has recently switched from vodka to wine on weekdays.

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