Ma'amed for Life

Time to get my AARP card, apparently. I’m 22, and I have officially been “ma’am’ed” for the first time. —Donna HibbsMa’amed for Life (Nothing Left to Do but Rant)

While pondering the language politics of the situation Donna describes, I was surprised when I realized that I would feel comfortable referring to a polite adolescent boy as “young man,” but for some reason I wouldn’t call a polite adolescent girl “young lady” — the latter term seems to carry with it a scolding tone.

Obviously, the two terms should be perfectly balanced…

As a sign of friendliness to a young boy, I might call him “son,” but a young girl I would call “sweetheart”. Why wouldn’t I call her “daughter”?

If I were annoyed with a female stranger who accosted me on the street, I might say, “Look lady, I’m just trying to buy a paper, ” but I wouldn’t say to a male stranger, “Look, gentleman…” I think that “Look, sir,” could come across as patient and respectful, or insolent and aggressive, depending on how I pronounced “sir,” but for some reason “Look, lady” is only something I would only use if I had passed a certain level of annoyance — maybe becuase I worry that I’ll sound like Jerry Lewis: “Laady! Hey, laaaady!”

Okay… the offspring-impaired among you may wish to skip to the next paragraph to avoid the upcoming parental sappiness… My son objects when I accidentally call him “sweetheart” becuase he knows I’m doing the “harried parent can’t spit out the right name for the kid” thing…. My wife can still call my son “Sweetheart,” but he knows my nickname for him is “Mister Boy” (it used to be “Mister Baby”). On the other hand, my wife is more likely to call our 2-year-old daughter “Miss Baby,” while I call her “Sweetheart” or “Honey Bunny”. I make it a point to try to compliment my daughter on her accomplishments, not just on being “sweet” or “pretty” (though she’s undeniably both, to my parental eye).

I wouldn’t refer to an annoying female stranger as a “pal” or “buddy,” but when the tension level starts rising between me and another male I might find myself reaching for those words (and I’m thinking of a hypothetical “A stranger’s umbrella has stabbed me in the back three times in the last thirty seconds while his coffe cup is dripping on my suitcase and he’s invading my space and pushing me off balance” kind of thing — something that would prompt an immediate outburst, not an intellectual disagreement I have with a colleague, or a student who takes a cell phone call in class). These friend-labels form a kind of rough alliance with my rhetorical opponent, as if I am acknowledging that we are both getting annoyed with each other, but that I see value in continuing the conversation. Maybe men have more of a cultural need to remind each other (and ourselves) that we are presently attempting to engage each other in conversation; the lack of continued conversational cues signalling our goodwill may signal that the aggression level will soon rise to the point that insults or fists will be next. But because male/female disagreements operate on a different power structure, the subtleties of that interaction aren’t fully represented in the language of blunt confrontation (which probably serves the needs of men, since women can have epic fights with each other just by glaring, snubbing, fake-smiling, etc).

While I like to think I understand the value of gender-neutral language, I can see that I have nevertheless internalized quite a few linguistically encoded cultural message message about gender roles.