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Carissa’s Adventures: “I caught a man’s eye as we were both leaving the grocery store and the thrill was just so sweet.”

Carissa and Sasha on the first day of the May Quirky Heart Tango Adventure, on the Rick's Place terraza

Carissa and Sasha on the first day of the May Quirky Heart Tango Adventure, on the Rick’s Place terraza

One of the best thing about creating travel experiences is I get to meet you all . . . the quirkyalones are pretty fabulous.

Carissa is a kick-ass, open-hearted quirkyalone woman who joined my GetQuirky online class last year.

After the class, she decided to quit a job of 18 years that she didn’t want anymore and left to travel the world as a woman alone–Africa, Asia, Europe, and more. As part of her round-the-world adventure, she came to the May Quirky Heart Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires. Now back in Florida, she is starting her own business.

Carissa had zero tango experience when she came to Buenos Aires. I caught up with Carissa to find out how traveling the world and learning tango in Buenos Aires has changed her life and I loved the honesty of what she had to share.

What did you learn through tango that you have applied to your life?
Tango is my reminder that I’m not the same person with all those fears and limitations. I make different decisions; view problems with less stress; and have been practicing my connections to others. I caught a man’s eye as we were both leaving the grocery store and the thrill was just so sweet. How many of those moments have I missed in my life? So really, how many more are to come, right?

You wrote on Facebook: “I’m LOVING my new tango community. I danced with so many different people, it was crazy good. I can tell the ‘hug time’ is good for my soul.” Why is “hug time” good for your soul?
I dislike the extreme difference my life had when I was in a relationship and when I was not. All the attention, physical closeness, eye contact fueled my sense of well-being. That’s why I would take it so hard when things didn’t work out, even if I was the one initiating the break.

After what I refer to as an “immersion therapy experience” in the piscotango workshop in the Quirky Buenos Aires trip, my body felt totally alive. So I knew you were on to something, which motivated me to find the tango community at home.

Since I’m a beginner, I can’t always turn my brain off for the whole dance; but when it does; I’m really feeling the connection to another person. It’s just a feeling of pleasure and belonging and magic. And it’s a lasting feeling that isn’t based on “does he still like me? Will this relationship work out? Will he leave?” I can give the closeness feeling to myself as long as there is a dance partner. Read More

How Tango Helped Amanda Recognize an Unhealthy Relationship–and Walk Away

Amanda practices with Nele, our guide extraordinaire, at La Catedral in Buenos Aires

Amanda practices with Nele, our guide extraordinaire, at La Catedral in Buenos Aires

This week I want to share two stories with you from Carissa and Amanda, two awesome women who joined me in Buenos Aires this May for the Quirky  Heart Tango Adventure (note new name).

Carissa and Amanda shared with me how tango continues to reverberate in their lives in unpredictable ways.

While some people who joined our Adventure already danced tango, Carissa and Amanda were both total beginners when they arrived. Now Carissa is dancing in Tampa, Florida, and loving her “tango hug time.” Amanda hasn’t taken up tango in Portland *yet* but she is thinking about tango when she thinks about relationships.

Six months after the trip, I caught up with Amanda to see how tango is resonating in her life. Amanda is super insightful about how learning tango has changed the way she looks at relationships. This is why I teach “quirky tango”–learning deep lessons through your body, through dance in particular, can change your life in a different way than “thinking” your way through a problem can. When you learn something through the cells of your body the lesson sticks.

Later this week I’ll share Carissa’s stories of tango hug time in Florida. Stay tuned.

Here’s Amanda.

What did you learn through tango about creating a healthy relationship?
I learned what constituted a healthy relationship; the ability to give generously to one another without losing sight of one’s own needs. I also learned how to recognize an unhealthy relationship and walk away.

I learned that learning relationships is like learning to tango; it will take a lot of practice to become moderately good at it but that practice can (and should) be very enjoyable and you can practice with the same person as long as you are both making an effort to improve. You don’t have to enter into a relationship (or the dance) as an expert and when you do start dancing with someone new it will take some adjustment before you moved seamlessly.

What you have applied to your life now that you have been back almost six months?
Tango provided me with a concrete example of how relationships require self-awareness and the ability to recognize and respond to another person’s emotional state. I also realized that my inclination to make excuses for a communication gap in a relationship was counterproductive for all; I just had to imagine how we might tango and how uncomfortable it feels when you are being led by someone who doesn’t seem to notice or care where your weight in centered or how awkward it would be to lead someone unable or unwilling to follow.

Tango is an intimate conversation, much like relationships, and it’s critical that we understand ourselves and each other on a very basic level so that we can communicate effectively.”Read More

Do what you love, and the partner will follow, a podcast with Nomadtopia

sashacagenturnedonlife

“Do what you love, and the partner will follow.” I wish someone had drilled that into my brain six years ago when I was stuck in a swamp of self-doubt, and I thought I needed to stay put in a life I did not enjoy, do the online dating treadmill, and meet a man before my expiration date made me unattractive (read: “unfertile.”)

That is why I want everyone who is single (or coupled) and questioning the best way to live their lives to listen to this podcast. My friend Amy Scott, the creator of Nomadtopia, interviewed me. Whether you have dreams of a location-independent lifestyle or not, listen in. We are talking about living the life you really want to lead and trusting that vitality and confidence will attract the people you are meant to meet. As opposed to sitting around and waiting to meet the “right partner” and then going off to live the life you want to lead.

Amy Scott is a writer and coach who helps people to create lives of freedom and adventure they really want. Amy has been on the location-independent path for over ten years. Amy and I first met when I was about to move to Buenos Aires. We have supported each other along the location-independent and quirkyalone paths. (Amy is married and I’m not, but we are both quirkyalones.)

Amy interviewed me for her Nomadtopia podcast, which is all about “real people living global lives,” sharing stories of inspiration so you can live and work wherever your heart desires. We talked about my the life churn I’m chronicling in my new book (in progress) Wet that led me to these realizations about doing what I love first, my Quirky Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires, the importance of leading the life you really want to lead and questioning societal packages–for example, getting married or buying a house doesn’t necessarily mean “settling down” and being in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean being joined at the hip.

Here are some of my favorite parts, and be sure to give the entire podcast a listen.

Reclaiming quirkyalone: it’s about being happy on your own firstSasha: “The limited idea of quirkyalone I was running away from was that it’s just about being happy single. There can be this overreaction about reclaiming singlehood where people then flatten out the concept and think it’s just about being happy single. There are people who are totally committed to being single and that’s wonderful and appropriate because that’s how they feel, maybe they change their minds or not, that’s great, but that’s never what quirkyalone was about.”

“The word alone has 2,000 meanings. For me ‘alone’ means an independence of spirit and you approve of yourself. Classically when I came up with ‘quirkyalone’ it was about being willing to going to a wedding alone as opposed to with a date because going with a date is social convention. You’re willing to live your life and it goes to the level of Nomadtopia. You’re willing to leave your life and go off on this adventure alone because that is what you really want to do.”Read More

Dear Sasha: How do I create my own Eat Pray Love journey in Brazil?

Note: I get so many fabulous questions from my readers. So I have decided to start answering them. This will be an ongoing column, “Dear Sasha.” If you have a question, send it in!

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Dear Sasha,

I’ve been thinking of having my own sort of “Eat Pray Love” journey in Brazil and any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. I haven’t planned anything yet, but researching for now. Eat Pray Love for me means re-discovering yourself through travel, visiting a country and discovering a culture and people and learning to love yourself. I’ve been drawn to Brazil since I was young perhaps because I’m from a very mixed background and there are so many mixes in Brazil and also from reading Brazilian literature.

This may be a stereotype but I feel that happiness and joy for life and simple things is ingrained within the Brazilian culture, and also there is a sense of women being strong, sensual and owning themselves as women. I need to be around that 🙂 Samba, music, the sea…and discovering a new culture. I also feel there is a great visual aesthetic and relationship with beauty, colors, patterns, craftwork and I want to explore that more.

Maye

Dear Maye,
First, let me say that your intuition is right on. Brazilian joy may be a cliche, and it’s true. Brazilian people do have a very special kind of joy, and that alegria knocked me out and changed my life when I first visited Brazil in 2007.

I get an emotional tune-up from Brazil each time I visit. Brazilian people have more than their share of misery and difficulty, of course. Many Brazilians suffer with poverty, long commutes, and violence. But in general, Brazilians make the choice to be connected and to smile and to look at the light side of life more than we do in the U.S. They are more connected to each other through joy. They make the choice for humor, to say tudo bem (all good) and really mean it. (Tudo bem is the way people ask each other, How are you? All good? All good.) Another possible greeting is “E a‚àö‚â†, beleza?” which is a way of asking, “Hey, over there, beauty/great/fabulous?” They throw their arms up in the air and choose life. Brazilians are also masters of living in the moment. I wrote about that here.

I have now visited Brazil four times and lived there for a total of 8 months. A third of my next book Wet takes place in Brazil and in that book I’m sharing my stories of what I learned from Brazil.

Let me give you some bits of advice and refer you to some of my favorite posts about Brazil.

If you feel the urge, you must go
If you have an instinct to go on any adventure to discover yourself through travel, I say go. It can be scary. That’s the point. Going into the unknown will teach you so much about yourself.

How do you create your own Eat Pray Love journey in Brazil or anywhere? There are many ways, and you need to find your own. You certainly don’t have to figure it all out before you go. Be sure to leave yourself some free time for exploration in the moment. Elizabeth Gilbert constructed Eat Pray Love in the book in a very orderly way, saying she was exploring x in this country and y in another. That’s usually not how life works. I recommend setting an intention for what you want to explore, but also know that you will discover so much more than you initially intend. We have a hunch, but then the waters of life rush up to meet us and fill in the rest. So I say, set your intention, and then be open.

Traveling alone without a plan is brilliant. Going with a friend is also great, though you will likely have more experiences of self-discovery on your own. You will need to make your own decisions, and this is a big challenge to meet on your own. When everything is stripped away from our patterns of everyday life, you find a blank canvas. What will you choose to do? In essence, where will you put your attention, what will you do, whaat will you choose to create? Traveling without a plan is scary and exquisitely creative. Your life truly becomes art.

Let yourself be open to what happens. There is a Brazilian samba song called “Deixar a vida me llevar” which means “I let life take me.” This was my anthem during my travels, to get off my to-do list mode and let life happen, let life take me. To travel without a plan. Brazilians are probably more likely than Americans to travel without a guidebook, to let the unexpected happen. Take your cue from them and try out this style of travel if you have never tried it. And listen to this samba song for inspiration.

Learn some Portuguese, even just “tudo bem”
Brazilians will love you if you take the time to learn some Portuguese. At the mininum, learn how to say “oi” (hi) and “tudo bem?” Brazilians embrace foreigners and if you learn even a little bit of their language you will be one of the family. Perhaps because they are surrounded by Spanish, they feel “quirky” and different and will appreciate your effort. You will be loved.

Brazil is a super quirky country. Enjoy.
In addition to being a sensual country, Brazil is a quirky country. Read about my favorite quirky spots in Brazil here.

Here are some of my posts on Brazil:
Quirky Places in Brazil
“The Trouble with Brazilian Men.”
An Unexpected Quirkyalone New Year’s in Rio de Janeiro
What It Feels Like to Travel Alone in Brazil
Brazilian Happiness, Part Two

To find out more about my Brazilian adventures, be sure to sign up for the Wet list. Wet is my new book and it starts in Brazil. And let us know how your adventure goes!

How Travel Can Be a Laboratory for Change

Today I am interviewed over on the website sharpheels about how travel can be a laboratory for change in your life.

Here is an excerpt. . .

“For women in business, banishing the feelings and pressures associated with biological clocks, settling, and relationships or the lack thereof, can be challenging. Embracing their quirkyaloneness through travel and tango could make strong women even stronger.

Keeping high standards and insisting on the best life possible is something that inspires Cagen, and she helps people traverse that journey. Her desire to bring quirkyalone people together has birthed the travel program, Quirky Tango Adventure. Participants join Cagen in Buenos Aires where they “use tango as a metaphor for growth and connection.” The tango is a dance requiring the pairing of partners who know their own space first so that they might relate and share that space with another. It combines a strong sense of self, power, and sensuality to which many powerful women can relate, but which some find elusive in their relationships.

How has travel molded you into the person you are today? Has it had a major influence on your career and personal life choices?
A big part of my business now is curating Tango Adventures for self-discovery, and I found my passion of tango through traveling. Ironically, I first discovered tango in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of salsa. That’s what traveling is all about, unlikely discoveries!

Traveling through South America alone for 14 months in my mid-thirties really made me who I am today. I got more comfortable with following my intuition and taking risks (two qualities I needed to start my own business). When I came back home, I was bolder and had the courage to try things I never would have done before. I learned so much about pleasure, passion, and enjoying life from the people I met in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. There is a different quality of presence in these countries, and a different way of expressing love in the everyday.

You are an expert on being single, and call it the quirkyalone movement, can you tell us more about that?
When I was 25, I created the word “quirkyalone” as a way to describe myself and friends. I noticed that I had spent a long time being single, and so had they. I was also noticing imagery and stories in pop culture (Ally McBeal and Sex in the City) that spoke of another reality, of a group of women (and men) who preferred to be single and enjoy the freedom and friendships of that life rather than settle for a less than meaningful or satisfactory relationship.

The concept has become a lot more mainstream now, as being single has become more acceptable in the last ten years and it seems like common sense to not settle. However, being quirkyalone makes people feel like they are outside the norm because they hold out longer than a lot of people do. The concept provides important validation. Ultimately, being quirkyalone is not about being alone or being single. It’s about making a commitment to yourself first to not settle in your life or relationships, to stay connected to yourself and to fully enjoy the time you do spend single.

How can travel help women get back in touch with themselves?
I learned about a concept called liminality in a college anthropology class. Liminal zones are where the structures of the everyday are suspended and we get to discover something new about ourselves and the world. Travel is a liminal zone. When you travel, you step outside your everyday expectations. You leave behind the people you know and their expectations of you. You get a fresh canvas in the liminal zone to try new things and be a new version of yourself. This is a huge opportunity to get back in touch with the things that truly bring you alive and rediscover what you really want in life, and then, to bring that back home to your life—to recreate and layer in new things and ideas in your life.

Many people take my online classes and find courage to travel. Then they wind up changing their lives—for example, leaving a job they didn’t like anymore to start a business, or to then go live abroad. Travel is this huge laboratory for change in your life.

This is an excerpt–get more details on International Quirkyalone Day, my favorite travel destinations, and more. Click HERE to read the whole interview.

October 1 is the last day to get the early-bird discount on the February and March Tango Adventures, so if you are considering joining us in Buenos Aires, get in touch today.

Saying yes to your quest as a woman. Your heroine’s journey. And the Titanic.

where are you in the cycle?

where are you in the cycle?

Joseph Campbell is famous for telling us to follow our bliss. (Advice I can get behind.) He is also famous for his work in identifying the archetypal mythic structure in storytelling, the hero’s, or heroine’s journey, and the value of these journeys in our lives.

You can play the game of identifying the Hero’s Journey in popular movies like the Titanic, or you can find the elements in your own life. Each path is unique. He writes, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

I’m teaching a one-day writing class called the Heroine’s Journey this coming Saturday August 2. If you are working on a novel, memoir, an essay, or just wanting inspiration to dive into writing, you are invited. There are still a few spots.

If you are not a writer, these Hero/Heroine’s Journey concepts are valuable for you for your own life. And quite connected to quirkyalone. Especially for women. I’ve often thought that women more than men identify with quirkyalone because there are so few positive archetypes for a woman alone in our culture. And by alone, I don’t even mean single. I mean a woman who takes herself and her life seriously on its own terms–a life filled with meaningful quests.

Our culture is filled with stories of the hero, and not the heroine. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is tempted by sirens and Penelope waits at home for his return. In Harry Potter, Hermione is a sidekick. Other powerful male wanderers with wisdom to share: Jesus, Jack Kerouac, the Buddha, and so on. The list is endless. Who are the women? The woman herself does not go on a meaningful journey for her own sake, and if she does, the conclusion usually revolves around finding true love. (Think most romantic comedies or even the conclusion of Eat Pray Love.)

These are our culture’s stories, and our cultures stories reflect us. Justine Musk, a writer and creativity-inspirer, speaks in this TED talk about “the art of the deep yes” for women. What she calls the “deep yes” is self-worth–the idea of saying a big yes to yourself and what you are capable of in this life. This deep yes has all too often been lacking for women. This deep yes is what you need to embark on a heroine’s journey.

As Justine notes in her excellent talk, “Modesty is a feminine virtue.” Women are expected to have low self-esteem and put ourselves down. Playing yourself down is a strategy for getting people to like you, to make yourself “relatable.” Heaven knows I’ve done that. As she notes, women are usually the “wives, girlfriends, mistresses, vixens, femmes fatales in someone else’s epic story–usually a guy.” So what if you are the heroine of your own story? You as a woman are already stepping outside the cultural paradigm.

Maureen Murdock in her book The Heroine’s Journey suggests there is a unique journey for women.

Writing about my own “heroine’s journey” in my new book Wet has been so powerful because I knew I was directly struggling with the dominant idea that a woman’s primary role in life is to be a wife and mother–an enabler of others. To take the position that I could go on a quest for myself, and what I might bring back as an “elixir” for myself and others, has been quite radical. And fascinating. And great.

So that’s why I am so interested in the Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey. I’m interested in it as a writer, and I’m interested in more women seeing themselves on the path of a heroine’s journey.

There are still a few spaces open this Saturday, August 2.
Click HERE for class information for this Saturday’s live class on The Heroine’s Journey in San Francisco at the Writers’ Grotto.
+++http//sashacagen.com/writing-heroines-journey

Several people have written me to say, Hey, I don’t live in the Bay Area, would you do this class online? If you are interested, let me know, and if there’s a quorum, we’ll get that going.

See you on the path!
Sasha

The Single Inferiority Complex: Is SIC making you sick?

All the things going on in our minds

All the things going on in our minds–art by Brazilian street artist Anonimundo Art

When people sign up for my mailing list, I send them a message asking them to tell me about something they are struggling with. This is one way I like to get to know you better. I hear about all kinds of things, you could not imagine the diversity, and I love getting the messages.

Recently, Laura, 49, wrote me a short message about her struggle. Laura is divorced and has been dating. She recently gave up on dating and is settling into a life on her own. Her message stuck in my mind and reminded me of three words that had recently gelled in my mind: “Single Inferiority Complex.” The Single Inferiority Complex describes the often-nagging feeling that single (and sometimes childless) people have that their lives, and even their very selves, just do not measure up to those who are in partnership (or who are parents).

Laura wrote, “Hi Sasha, Convincing married people that I’m just as good as them despite the fact I never found anyone to love me despite my flaws, unlike they who did. I know this is not my job but sometimes it feels like an unspoken task. Laura”

I loved this email. Thank you Laura for articulating this. When I followed up with Laura to ask her more (I was curious about her situation), she wrote, “I just get annoyed at all the married people that tell me to make myself happy and then some guy will want me. Hey, I already do make myself happy but a) does being married make them so happy? And b) if I’m happy why would I want to ruin it with a guy? Sorry I just probably gave you more conflicting info but I guess there in lies the big question. To be single and hopeful or be single and resolved.”

That of course is the quirkyalone paradox, the challenge to comfortably inhabit the space in between contentment and opennes to love. Sitting in that precarious place, it’s easy to think the world is judging you as inferior. In her Laura thought that it is her “job” to convince married people that she is as good as them. Or that she needs to appear “happy” enough to attract a man into her life.

I don’t know Laura’s friends, so it’s possible that they really do judge her, or believe that’s the only path to fulfillment. I also suspect for Laura–and most of us–we tell ourselves that we are not as good as our married friends. We take on an unspoken task to convince ourselves that we and our lives as just as good as theirs.

It’s easy to feel defensive in a traditional culture where marriage is seen as the path toward adulthood, parenthood is seen as the ultimate path to mystery, maturity, and a deeper capacity to love, and being single or not having children is seen as lesser or immature.

But let’s be clear: Being single does not mean inferior. It means you don’t have a partner. Married people are not automatically more emotionally mature, fulfilled, or happy. Single people are not automatically immature, unfulfilled, and unhappy–or lonely for that matter. Anyone can be emotionally mature or immature, fulfilled or unfulfilled, or happy or unhappy, and that can vary day to day, minute to minute too.

This topic of the “Single Inferiority Complex” is a close cousin to the “Single Shame” we have been talking about in our community. Single shame is the deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you and no one will want you because you have been single for a long time (usually years, sometimes a lifetime).

Many of my coaching clients are coming to talk to me about single shame. I have lived with this issue of single shame myself, feeling “wrong” that I have not had the long-term relationships that most women of my age have had, and come to understood how much my single shame was preventing me from being intimate and vulnerable and deeply connecting. In fact, this issue of single shame is a significant thread in my memoir-in-progress Wet.

The first step with overcoming this unworthiness that prevents connection is awareness. Proper diagnosis. If we can say, oh, there is this thing called the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame and it’s infected our consciousness, then we can be aware of it and pick it apart, and start to question how we see ourselves. Perhaps it’s not so true that our friends are judging us. Perhaps it’s not true that we are inferior or that we have anything to explain or defend. Perhaps there is no way of really measuring happiness or maturity and we are all on unique paths, determined in part by how we show up in life, in part by circumstance and luck.

If you identify with the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame, what I’ve learned through my coaching practice is this is totally common among quirkyalone types. . . you are not alone. Second, it’s totally possible to turn this around. To fully embrace you and share you are right now, to own your personal history as well as your desires for connection, whatever they may be.

The Secret to an Interesting Life

The secret to an interesting life is saying yes whenever possible. A strong, CLEAR no is important too. Without a strong no there is no yes.

But exercising your yes muscles even when you are fearful or in doubt will no doubt to lead to more magic and adventures. One thing leads to another.

Yesterday, my last day in Buenos Aires. I was packing and preparing for my friends to come over to watch the Argentina-Holland semifinal game when I got an email from a producer at HuffPost Live. His Argentine superfan had disappeared and he needed a fan from Buenos Aires to do a live chat faceoff with a Dutch fan.

He wanted blue and white face paint and an Argentina jersey for the interview, and I had to say, I don’t have those things! I was honest with him and I will be honest with you. I know very little about football. I am no superfan. I know more than most Americans, probably, because I was living in Rio de Janeiro four years ago for the World Cup (such wild passion), and I was in Argentina for this World Cup (such luck!). But I am by no means the person to tell you about “what we can expect from Messl” (the top player in Argentina and maybe the world) in the game.

Regardless, I said, “Sure, why not? But tell me what you are going to ask me.” In the next mail, I said, “Just don’t ask me about the players, ask me about the mood and the passion in Buenos AIres.” Cultural observation I can do. Connecting football to politics I can do. So I commented on the World Cup in HuffPost Live. My brother Dan is an actual sports reporter who covers the Boston Bruins and I found it amusing that now I can call myself a sports commentator too.

Watch my debut as a traveling sports reporter above.

What does saying yes to this opportunity mean? Who knows?

But it’s fun to say yes. It makes life more interesting and opens the door to more magic and adventures. When have you said yes?

By the way, I want to remind you I am teaching this one-day writing workshop Writing Your Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey at the San Francisco Writers Grotto Saturday, August 2.

Perhaps these are the stories of when you have said yes and what you learned. Would love to see you in this class to hear your story, whether you’re blogging, writing an essay or a book.

Check out the class details here and take advantage of this opportunity while I am back in the States!

Besos
Sasha

HuffPost Live Chat on Ma’am vs. Miss


I was really happy to participate in this HuffPost Live interview on how we address women. Being asked whether I am a señora or señorita here in Argentina has me pondering again ma’am vs. miss and why we women are asked these questions and referred to by our age, marital or virginity status. I’ve blogged here and here about how our language shapes gender and our perception of ourselves. It’s time we have one word to address women–maybe when we are all Ma’ams then the sting is gone. Or when we start to respect older women then being ma’am will truly feel like respect. It might be time to think about shifting our language. France and Germany have!

Señora or señorita? Ma’am or miss? On refusing the boxes handed to women

Are you really going to ask me if I am a señora or señorita?

Are you really going to ask me if I am a señora or señorita?

Here in Argentina, people kiss when they meet. Even men kiss each other. It’s lovely. I’m a fan of human contact and the kiss is nice in comparison to a distant handshake. I was doing business with a “señor” (a man) who was hiply dressed, about 35 or 40, when we kissed cheeks, and he asked me, “Señora o señorita?” This is the equivalent of asking “Miss or ma’am?”

I gave him a puzzled expression in return.

He asked, “Tenes novio o sos casado?” “Are you married or do you have a boyfriend?” If the answer is yes, that would make me a señora, and if not, then I would be a señorita. Señora and señorita can also refer to age or sexual experience (when you are no longer a virgin you are a señora). Most likely it refers to marital status.

I sputtered out, “Me parece raro” (“That seems strange”).

I felt on the spot. Maybe it was a question to break the ice and get to know me but it wasn’t really that kind of situation. I would be in and out of the office in five minutes. What would I say, I’m a señora, since I’m 40 and not a virgin, but I’m not married, so by his definition I would be a señorita? My brain crashed since I don’t fit into either box and I don’t think he wanted to hear all the details of my dating life. So we got over our awkward moment.

Buenos Aires is a quite sophisticated city. Forty-eight percent of the population is single, without partner. So this is not some traditional place where very few women are single. I was taken aback by the question, though I’m sure he meant no offense. But on a deeper level, the language of polite conversation does not have us ask the same questions of men. We don’t ask that about men, now, do we? Señora o señorita, ma’am or miss? We just say señor. Or sir.

An Argentine female friend Virginia playfully calls me “Señora/Señorita” when I see her in the stairways of the tango school where I study. She has the right idea. Better to use both than to choose one since this question presents another false dichotomy of womanhood, like the virgin/whore, slut/prude, good girl/bad girl. All dichotomies that exclude parts of who we are.

In the United States, women are called ma’am or miss. That dichotomy is usually more about age than relationship status (or in the South, respect). I’ve written about the vexing issue of “ma’am vs. miss” years ago and gotten many comments from women of all ages who don’t like either appellation. I’ve learned a lot from the comments that have poured in on that post. Certainly it’s possible to take “ma’am” as a sign of respect for your experience. But there is something inescapably matronly about the term, and matronly is not how I or most women like to think about themselves. It would be different if “ma’am” meant worshiping the wisdom of an experienced woman. Maybe we should reclaim “ma’am” to mean wise, experienced, radiant, self-possessed woman.

Language shapes how we see the world and ourselves.

I am reminded of a question posed by Andreas from German during our quirky chat on healing single shame. He asked if women feel single shame more acutely than men. Well, of course we do, when we are put on our spot to define ourselves to complete strangers (do you have a boyfriend?) one necessarily feels there is a right answer, even if you are not sure what the right answer is.

Men are not asked whether they are married in a simple business transaction. Marriage is not as baked into a man’s identity. It was an innocent question, but the mere continuation of this señora/señorita distinction in language speaks to a deeper tendency for people to judge women on the basis of their fitting into relational boxes, rather than seeing them as independent entities, as we see men.

We hopped right on to the business at hand. He probably thought I was strange for giving him all those strange looks and telling him his question was “raro.” So be it. Señora, señorita, ma’am, miss, let’s call the whole thing off! Or let’s change their meanings.