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What is the appropriate age for baristas, video store clerks, and waitresses to start calling a woman “ma’am”? Please tell me, because I would like to know. I have become semi-obsessed with this question over the last couple of months. It’s possible that people have been calling me “ma’am” for years and I never really noticed, but all of a sudden, this summer when I was on the East Coast I started to feel middle-aged when every service professional addressed me in this (now) most dreaded way. I decided that this was perhaps an East Coast suburbia thing, that in Rhode Island, at age 34, I am presumed to be a mother when I’m out shopping at the grocery store or running errands, and therefore “matronly.” If there’s anything I don’t want to be, it’s “matronly.”

I haven’t been keeping count exactly of what I’m being called, perhaps a good sign, that this self-conscious obsession is waning. I can say unscientifically that since coming home to San Francisco I’ve been called “miss” a couple times, “young lady” a few, but mostly “ma’am.” My friend Sara tried to convince me that being called “ma’am” is a sign of respect, entirely appropriate for someone of my age. I guess at the core I have some resistance to my age, then. But for some reason it’s not bothering me as much lately. I would like to say that it’s because I’m becoming even more supremely self-confident and not vain. I don’t think so. I think it’s something about SF. That I can be “ma’am” and still a kid here, in a way that is not possible in a place where 34 means settled down and with child. Not that I’m opposed to that state, but that’s not where I am right now.

I just want to be clear, too, that I’m not opposed to all language indicating the adult state of a female human being. In fact, I like the word “woman,” and even prefer it to “girl.” I just really don’t want to be “ma’am.” “Ms.”–that would be weird, it’s not going to work as a form of address. “Lady” sounds a little rude and weird. What else is there? Suggestions, ideas? Am I the only one who feels this “ma’am” revulsion?