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Earlier today, I had to call a young man — early 20s — for a story I am working on for our alumni magazine (I work in marketing at a community college).

When he picked up, he sounded clearly distracted. I asked if he’d like me to call him back. He told me that’d be great — because he was in the shower.

Oh, so many thoughts …

  1. Why would you answer the phone in the shower?
  2. Why would you answer the phone in the shower when you don’t recognize the phone number?
  3. Did he have the phone INSIDE the shower with him, or just outside it, like on the toilet?
  4. Why would you TELL the stranger on the other line that you are busy because you are in the shower? Why not just say, “This isn’t the best time. Can you call back in 20?”

Anywho, we hung up, I giggled, and then I called him back a half hour later, when I presume he was squeaky clean and not in the process of bathing.

We had a pleasant chat and, when we were finished talking, I told him to have a great rest of the day.

“You too, ma’am.”

((cringe))

This man was perfectly polite. It was the perfect response. So why did I have such a visceral reaction?

Something about “ma’am” in today’s society says “old.” It says, “I recognize you as my elder, and I want to respect you, because I was taught to respect my elders.”

I am 30. I don’t feel old. I love my age. I love celebrating birthdays. So it’s not that this young man’s “ma’am” reminded me of my mortality or any such nonsense. It just … sounded weird. And unfortunately, I’m not able to better articulate it than that.

Someone, please, explain to me: Why is it when a person is being perfectly polite and appropriate by using a word like “ma’am” can it so often make said “ma’am” go “ugh”?? I know I’m not alone in this.

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