Manners matter: Lessons from the 'school of ma'am'

Years ago, a new-to-Charlottesville co-worker asked me not to refer to her as "Ma'am." "It makes me feel old," said the twenty-something. At the time I didn't know how to respond to that near-impossible task; as a native Charlottesvillian, I was brought up in the "School of Ma'am."

Maybe I didn't originate the term, but I've never heard anyone else use it. When I mention the "School of Ma'am" to others, I get one of two reactions: a blank stare (usually from a "transplant," someone not originally from the South) or a smile of recognition from a fellow "graduate."

Outsiders may find the Southern custom of using "Ma'am" quaint, and maybe hard to understand. This colloquial shortening of madam, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was originally "the ordinary respectful form of address to a married woman; later restricted to the queen, royal princesses, or by servants to their mistresses." (At least it was when it started in 1668.) Later it was used by Southerners in a more general way as a sign of politeness and respect.

We Southerners are noted for our politeness, if nothing else. (Well, okay– our drawls, our food, the War Between the States, NASCAR...) It's our politeness that the producers of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America... cited as the reason they filmed in the South (and why the movie couldn't have been filmed elsewhere). And one of the hallmarks of the trait is the use of "Sir" and "Ma'am."

I'm not going to argue whether Charlottesville is a Southern town. I will, however, point out that, beginning at an early age, most Southerners are trained to use "Sir" or "Ma'am" when referring respectfully to their elders, strangers, or teachers. The process often starts when an older person asks a child a question. The child answers, and he's told to end the answer with "Ma'am" (or "Sir" as needed). The wise child does so immediately– or will soon learn he'd better, or else.

The "pop quiz" portion of the learning begins when the child forgets to end the answer with Ma'am. For example: an adult asks the child if she'd like a piece of candy, and she answers "Yes." Her parent asks her, "Yes, what?!" In front of strangers or family, it's said in a pleasant voice accompanied by a smile. If the child doesn't respond with the obligatory "Yes, Ma'am," the parent will ask again, more quietly– often through clenched teeth. Back in the day, a quick but subtle flashing of the back of a hand suggested what might soon "pop" you upside your head if you didn't answer correctly. (I flunked many a pop quiz.) 

The proper behavior is eventually learned and becomes ingrained. Once the conditioning kicks in, the student can no more forget to say "ma'am" than Pavlov's dog could forget to salivate.

Of course, the "School of Ma'am" isn't in session everywhere. As a youngster, I knew TV's Captain Kangaroo wasn't from the South. He referred to the magic words "please" and "thank you," but he forgot the other two: "Sir" and "Ma'am."

Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child, and right she was. The family, the extended family, the neighbors, and the child's school teachers all took part in reinforcing a child's education in the School of Ma'am. At least that's the way it used to be. 

Times are changing. Recently I was told by a "come here" school teacher acquaintance that she would not make her students address her as Ma'am– never mind that parents had requested she do so. She couldn't see the point, not being a graduate herself. Maybe there's no point. Or just maybe the point is that politeness is in short supply these days.

In my daily dealings with the public at BreadWorks Bakery & Deli, I address my customers with both Sir and Ma'am. It doesn't matter their age, and it doesn't matter my familiarity with them. Being a graduate of the School of Ma'am, it just comes as natural as the next breath. 

And to the lady who may be offended by my politeness, I can only say "Sorry, Ma'am."

Author Carroll Trainum is one of the few who can be called neither Ma'am nor Sir, as he should really be addressed by that rarest of monikers: "Lifetime Charlottesville Resident."


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