I said this to the (very sexy) barista when she asked if I wanted any food with my beverage.
“Don’t call me that!” she said.
“No?” I asked.
The older, equally sexy barista to her left said, “No, sir! Ma’am is for older women!” She clearly meant “women older than either of us.” She might well have meant, “Women older than our combined ages. Crones. Hags.”
“What should I say?” I asked.
I always, always say “ma’am” and “sir” to people in service roles. I wasn’t taught to. I wasn’t raised in the South, or in a formal environment. I just found myself doing it sometime in the nineties, when I was working in a field populated by people who demand, but are stingy with, respect. It felt a costless way of showing my respect for everyone, but especially, for those whose livelihood depends on showing it for me.
Nowadays, when I command respect, it’s more often in a sexual context than as a consumer, or employer. I consume a lot less service, and the service I consume tends to have less respect bundled along with the product itself. (If that makes sense.)
And, nowadays, I give off a distinctly sexual air (to people sniffing), in a way I didn’t back then. Never mind that, back then, I was having a lot more sex than I am now.
So when this woman heard “ma’am,” she didn’t hear me showing respect. She heard me denying – or worse, not considering – sexual interest.
Postscript: My question – “What should I say?” was followed by a moment of silence familiar to me.
It was the same as the silence I used to hear all the time during sex (in my twenties) when I would, thinking myself a kind and generous lover, ask my bed- (or, more often, futon-) mates, “What do you want to do?” I didn’t get that what my futon-mates wanted was for me to fucking decide, to take what I wanted, to give what I wanted.
I ended this particular silence as I never ended those: decisively. “Should I say, ‘No, pretty woman?'”
They laughed. The younger one said, “I don’t know, ‘Miss’?”
The older said, “She has a nametag!”
“I’m N,” I said, “and no thank you, Natalie, I don’t want anything to eat. But thank you for asking.”
Maybe English is not a ‘colorful’ language, in Chinese we have more than one ways of addressing a woman or a girl, in my part of the world, to play safe, we tend to address a woman using a term (quite neutral ) that may make them feel a little younger !