Please Don’t Call Me “Young Man”
I’ve earned my 75-year old status.
I’ve lived in Georgia for the better part of my life, working as a College professor training and educating K-12 teachers. My field was social studies, so I’ve had decades of thinking about and teaching the social sciences and humanities. This work has made me a keen observer of society and I’ve taught students to think about society conceptually, hoping that they would teach their students similarly once they became school teachers.
I was raised under the guidance of my father’s Southern and military background, so I was taught to address all men as “Sir,” and all women as “Ma’am.” These appellations worked very well for me in smalltown southern Indiana as a child and youth.
However, when my family moved to Milwaukee in the early 1960s I got slapped on the face when I said “yes, ma’am” to a woman neighbor in answer to her question (which I now can’t recall). Her slap was a substantial stroke and quite a rebuke for a 13-year-old boy, so it took a lot of explaining by my parents to help me understand a potential motive for her behavior.
Even though it happened many years ago, I still remember that slap as my punishment for giving what I had been taught was a polite response to her question.
My family moved to Athens, GA in 1988. I was 40 years old. Having lived “up north” (Indiana, Wisconsin) and “out west”(Colorado, Idaho) in my younger years, I knew social etiquette would change and Sir and Ma’am would be expected when we started working at UGA (the University of Georgia, Athens).
As I entered my 60s, I began to notice that students were opening doors for me obviously due to my appearance. No one had ever opened doors for me before, so why now? I tried to gracefully accept this manifestation of good manners but it did cause me to think, “Damn it, I can still open the door for myself!” It wasn’t like I didn’t have two hands or was carrying something huge.
Door opening was a new and unusual etiquette-induced behavior that I had to accept.
Now at 75, damn near every door I approach anywhere is opened by someone which often causes me to think, “Damn I must look pretty feeble!”
Here in the South people also often call me “Sir” and my wife “Ma’am,” which is fine with us. Now that we are so damned old, we both are sometimes called by our first names (Mr. John and Ms. Gail) by a substantial number of folks who either believe this is a Southern nicety, forgot our last name, feared mispronouncing it, or were expressing some type of social status differerntial.
Occasionally a store clerk may call me “Young man”and I really don’t appreciate this backhanded compliment. I’m obviously not young, and being reminded of that, believe me, isn’t necessary. I understand that people who use this expression are often just trying to be comically friendly, so I accept this greeting even though I don’t like it.
Today I always say “Sir” and “Ma’am” to every adult I encounter whether young or old, but sometimes people seem startled when I address them so politely, and it makes me think back to my Milwaukee neighbor lady incident.
It takes a bit of forethought to use any sort of greeting words, but I won’t stop saying Sir and Ma’am to all adults I encounter in my remaining years, thanks to my father’s Southern military heritage.
And, because I know that intentions are very important, I hope I never try to slap someone for calling me “young man!”