My wife once spanked our child for committing a household felony, and when she was done the lad said, “Thank you, ma’am.” That is when you know you have done Southern parenting right.
From a teetering, toddling age we are taught - nay, we are drilled - respect and manners, sometimes by repetition, sometimes at the stinging end of a belt or wooden spoon. I once forgot to say “ma’am” in front of folks while shopping with my Momma in the Piggly Wiggly, and she whipped me until there was a traffic jam of store buggies and gawking shoppers that extended from aisle seven to the produce counter, and then the manager asked her to leave.
Some lessons in manners are timelessly relevant and universal (no matter how old you are, you should always say “please” and “thank you”) but down South, we spend much of our formative years having habits like “ma’am” beaten into us, then spend the rest of our lives listening to society tell us our Southern ways are rude, annoying or backward. Now that’s a Southern dilemma if I ever saw one!
As soon as our children could begin weaving words into clumsy sentences, my wife and I began mandating that they say “ma’am” or “sir” to every adult, with no exceptions. Having your child say “no,” “yes,” “huh” or “what” instead of “sir” and “ma’am” in public is so embarrassing to a Southerner that you just want to bury your head in a bag full of dry grits, and it is a clear-cut sign to the rest of the world that you are a horrible parent. (This can result in corporal punishment only slightly less violent than the Battle of Gettysburg, you just wait until we get home, mister! )
When it comes to saying “sir” and “ma’am,” my wife and I were raised to the same strict standards. She has slacked up on the habit a little these days, but I couldn’t stop if I tried. So well did my Momma raise me that I say “ma’am” to every female life form on the planet, including rude telemarketers, Girl Scouts peddling cookies and high-school-age checkout girls in the grocery store. I say “ma’am” to Siri, the all-knowing virtual lady giving me directions on my phone and even the female voice at the fast food drive-thru. If I were to become a sexually deviant obscene phone caller, I’d probably still use my manners and work the word “ma’am” into my routine.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you,” I’d likely say, breathing heavily into the phone. “But can you tell me what you are wearing?”
But the problem lies in the fact that the older some women get, the less they liked to be called ma’am. They say it makes them feel old. Some ladies get downright offended when a young adult breaks out that four-letter word, so you can imagine what happens when they hear it from a balding, overweight, 47-year-old man with bad eyesight and high blood pressure.
A recent example of this dilemma occurred at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Can I help you?” asked the clerk, who looked to be somewhere in her 50’s.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m here to renew my license.”
“Please don’t call me ma’am. Now, when does your license expire?”
“Well, that’s the problem, ma’am, I think it expired last month and …”
“Did you just ma’am me again?’
“No, ma’am, I didn’t …”
“Are you mentally damaged, or are you calling me old?”
“No, ma’am, not at all. It’s just …”
“I tell you what. Why don’t you take this paperwork and go on back to the end of the line.”
“What’s this for?”
“Well, it looks like you’ve got to retake your vision test and your driving test or we will have to revoke your license. Good luck, four eyes. That will teach you to call me old.”
Me sighing. “Yes, ma’am.”
So what does all this mean in the deeper, grander scheme of life? We are born, we learn, we become the adults our parents make us, and then we, in turn, spend our mature lives forming children into the type of adults that we want them to be. It’s the cycle of life.
So we as adults, parents and role models should consider carefully what we teach our young, for we are imbedding in them a lifetime of character and behavior. And you can call me a backward Southern dinosaur if you want, but I intend to raise my children, nieces, nephews and one day grands to have respect for their elders, and for everyone else on the planet that deserves it.
But I ran into the Piggly Wiggly manager the other day while shopping.
“Are you that bad boy who used to come in here causing trouble with his Momma?” she asked sternly.
All I could do was hang my head in guilt.
Michael M. DeWitt Jr. is the managing editor of The Hampton County Guardian newspaper in South Carolina. He is an award-winning humorist, journalist and outdoor writer and the author of two books.