Don’t you ‘yes ma’am’ me!

By Laura Modrall |

Laura Modrall“Yes, ma’am!” I said with an enthusiastic smile.

“Oh, that’s so cute,” said my professor with a bite of sarcasm. “I’m trying to break my kids of that habit.”

This was a fairly recent occurrence, but for years I’ve gotten similar responses to my involuntary use of courtesy titles. Try as I might, I can’t seem to break my “disgusting” habit. Like a puppet, it’s impossible to pull away from the strings of my Southern roots and old-fashioned upbringing.

Whether the person I’m addressing thinks the phrase ages them or sounds repetitive, I’ve heard every reason NOT to say the forbidden pleasantries.

You may then be asking yourself, why? Why do I continue to isolate myself with this seemingly foul expression?

The answer is simple: That’s how I was raised. My parents doomed my existence when they hammered “ma’am” and “sir” in my noggin since uttering my first word! Then, elementary schoolteachers and elderly people would praise me on my “good manners.” Always the people-pleaser, the habit became forever imbedded in my subconscious.

You see, the responses spewing from my mouth are meant to be harmless displays of respect. Those in authority are my superiors, so I automatically address them with the reverence I feel they deserve.

When they draw attention to this faux pas, however, I get nervous and start concentrating on my error. This tension causes me to repeat the offending statement … multiple times!

Another side-effect of my upbringing is that reaction to my habitual response is often littered with sarcasm and belittlement. Because I respond in a way similar to a kindergartener, I get treated as such.

My attempt to counteract this occurrence is by always trying to carry myself in a mature and responsible fashion, but once people hear me utter “ma’am” or “sir,” I receive statements like “Oh, that’s so cute” and “You must be from the South.”

Southern hospitality, as this form of civility is called, teeters on the fine line between sweet and cliché. According to Huck Treadwell’s article in the Times-Journal, the epidemic seems to be dying down. “In general, children don’t behave and have extremely poor manners and adults aren’t necessarily humble, modest or courteous — all things I consider important to good Southern hospitality,” he said.

Even though I inadvertently offend some, overall I believe people are just mystified by the phenomenon. For those notably offended, I really do try to tone it down, but for the most part I believe that I’m a fatal case.

Every day my habit is reinforced during my daily phone call to my mother.

“Did you have a good day?” she asks. Unless it is finals week, my reply is always, “Yes, ma’am!”

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