Words Matter

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I grew up in the south where addressing adults with “sir” and “ma’m” was the polite thing to do. I was an obedient child so I always followed that rule, but my feisty mother told us that she had never done so. Her father had told his children that he did not come to America to be compelled to defer to anyone with titles that made him feel subservient. He advised them to forgo what he saw as demeaning acquiescence to others. Mama left it to us to determine whether or not we would follow the local protocols, but insisted that she would support us no matter what we decided to do. I took the less complicated route of not bucking the system, but I understood why my grandfather had felt compelled to exercise his new freedoms.

I have talked about this with my husband who relayed a similar story about his grandfather. It seems that his grandpa had refused to respond to one of his teachers with the addition of the word “ma’m.” For his impertinence he received corporal punishment. When the young fellow’s mother heard what had happened she rushed to the school and gave the teacher a couple of licks with her buggy whip. The story of that moment became a legend in the family that spoke to the kind of negative response that supposedly polite words can engender. 

I’ve heard of immigrants from England who told their offspring that nobody was a servant anymore and therefore nobody had to use those kind of salutations. For many people “sir” and “ma’m” feel like holdovers from times of slavery, indentured servitude and demeaning occupations. Because I’ve had a good life I’ve never felt offended by having to use such language, but I have seen the hurt in the eyes of those who had at one time felt trapped by people with power over them who expected to be treated as superiors rather than equal humans. 

Recently I read an editorial considering the linguistic meaning of addressing someone as “ma’m.” I learned that in many regions of the United States it has become passé to use such titles and doing so is actually insulting. It reminded me of a friend’s son who was chastised by a teacher who thought that the boy was making fun of her by using that salutation. In truth he had only recently moved to California from Texas where such a way of addressing any woman was expected. He had no idea that he sounded insulting to the harried teacher. 

I studied linguistics in college and it is quite fascinating. We are all products of the places, the people and the events that we have encountered in life. Something as seemingly simple as a word can have multiple meanings depending on the experiences of those that we encounter. If I am a teacher in charge of a classroom I find no offense from a student calling me “Ma’m.” If someone close to may age uses the same word I feel a bit put off as I wonder if I actually look older to that person. Situational linguistics is quite fascinating. There really is a time and place for all forms of communication. We would do well to be careful in how we address people that we do not know. Without walking in their shoes we may not fully understand their reactions to what we have to say. 

While visiting London we of course used the Tube to get around town. Most of the time we easily found seats but one morning we left our hotel during rush hour. We were crammed into the car like sardines. Suddenly a man looked over and innocently said, “May I give you my seat, Mum?” 

For a split second I felt a bit angry. It crossed my mind that he somehow thought that I was so old and weak that I could not stand like everyone else. While I mused my expression must have been all too clear because he suddenly looked away with embarrassment. He somehow got the message that I had felt insulted by his offer of a seat. I realized then that he had only been attempting to be kind and that I had been the offender in the situation. Within a split second I smiled and thanked him profusely for the generous offer. We switched places and I enjoyed a comfortable ride to my destination. 

I would soon learn that being called “Mum” in London was a very respectful thing. I began to take the salutation as an honor., especially after I heard that the people called Queen Elizabeth, “Ma’m,” a way of addressing exclusive to her. “Mum” was for all other women who had reached a time of honor and reverence. In the smiles and warmth of the people who called me “Mum” I saw that they wanted to be kind to me.

Language is important. When we offend someone with how we address them it is most often because of something in their background that felt hurtful. We should be willing to accommodate them with the freedom to avoid certain words that make them feel unseen or misunderstood. We also need to be willing to realize that words that offend us may not be spoken in the ways we think they are. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the time to analyze the situation. Our words matter and so do our responses to them. 


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