Published in the Rains County Leader on June 28, 2016:
Last Sunday afternoon, David and I were invited to a late lunch with friends in honor of Father’s Day. As often happens at this kind of event, the men gathered in the living room in front of a televised sports event, and the women gathered in the kitchen.
The hostess related a story about a friend who wasn’t present. It seems that he made a deal with his children. If they would address their elders as “Sir” and “Ma’am” for an entire month, they would receive a reward of some kind. He was delighted to pay up when they were successful.
My comment was typical of someone of my age: “When I was a kid, saying “Sir” and “Ma’am” was expected behavior. Instead of being rewarded when we did, we were punished when we didn’t.” I went on to tell a story of my own about when and why I stopped using the terms.
After my freshman year in college, I dropped out for several reasons that aren’t relevant in this story. I decided to work for a while to earn enough to buy a car so I wouldn’t have to depend on others for transportation when I went back to school. As it turned out, the “while” turned out to thirty years, but that’s irrelevant, too.
I went to work for the First National Bank in Dallas as a Page in the file section of the Commercial Credit Department. That was before the advent of the personal computer, and each department had a page whose job was to carry inter-office memos, files, and mail to the proper desk in the nine-story building.
I was barely 19, and my immediate supervisor was probably no more than four or five years older than I was. She was horrified when, shortly after we met, she asked me a question and I replied, “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Oh, don’t call me ma’am. It makes me feel too old.”
As I told the friends who were listening to my story, I believe that was the beginning of the lack of respect for authority we see today. No, I don’t think how I addressed my supervisor changed society. What changed it was the attitude of younger members of the Silent Generation (born 1945 and earlier) and the older Baby Boomers (born 1946 and later) who reached early adulthood in the mid to late 60s. They did not want to accept the respect and the accompanying responsibility that came with being a grown-up.
One of the women who was standing at the stove stopped what she was doing and stared off into space for a few seconds. “Huh,” she said. “I never thought of that.”
It’s not a profound idea, but since she and the hostess thought it was interesting, I thought I’d share it with my readers. What we call someone may not matter that much, but the attitude behind the labels can make all the difference. When I was growing up, the men who wore blue uniforms and had flashing lights on the top of their cars were called policemen. Then, they became cops, and later they became pigs. Now they are called unprintable names and are mocked and evaded without a trace of respect. The same is true of parents, teachers, and most authority figures.
Don’t think that I’m setting myself up as a role model. My son wasn’t required to say sir and ma’am except when he was in trouble, and then it became a battle of wills between him and his dad. Still, he picked up some of our attitudes toward those we respected, and he learned to imitate those attitudes.
I’m still uncomfortable calling the men in blue “cops,” and it feels a little bit rude to call my minister by his first name, even if I put “Pastor” in front of it. Even now, I respect my elders, although at my age, it’s increasingly difficult to find them – but when I visit with Aunt Fay who is 92 years young, I still say “Yes, Ma’am.”
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD: A Caregiver’s Tale of Life, Love, and Chaos