According to the mainstream media, we have yet one more word that is “polarizing” in twenty-first century society, the word “ma’am”.
In an article entitled “How ‘ma’am’ went from being a respectful word for some – but polarizing for others”, CNN’s Janelle Davis laments that when she was addressed as “ma’am” for the first time, she could feel her “youthful privileges slipping away—like the assumptions that you’re interesting, open-minded and up-to-date on the latest trends.”
Davis points out that the word “ma’am” was a comedic device in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which my grandmother faithfully watched in the 1970s. In an early installment of the series, the show’s eponymous main character, having just turned thirty, is taken severely aback when a young whippersnapper addresses her as “ma’am”.
Davis further asserts that many men bristle at the word “sir”. Men who have not yet reached the stage of senescence, according to Davis, much prefer to be addressed as “dude” or (cringe) “bro”.
I will turn fifty-five this year. If a young male whom I don’t know addressed me as “dude” or “bro”, I would probably assume he was being ironic. On the other hand, I hear “sir” around once per week nowadays—from young guys in the gym, from the young cashier where I do my grocery shopping.
“Sir” is not a form of address that I would ever require of anyone. There are two conceits of age: the first is assuming oneself to be eternally young, the second is to take oneself too seriously as the birthdays rack up. But whom am I kidding? From the perspective of a much younger stranger, “sir” probably seems a more fitting moniker for me than “dude”, or the cringeworthy “bro”.
In her book The Age of American Unreason, author Susan Jacoby, a Baby Boomer born in 1945, notes how the cultural shift of the 1960s made eternal adolescents of us all. In the early 1960s, Jacoby reminds us, teenage girls were emulating the styles and dress of Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady of the United States. By 1970, though, middle-age women were imitating the fashions and behavior of teenagers. (And needless to say, the same would go for middle-age men.) Oh, what a decade of youth culture worship can do to an otherwise sane civilization.
Two generations after the 1960s, we are all too infatuated with youth for youth’s sake, and with both real and imagined notions of our former selves. Anyone who believes that an age short of thirty automatically makes one “interesting” and “open-minded” really needs to spend more time talking to teenagers and early twenty-somethings.
Or, failing that, spend a half-hour on TikTok. Ask yourself if you’re missing out on much by not being “up-to-date” on the “latest trends” that dominate TikTok’s youth-centric platform.
I’m not specifically picking on the current youthful generation here, mind you. I was a teenager forty years ago. Suffice it to say that much of early 1980s teen culture has not aged well.
But that’s the point. Youth culture has always been shallow and self-obsessed, just like most of us are during our tender years. This largely explains why youth culture is so ephemeral—because it plays to the herd instincts of a particular pack of youngsters at a particular point in time. TikTok strikes me as the nadir of silliness. But then, the 55-year-olds of 1983 weren’t exactly impressed with the MTV videos that I couldn’t spend enough hours watching.
If you’re over the age of 35, embrace that sir, and claim that ma’am. Remember that adults purposely and proudly emulating adolescents is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon. Accepting your age has many upsides, including being more comfortable with the inevitable passage of time. And best of all, you can feel free to completely ignore TikTok.