PUBLISHED: 3:47 PM on Wednesday, April 18, 2007
When a girl becomes a 'Ma'am'

Okay girls - this one's for us. Because we can handle almost anything, right? From babies screaming in the back seat to winning the missing sock battle.

We girls can handle almost anything - except when someone calls us 'Ma'am' for the first time.

I'm not talking about our polite friends who practice their Southern hospitality or military courtesy. This is about feeling like we're getting old before we're ready for it.

But we can handle almost anything, right? I thought I could. Until the day a courtesy clerk - cute and in his 20s, by the way - loaded groceries into my trunk while I leaned into the car to buckle up my baby boy.

"Have a nice day, Ma'am."

I stood straight up and bumped my head. "'Ma'am'? You didn't call me 'Ma'am', did you? 'Cuz I'm, like, 26, you know. I'm not - I'm not a 'Ma'am,'" I stammered.

Poor guy. He'd been hit with a heavy dose of estrogen and all he had to defend himself with was an empty grocery cart.

Elaine Koehn can handle almost anything. She first heard "Ma'am" as a new school teacher.

"There was a young man whose dad was in the military; he'd call me 'Ma'am'," Koehn said. Koehn took no offense. "I understood - it was appropriate," she said. She also knows how to politely correct students who might call her 'Sir'.

"I think ('Ma'am') is appropriate, just like if you were to call someone 'Miss', 'Ms.', or 'Mrs.' But a connotation of belligerence? No," said Koehn.

Jennie Peloli can handle anything. Almost.

"To hear 'Ma'am' means you're getting old! I'll be in a restaurant, and the server might ask, 'Can I help you, 'Ma'am?' I don't like that."

Peloli plays a double-standard. "Yet when I need to get someone's attention, I might use 'Ma'am'; but when it's used on me, I don't like it!'" Peloli laughed.

Then there's Rachel Tschabold. "I was probably in my late 30s or early 40s the first time someone called me 'Ma'am'. It makes me feel like an old lady," she chuckled.

Her story doesn't end there.

Tschabold related to going into stores where clerks behind the counter are more than half her age.

"What's worse is when they call you 'Honey' - and they're younger than you!" she laughed.

So girls - this one's for us. Because we can handle almost anything, right?

Even when a girl becomes a "Ma'am."

Judy Halone is a member of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.