Don’t Smile When You Call Me That

Circa 1950s: When you grow up in Texas, you get used to hearing yourself called young lady if you’re a girl or son if you’re a boy.

It’s usually some old codger at the grocery store or the filling station who’s calling you that — somebody who clearly doesn’t realize how special and intellectual and deep you are. Somebody who’s patronizing you just because you’re young. It’s awful.

If you’re a rebellious and wild young thing, you probably go steal a motorcycle and terrorize some little kids and pigeons just to show the old coots they can’t push you around. If you’re introverted and skittish, you probably just break out in more pimples. You can imagine what kind of kid I was; I should have invested in Clearasil stock.

Circa late 1980s, early 90s: The years pass, and if you’re lucky, your face clears up. Nobody calls you young lady or son any longer. If you’re the weepy, nostalgic type, you begin to miss it. (If you’re the weepy, nostalgic type, in fact, you are capable of getting all choked up and missing anything, even a mild case of acne.)

I am, of course, one of those weepy, nostalgic types. This whole nostalgia bit got so bad when our kids were young that I sometimes found myself driving up to a nearby full-service gas station. There was a guy who was probably in his 80s who worked there.

“What do you need today, young lady?” he’d ask.

Young lady!   This electrified the whole car. I’d ask him to fill it up, please, all the while luxuriating in being called — just one more time, just because I needed it that day, dammit — young lady. In the meantime, the kids would stop screaming and biting each other in the back seat. Instead, they began to howl with laughter. Their mother was being called young lady! Did the filling-station attendant need a seeing-eye dog or something?

Circa Now: Sure enough, the years kept on passing, the full-service gas station is now a restaurant, and our kids drive their own cars. Oddly, though, the phrase “young lady” is enjoying an unfortunate resurgence when it comes to my generation. It’s often used by youthful servers at restaurants in an attempt to — well, what? Be funny? Chummy? Cute?

I begin to get reports from friends our age about their potentially becoming fork-wielding rage-aholics the next time some bright-eyed, wise-ass waiter or waitress pulls that phrasing out of their fedora. Aside from Vietnam and all that, we are a non-violent generation, but we do have our limits. You can’t call us young unless you’re as old as we are — so we’re all in on the joke.

Or maybe, I think, it should just be explained gently: Young ladies, real or imagined, rarely tip well. Older women, in contrast, when served in a manner of respect or slavish devotion, pony up quite extravagantly. It might be worth your while to choose your words carefully.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about remembering the mind of a 23-year-old. You haven’t forgotten, have you?

16 comments… add one
  • I also do not appreciate it when someone pretends my daughter and I are sisters. Seriously?

  • I don’t know which I dislike more; being called m’aam or young lady.

  • Regina Link

    Thanks for so many smiles.
    Your insights always on the mark.

  • mary Link

    ditto for the mother/daughter/sister thing – happened to us last week – and I bet my daughter was as horrified as I used to be when it happened to me and my mother ever so long ago!
    Also, I have a male friend who calls ALL women ‘young lady’ and always has , even when we were 18. So I can’t get mad at him – clueless but well-meaning!

  • Ken Wood Link

    Personally, I take offense at any “Server” that greets my wife and I as “Guys.” My bride of 48 years has never been a “Guy.”

  • Meg Link

    What about Sweetie? I hate it and never know how to respond to some well meaning person who thinks she is being kind.

  • marc leavitt Link

    Madam (I don’t know you personally; calling you “Ruth” is presumptuous):

    Here’s an analogous situation:

    It’s a convenience store. I (73-years-old) walk to the counter to pay. The young clerk, who has served me once or twice before, says, “Hey dude, whaddya need?”

    ME: Where do you get off, calling me ‘dude’?

    HE: What do you want me to call you, “sir?”

    ME: That’s right. Call me “sir.”

    If I sound like a curmudgeon, I plead “guilty.” But – and this, I think, goes a long way toward explaining why such condescension exists – up until a few years ago, I would have kept my mouth shut.

  • Or when salesmen use youth-focused flattery. Really? Do you think I’m that stupid? It’s just gross.

  • merr Link

    I feel like it’s more that motive or intention behind the word or label that is most bothersome, not the word itself in this case. And on that point, I agree.

  • Denise Link

    Wow, what a shame so many are upset by being called such seemingly kind words. For all the worse words we could be called, I’ll take any of these any day from well-meaning, friendly people. This world needs more flattery. It’s a good thing!

  • I’m on the fence about “young lady.” Still in my 50s, so maybe I’m just hanging on to the “young” notion by a thread. There’s a guy at the post office who calls everyone, no matter their age, young lady or young man. I think it’s kind of cute. Ask me again in 10 or 20 years.

  • Heidi Link

    I’m 61. “Young lady” doesn’t bother me half as much as “guys”. Last time my food server (a 20-something, of course) referred to my dinner companions and me as “guys”, I sat there with my blood boiling. I left her a note on the table as we left, suggesting that the use of “guys” was distasteful.

  • Yes. You have to earn the right, by aging, to call us young ladies. I totally agree.

  • swp Link

    I’m 59. I don’t eat out, too many calories. But I do get Chinese takeout occasionally. I forgot my glasses and asked my husband to circle the Healthy and Trim chicken with veggies, (the only thing I ever order). Unfortunately he circled the wrong item, which I couldn’t eat. I asked him to go back and get me my chicken. He managed to upset the entire establishment. They gave us a free dinner, twice, and I was too ashamed to eat there for a long, long time.

    I have never forgotten my glasses since. Respect for the aging is awkward.

  • I actually am neutral about “young lady” but being called m’aam really bugs me.

  • j0 Link

    I used to dislike “Ma’am” but learned that when introduced to Queen Elizabeth, you first address her as Your Majesty and after that use Ma’am all the way.

    I now feel if Ma’am is good enough for Queen Eliz, its good enough for me too. (I am 75)


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