Don’t Call Me “Miss”

I was at the grocery store this week.  Standing in the check-out line I listened to the exchanges between the customer in front of me and the check-out person.  The check-out person was ‘youthful’.  In all likelihood, this was among his first jobs.  He was busily scanning the items, looking at the computer screen, and attempting to have what appeared to be a conversation.

grocery_CheckoutThe patter that seemed to be standard went something like this:  “Hello, Miss.  Did you find everything you wanted? . . . Do you want to purchase a bag or did you bring your own? . . ..  Do you want to donate to ___________________? . . .  Do you want your receipt?”

Mind you, this is a soliloquy, not an actual conversation.  Several things are missing that would help to structure and define this as an actual exchange between two people.  For example, there was no eye contact.  When offered a greeting, there was no waiting for a response.

If I hadn’t found everything I needed, why would I wait until I was in the check-out line to let someone know?  I would deduce that having placed my cloth bag on the checkout counter, the need to purchase another one would seem to be obviated.  It would appear that the rush of questions did not actually require any antiphonal response on my part.  Why?

I have stood in many a line where the checkout person swiped my items and carried on a conversation with the person in line behind me. Or with a fellow employee.  Or totally stopped doing what they were doing and entered into a conversation with another co-worker.  Why?

DoNotDisturbFaceWas it because I was old?  Was it because I am an old woman?  Was it because I am short or wear glasses or have a “Do Not Disturb” look about me?

But what really gets to me is being called “Miss”.  Of all the possible salutations, I am completely befuddled as to how this young person determined that I should be called “Miss”.  I grew up in an era where I was taught to address those older than myself by using the terms, “Sir” or “Ma’am”.  This young man had been directed to call me “Miss”.  I asked him, rather pointedly, why he did that?  After figuring out that I actually wanted to have a conversation with him, he said it was store policy.  This is a confusing policy to me, since it does not seem respectful or accurate.

I actually pay attention to proper titles.  Having achieved high academic qualification, as well as a nationally-recognized, professional license, I take a great deal of pride in being correctly addressed as “Doctor”.  Now, this poor young man would have no idea about my professional standing, but he was able to discern that I was not a peer.  He could have scanned my hands for jewelry and found that I am wearing a ring on my left hand, fourth finger.  That is a culturally-accepted symbol of being married.  That would have dictated my being addressed at least as “Mrs.” or “Ma’am”.  Yet there was a store policy to call older women “Miss”.

Call_Me_MadamWhy?  Is this some coy attempt at flattery?  Is it designed to cultivate my custom such that I will return again and again to purchase goods from this fine establishment?  I have my doubts.  I actually made the young man pause, and after his embarrassment at not having an answer, I took him off the hook and said, “I am not a ‘Miss’.  There is nothing amiss with me!  Please call me “Ma’am”.  He didn’t get it.

Not to sound too much like a crusty old fogey, I have noticed a decline in manners.  Perhaps this is more geographical. Perhaps more formal means of address are to be found where there is greater attention paid to tradition.  Here in California, we are more informal.  Still, I find myself noticing how much I could do with a bit more formality.

For example, I was in my office the other day.  I work with three other therapists.  Two of us are PhDs and the other two have Master’s degrees.  One of the Master’s was in with her early-teen daughter.  She introduced me to her daughter by my first name – “Sally, this is Mary.”  Not, “Sally, this is Dr. Flett.”  Or, Sally, this is Dr. Mary.” – Nope – “Sally, this is Mary.”  It struck me as way too informal.  While I appreciate that titles can actually get in the way of relationships, there is benefit to acknowledging both age and academic achievement in certain situations.  This was one of them.

Synchronistically this was brought home to me when I recently viewed an old clip of Maya Angelou speaking to a young, black woman on a San Francisco talk show, “People Are Talking”.  I could not find the original of that clip, but here is a link from AP News:

When I watched this, I said “AMEN!”  and then I wished I could channel Dr. Angelou.  I realized that while others may call me by various names, most younger people are not taught the importance of honoring their elders through language.  This is not about ego or status.  It is about respect.

It may not come as a surprise to you that I strongly feel that elders in the United States are not treated with the respect we deserve.  Maybe this has come from a lowering of standards, or because we are not wanting to identify with being “old”.  It may have its origin in our antidisestablishmentarian ways of the 60’s.  Breaking down class barriers actually has some merit!  But not in this instance.

Dr. Angelou said it brilliantly in her teaching moment:

I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years-old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first. Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?

Now when people ask me how I prefer to be addressed, I will say with humor, “I prefer Your Royal Highness, but that title has not yet been given to me.  You may call me Dr. Flett.”


I have heard it said that respect is earned not given.  But what does that mean?  Dr. Angelou suggests that a life that has been lived, with all the effort it takes to arrive at 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 or beyond, should be a sufficient demonstration and worthy of respect.  When forced to do anything, I believe the resulting action is often done out of compliance rather than choice.  I would hope that as an elder I would not force others to respect me.  Rather, I hope that by modeling the virtues, values, and behaviors that are worthy of respect, I would be worthy of respect.  In respecting myself, respect from others would naturally follow.


  1. Mary, you correctly lament what you so delicately term a general “decline in manners.” Ho ho ho! Thirty or so years ago even cynical-about-my-birth-country-me . . . could not have imagined the gross ravaging of civility and the rise of naked-with-no-pretense public narcissism which has come to pass.

    Put more succinctly, how could America’s public manners have become significantly more vulgar, self-centered and care-less then they already were. Little did I then know!

    Two symptoms perfectly chart the present “decline.” For me, it’s most perfectly symbolized by people totally, unashamedly and drunkenly being addicted to their Idiot-Phones (“idiot” is actually what the “I” stands for). Ever more drooling into the screen in search of one’s Adoring Public, i.e., for some external proof that the totally unconscious Self might actually exist. And ALWAYS blithely ignoring any actual other “people” in one’s actual, physical presence whilst they are being ignored in favor of The Phone. Sadly, such a person (the “phoney”) never can actually exist, at least as long as s/he continues her/his love affair with Shallow Cartoon Self-as-Reflected-in-Idiot-Phone.

    Secondly, there is that former but now-quaint expression”thank you,” been displaced with “No worries.” If this weren’t such a garish indicator of total, self-centered cluelessness, it would be funny. Just look at the syntax: “Thank YOU” is about “you” (the other person). Whereas “no worries” signified that: “oh you didn’t in the least interrupt my narcissistic pre-occupation with ME.” Shriek.

    So much for a “decline” in manners. That I would more accurately term a “free-fall,” or perhaps a “sink-hole.’
    And BTW, “Have a nice day.”

  2. I’ve always thought that we get called “Miss”, not because we are so youthful looking, but rather because
    so many people don’t want to be called “Ma’am”, and indeed find that an insult, suggesting that the individual is OLD.
    So better to call the real old people ‘Miss’ along with everyone else so as to not insult the legions of women who would feel insulted if they they were called “Ma’am.” And to tell the truth, even real “Ma’ams” like to suffer the delusion that, even for an instant, the years have rolled off and we have really been mistaken for a “miss.” It’s just another indication that this is a pro-youth world, and even the older people can take on the same prejudices. But also consider than there is on honorific for men and even boys, “Sir.” No male,young old, objects to be called “Sir,” which seems to be more about respect than age.

  3. In my family’s tradition, one received (& listed) one’s same-sex parent’s given name first & one’s own given name, second. These days, I’m breezily addressed as my mother. Three-year-olds authoritatively call my mother’s name from behind desks. I smilingly go through my routine of explaining.
    To be called L in a medical situation is disconcerting, particularly when waking from anaesthesia (what realm am I in?). I’m honoured to carry her name and it’s not the personal name my parents gave me! My father has the same problem. He’s 99, a retired professor, and is now regularly called by his father’s given name.
    I didn’t grow up here; we were slayed if we called an elder by first name. We waited until elders told us to do that–if they did. A friend’s father told me to call him Frank after 40 years. I couldn’t.
    How do I handle it? Not always graciously , occasionally slightly vindictively. However, sometimes e.g. if the doctor introduces him/herself as “Dr X. Nice to meet you L, I reply using their first name. They get the point. Other times I use humour: “L’s my mother; she’s been dead 10 years! … Call me J” At others, I politely – I hope politely – say, “I’m Dr X/Dr J. but I’m the patient here so call me J or Dr. J” Occasionally I pull the whole trip: “I’m sorry. I didn’t grow up here. I’m unused to first names. Please call me – – –“
    No easy way. I agree Mary. I like ritual levels of intimacy. I am NOT J to the three-year-old behind the counter or running round my living room with her mother. I grin & bear it; I’m a coward: I don’t want to be seen as bad tempered or vain about a professional title.

  4. Here in a southern border state there is the tradition of calling women “Miss Mary”– indicating a closer relationship than using the last name, but not totally informal. Of course, that tradition also refers to enslaved people for whom “respect” and title were required. I too bristle at the informality of today’s world (I particularly hate when students start an email with “hey.”) But I also bristle when I hear medical people call each other “doctor” in more casual situations, but don’t the call PhD’s doctor with whom they also work. (This is especially true of nurse practitioners who often have PhDs.) What I really hate is when health care professionals (of all sorts) refer to my 98 yr old mother-in-law as “miss” or worse “young lady.” “Young lady” applied to anyone over the age of 12 is demeaning!

    I vividly remember when my favorite college professor (who always called us “miss” and “mister” in class) told me after I had graduated that I could call her by her first name. I had arrived! It meant so much. I continue that tradition with my own students, who do–according to department policy–call us by our titles. (But we are one of the few who insist on this.)

    We are no longer bound by etiquette– some loosening of those ties is fine–but not when it shows a lack of respect and is demeaning.

  5. It is simply ignorance, societal. Lack of social skill and graciousness which has not been taught to the following generations. I do not feel disrespected so much as generic. Tone of voice and attitude is what I note. In the right circumstances I will take a moment to teach.

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