I just got off the telephone with a customer service representative from AT&T who called me “ma’am” several times. Even though I don’t think I sound like a woman, this happens to me quite a bit when I am on the telephone or ordering from a drive-thru menu.
The worst part of the drive-thru scenario is when I have to pull forward to pay. Even though I should have nothing to be ashamed of, I find it agonizing that the person I’m about to hand my money to is going to be embarrassed for using the wrong gender reference. Some have apologized, some have acted rather sheepish, some have tried to make up for the blunder by calling me “sir” over and over. One man not only called me “sir” repeatedly, but even looked at my partner and I as he handed over our drinks and said, “We appreciate you guys.” While I appreciated his efforts to make me feel more comfortable, they really only made the situation more awkward.
I wonder if the solution to this problem might be if people who are communicating with customers they can’t see would refrain from using gender-based references. I know a lady with a deep voice who gets called “sir” under the same circumstances. I guess she’s some real-life version of Peppermint Patty.
The Christian school I attended taught us to use “ma’am” and “sir” to the teachers as a sign of respect, and I am sure that is the reason people continue to use them today. I don’t really use either these days, but I do try to stick with being courteous and polite to others by saying “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.”
I believe the tone in a person’s voice and the manner in which they speak is a far greater indicator of respect than whether or not they refer to you as “ma’am” or “sir.” Or even both!