Now that English professor Miriam Kotzin has reached her sixties, she finds that people are beginning to call her "young lady" — and she's none too fond of it.
According to Kotzin, the practice is surprisingly common — many of her coevals and some older friends have been "young-lady-ed." She complains that "those two words dispel all illusion of glamour. I'm reduced to being a little old lady with or without tennis shoes." Of course, searching for "young lady" on Getty Images yields a bunch of photos of Michelle Obama hula-hooping, which, while not strictly glamorous, is certainly awesome. Still, Kotzin has a legitimate point. She writes,
I find an implied hierarchy in the phrase, with the person wielding it assuming the power. It diminishes dignity in a way that's related to - though without the intended insult or attendant historic hatreds and violence - in calling a man "boy."
"Young lady" may be meant to diminish, but it may also be a ham-handed attempt at flattery — perhaps its users want to imply that Kotzin looks like a fresh young thing. But calling someone young isn't necessarily a compliment, and as Kotzin points out, "young lady" just sounds like an old-fashioned reprimand to a child. So what's a good alternative?
Kotzin's piece made me realize that my attitude toward forms of address is actually pretty ageist. I absolutely loathe being called "ma'am." Partly this has to do with the fact that when I'm interacting with strangers, I'm frequently wearing my errand-running uniform of military jacket, ratty jeans, and Chucks, and "ma'am" just seems kind of incongruous — it cries out for a pantsuit and some low-heeled pumps. But part of it, too, is that "ma'am" makes me feel old. I don't have nearly the same visceral disgust for "miss," despite the fact that, if I think about it, it's actually less respectful. I can even deal with "honey," as long as it's from a woman — from a man it just sounds condescending.
I do think I need to get over my "ma'am" prejudice, but I also submit that there's no really great way to address a woman you don't know. Part of the problem is that so many such addresses are unwanted — for every nice guy letting me know I dropped something, there are another five with weird petitions or the suggestion that I, and every other woman walking by that particular corner, might like to marry them. I'm not sure that men's interactions with strangers are actually less unpleasant than mine, but I do prefer their terminology. I know a lot of guys who were excited when they got their first "sir," and I kind of wish that distinguished term were gender-neutral. But since that's unlikely to happen soon, I'm going to take a page from Star Trek's Kathryn Janeway, and try to get everyone to call me "Captain."
Young Lady [The Smart Set]