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I’m being polite, I apologize ma’am if it offends you

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POSTED November 11, 2009 2:52 a.m.

I uttered just two words – “yes ma’am.”

It was all it took to unleash a relatively polite verbal lashing from a complete stranger for being – surprise, surprise - sexist.

I was shopping at the time in a San Francisco store in Union Square last summer when the sales lady - (whoops, should I say sales associate or is that personal navigator as Nordstrom’s calls their clerks?)  -asked whether I wanted the receipt in the bag.

The womyn  - that’s how you’re supposed to spell the word “woman” in print  according to hard-core feminists from the 1970s so it doesn’t look like it comes from the word “man” – behind me told me it was improper to use the term “madam” as it inferred the clerk was not an equal.

She was pleasant enough, so I didn’t reply. Thank goodness she dropped the subject.

I really wasn’t offended by the woman who interjected herself in my dialogue with the sales clerk. It was far from=being on the level of an encounter I had years ago when I had the audacity to open a door for a woman walking behind me into a convenience store in Citrus Heights. She told me in no uncertain terms she could get the door for herself and that I was a sexist.

I shot back that I held the door as common courtesy and would do the same thing if a 300-pound construction worker was to walk in behind me.  That prompted her to make some remark I can’t repeat and to stomp off in disgust.

What brought this all up was a question I had Monday from someone who wanted to know why I oftentimes would use the words “ma’am” and “sir” when talking to people. I don’t do it all the time. I do it most often with people I don’t know and with clerks in stores.

It has more to do with the awkwardness of starting conservations with people you don’t know – or replying to them – without acknowledging them in some manner.

I guess I could just start babbling - I do that a lot according to some people – or I could say “hey, you” to get their attention.
 I’m acutely aware of how words affect different people.

I don’t think it is condescending to call someone “sir” although I’ve heard an argument made more than once that the use of “sir” can be interpreted that way.

I do try to use “sir” – and “ma’am for that matter – whenever I come across someone in the uniform of our country. I don’t care if they are 30 years my junior. It is a sign of respect for the sacrifice they are making for all of us.

I don’t particularly want anyone to call me “sir” although I don’t make a big deal out of it when I do even though in the back of my mind I’m thinking I’m not old enough to be addressed as “sir” or in a position to command such respect that the word conveys.

I also admit to struggling how to start off letters – remember those quaint things that you used to mail – and even e-mails to people I really don’t know. A first name greeting  to someone you don’t even know seems fake and being a bit too familiar while putting “Mr.” in front of their name is a policy that is ripe for disaster since the female (should that be femyn?) version is filled with pitfalls as you never know where to use “Mrs.”, “Miss”, or “Ms.”

I do get complaints from time-to-time from a reader who takes offense that we ran a letter signed something like “Mrs. Tom Smith.” The reader typically points out it is sexist and belittles the writer. How is that possible if that is the way the writer who happens to be female wants to be referred to? Someone might take offense at it but why should you project your biases on someone else simply because you believe they are being subservient when that may not be the case at all from their perspective?

Personally, being called “Mr. Wyatt” doesn’t sit well with me for various reasons and using it prompts a response from me along the lines “my father has been dead for 45 years.”

There is one thing I’m sure, though, that I will never start a conversation or a piece of correspondence with the word “greetings.”

I’ve received four letters over the years starting with “greetings” – one was from the Selective Service and the other three from the Internal Revenue Service.

Enough said.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail

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