I bought the Saturday papers at the servo round the corner the other day, and the bloke there – we know each other by sight, that’s all – called me ‘mate’ four times in the course of our brief transaction.
I didn’t mind. A bloke who knows me considerably better, the mechanic who services my car every year, used to call me ‘mate’ until the day finally came when he committed my name to memory for good. From then on he made a point, and still does, of using it in just about every utterance: G’day Annie, no worries Annie, we’ve tweaked the brakes for you Annie, you might wanna replace the front tyres soon Annie, she’s all set for you now Annie, and so on.
I’d had a bit of a job with HIS name, so even though I got there first in the name-remembering stakes, I was sympathetic. In fact I found it kind of endearing to recognise the mutuality of our dilemma. Leaving aside the cases of people whose names you should know and will just have to remember eventually, how DO you politely address strangers?
Can you call women mate? I’ve met folks, both men and women, who say no, but I think most Australians, certainly of the baby-boomer generation, find it okay. It fits in with a certain egalitarianism in our national psyche.
Not long after the servo incident, I was with a friend, a woman my own age, in a café on the Tamar River. A young girl called me ‘darling’ when taking our order. This led to an entertaining discussion between me and my friend. We agreed that while it’s usually older women who call younger women ‘darling’ or ‘love’ – another endearing Aussie tradition – we didn’t mind it coming from this much younger woman.
My friend went on to say “as long as they don’t call me madam”. She’s not the only one who feels this way. When I was doing talkback radio on the ABC and writing on language for The Mercury, many callers and readers expressed the same strong antipathy.
This too seems rooted in Australian egalitarianism. What about “ma’am”, I asked my friend. Nope, she didn’t like that either. Again, she’s not alone. I remember one English reader pointing out that this is how one is supposed to address the Queen, and he disliked the association with the class system. He also objected that it sounded American as well as upper-class British!
What about ‘sir’ for men? My friend wasn’t keen on that either. But it’s different for men, and they’re lucky in a way. In informal situations – shops, cafes, servos – ‘mate’ seems to be universally acceptable. In more formal situations – banks, posh restaurants, professional offices – most men I know don’t have a problem with ‘sir’ before the progression to Mister Whatever or first names, which is what most Aussies of either sex are comfortable with.
But we are left with the problem of how people in the service industry should address women whose names they don’t know.
Personally, I like “ma’am”. It sounds courteous to me in the mouths of Americans, and while I generally don’t like yankee invaders taking over our speech – I hate being addressed in plural company as ‘guys’ – I’ve long thought “ma’am” is one Americanism we should welcome into daily life.
The fact is, we simply don’t have a suitable counterpart for it, and we need one.
The French have a simple system. It’s mamzelle for a younger woman and madame for an older one. Likewise the Italians have signorina/signora and the Spanish senorina/senora. As far as I know they are quite comfortable with these forms.
Our equivalents are Ms/Miss/Mrs. These work well enough in written communication now that we are routinely invited to tick the box indicating our titling preference. But in oral communication the situation is terribly fraught. We seem to be all hung up on the young/old, married/unmarried dilemma. You might get away with addressing a young woman as ‘Miss’, but ‘Ms’ has never caught on. No one knows how to pronounce it, for a start. And for some reason, ‘missus’ is universally hated by Australian women. I hate it, but I’m not sure why, given what I’ve just said about how well the formula works in the latin cultures.
“Ma’am”, on the other hand, is friendly, respectful and suitable for use with all women, regardless of age or marital status.
But what’s the alternative? Hey you? Nothing at all? That sounds boorish to me.
I put this to my friend. She said she’d think about it. Your thoughts?