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: https://www.apnews.com/4b701554548e4bd583bc546434d34b88

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.

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