The politics of politeness

Politics – or patriarchy?

Just thinking out loud here.

I could be wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with “sir.” It conveys respect, politeness. One could argue it makes him feel old or that it is overly formal but that’s more about the recipient’s self-consciousness than the word’s connotations.

But how do you politely address a woman whose name you don’t know?

If she’s 18 or under, “miss” is fine. If she’s over 60 and you’re from the south, “ma’am” probably works. But what do you do with the swath in between?

Somewhere between 20 and 30, “miss” starts to feel patronizing or dismissive. But one isn’t necessarily a “mrs”/”missus”/”ma’am” – and even if one is, one doesn’t necessarily wish to be referred to that way.

Why must marital status be encoded in politeness terms for women while men’s terms of address are simple and unfettered? And if that weren’t irritating enough, there’s very little social judgement on men’s marital status whereas unmarried women of a certain age are assumed to be shrews or nitwits or both.

Why is society so concerned with women’s sexuality?


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