It’s always odd when someone addresses me as “Mr. Colvard.” I find myself looking over my shoulder to see if Dad or Big Pa is standing behind me. Well, I don’t literally look anymore. They’ve both been dead for a few years so I’ve pretty much stopped doing that, but being called by the name that once was reserved for my elders is an unpleasant reminder that I’m moving to the front of the bucket-kicking line.
“Sir” is even more peculiar. When someone hurls that epithet in my direction, I have to bite my tongue not to tell them that I have never been tapped on the shoulder with a sword. And certainly not by the Queen. It’s such a groveling word with connotations of plantations and cavaliers and their ladies fair. And not in a good way. Granted, this one is not just about age. It’s also about class. Which makes it more disturbing and disorienting.
But far and away the worst of these age markers is new to me. Or at least it had never been directed at me until about two weeks ago when I turned 59. Why it happened exactly then is a mystery to me, but that is when I crossed over into that vale of Southern antiquity where one is addressed by first name preceded by a courtesy title. In my case, the result is “Mr. Bill.”
If you are old enough to have watched the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” you are having a good long howl right now. I was quite often called “Mr. Bill” in the late ’70s and well into the ’80s. And it was funny then. I’d respond with an “Ooooooh, Noooooo” and everyone would laugh. I still have a Pizza Hut name tag, circa 1979, with the moniker “Mr. Bill.” It has always made me smile. Now it makes me cringe.
Because now it’s not a joke. No one is laughing. Least of all me. When someone calls me Mr. Bill today, they are not referencing the golden age of SNL or the lost art of claymation. They just find it unseemly to utter the first name of someone of my ancient vintage without preceding it with a courtesy title.
It gets very tiresome. And I would like to take this moment to apologize to anyone whom I have wronged in the past with a thoughtless “Mr. Arthur” or a careless “Miss Bessie.” I meant no disrespect. I know it’s too late. Arthur and Bessie have been gone for quite a while so there’s no way to let them know I didn’t set out to intentionally insult them or hurt their feelings, but the fact remains I must have done just that.
Like most acts of cruelty, this one is contagious. As soon as one person feels froggy enough to call you “Mr. Bill,” everyone else thinks they have permission to do the same. So I’d better nip that nonsense in the bud. Or else I’ll be no better off than the aging wildebeest that gets cut from the herd and winds up as the first course at a hyena luncheon.
Karma may exact a high price from me on this one. Like most people of my generation and geographic location, “ma’am” and “sir” were the go-to words for adults with unknown names until I was well into my 20s.
That was when a friend finally pulled me aside at work one day and gave me a little advice. He told me that “ma’am” should be reserved for old ladies, “miss” was the appropriate term for a young woman. Since any given woman might disagree with you on her old lady status, it was best to go with “miss” as long as she was breathing and had a heartbeat.
A parallel rule that I didn’t learn until much later is that you never ask a woman if she’s pregnant unless you can actually see with your own eyes a baby coming out of her. Because if she isn’t pregnant, you have just called her fat. And there’s no walking that one back.
My friend also told me that “sir” wasn’t necessary unless the man it is directed at is above you in terms of social status or age. He explained to me that if you “sir” a fellow who is not better off financially than you, he’s going to think you’re calling him old. And if he does belong to a higher social class, it looks like you’re sucking up, so it’s a no-win any way you look at it.
It made perfect sense and I deleted both words from my vocabulary and my sales increased dramatically. And I began to make friends with people older than me. Turns out, people respond to you more warmly if you stop insulting them.
It was true then. And it’s still true today. I’m ready to forgive if you’ll just cut it out.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.