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Sir

No Gender Neutral Option for “Sir” or “Ma’am”

The other day, I was at Office Max, picking up ink for my printer. The clerk and I had a good conversation, joked a bit, while they rang me up. When the transaction was complete, I turned to leave and the clerk said, “Have a good day, ma’am.”

<cringe>

I hate that moment of being mis-gendered. Do I turn around and correct them? Or do I keep walking and let them think I’m a woman?

Yes, I’m fully aware that I have boobs when I don’t bind and a feminine face. But I also shaved my head, wear gender neutral clothes much of the time, carry a gender neutral bag, and I try to “walk like a guy.”

The worst is dealing with customer service on the phone. If I’m calling customer service, there’s a good chance I’m already not having a good day. Being mis-gendered on top of everything else makes my skin crawl.

Image by Scotty Myers Photography

I don’t blame these people for mis-gendering me. All they have to go on, at first, is my voice (that never dropped, though I do like to refer to myself as a “castrata”). (Ok, I’ve never had testicles, and I do sing soprano, so it’s close enough.) One of the first things they ask for is my name, and “Ruth” is unmistakably feminine. I suspect these customer service reps are people who work in cubicles, use a script, and are expected to say “sir” or “ma’am” as a sign of respect.

And that’s part of my frustration: We don’t have a gender neutral term to use in place of “sir” or “ma’am.”

I would love it if did. I’d love it if the default was to use a gender neutral term instead of “sir” or “ma’am.” Pick one word for everyone. We have “friend,” but that’s too casual, and terms like “sweetie” or “buddy” are even worse. We don’t have a gender neutral term that is professional equivalent of “sir” or “ma’am.”

What might that word be?

A few months ago, I contemplated this question during a morning swim (before I knew that I was supposed to focus on my form the whole time). The words “sir” and “ma’am” essentially mean, “you.” We don’t usually say “Have a good day, you” but that’s what’ we’re saying when we say, “Have a good day, sir/ma’am.”

So, what’s the gender neutral, non-weird term for “you?” “Human?” “Person?”

“Ma’am” is short for “madam,” so started to think that maybe there’s a gender neutral word we can shorten.

What about shortening “person” to “pe’n” (pronounced “pen”)?

I like “pe’n.”

I’d be ok with people referring to me as “pe’n.” I’d be ok with that being our new gender neutral replacement for “sir” and “ma’am.” I suspect many cisgender people would be upset about changing the term, perhaps find it offensive, to not acknowledge their specific gender. I’d want to challenge those people to think about why that is. What’s wrong with people referring to you as a person instead of a man or a woman?

That’s a question for another day: What if we eliminated excessive masculine and feminine terms and use gender neutral ones instead?

Now, some of you might remember that I prefer “sir” over “ma’am” when those are the only two options. As a Trekkie, I grew up thinking that all superiors in the military were referred to as “sir” because that’s what they did on Star Trek. Personally, I’d be ok with everyone being a “sir,” but I also don’t want to perpetuate the idea that the default term should be the masculine.

So back to the Office Max clerk. How did I respond when they mis-gendered me? I just kept walking. I bet the clerk felt good about that interaction. They did their job and made a customer laugh. I let them feel good about that.