Greetings to the Ladies Jane --
I am single, never married, and close enough to an after-30 milestone that I can see it poking over the horizon. I've been told I look younger than I am. I have no idea if that's true, because we never see ourselves as others see us.
Regardless of how old I really do look, no one is going to mistake me for being in my 20s. What I don't understand is that most people still don't know what courtesy title to use with me. People stumble over themselves, “Miss, uh, Miz, um, Hi, how can I help you?”
I live in the South. People here still won't say Ms. Anyone who does, you realize after listening to them for a little while that they're from the North or, more specifically, the Northeast. I think the main reason that Ms never became part of the common Southern vernacular is that, in general, Southerners have a long history of pronouncing “Mrs” as “Miz” rather than “Missus.” “Miz Johnson” is a married elementary school teacher. “Miss Johnson” is the single librarian. There's nothing in between, unless it's in writing. To Southerners, people who use Ms sound prissy and more than a bit pretentious.
I happen to also live in a large city that has many residents transplanted from different places, both nationally and internationally. As a result, their formal and idiomatic speech will change over time. It's these people that seem to stumble the most. I have nothing but sympathy for them, but it somehow irritates me that Mrs is becoming more common as I grow older. This irritation is probably not due to what you think.
I don't care that I'm getting older. Mrs irritates me because I'm proud of being single, damn it! I'm proud that I didn't need some damned man to take care of me. I'm proud that I can, and daily do, stand on my own two feet, independently living my life as I see fit, outshining my male co-workers and most of my male friends. In short, I fought like Hell to get where I am, in a man's world. Alone.
When I fill out a form that doesn't have “Miss” as an option, I write it in. My return address labels say “Miss.” I'd paint it on my front door if I didn't live in an apartment. Our cultural assumption that I'm married/divorced because of my age is an instant affront to my fierce independent streak, but the stumbling just makes me feel sorry for people. They don't even realize they're as conflicted about the inherent inequity in the matter as I am.
I understand the point behind Ms. Theoretically, I even agree with it. The problem is, it's clumsy, awkward, and when spoken where I live, it's confusing.
All of this flashes through my head in the two seconds it takes the store clerk to stumble over himself, but I also remember that he's not the progenitor of our culture's courtesy title snafu, merely a victim of it. Just like me.
So, I smile, and say, “Ma'am is fine. Do you have this in black?” And he relaxes.
A good deed done? I think so. Tell me what you think.