DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have found myself in a curious position. As a server in a prominent restaurant, I was accosted by two women who took offense to me referring to them as “young ladies.” The ladies in question were possibly mid-50s to mid-60s, and one became irate, informing me that to refer to her as “young lady” was an insult and condescending.
After being surprised by that outburst, I was verbally thrashed by the “lady’s” husband for referring to a man as “sir.” He indicated that “sir” was, as well, condescending and indicated old age.
Miss Manners, is it wrong to refer to women of any age as “young ladies” and men of any age as “sir”?
GENTLE READER: What an ill-matched and ill-natured couple you had the misfortune to encounter. The wife accuses you of being condescending for not recognizing that she is old, and the husband accuses you of being condescending for supposedly implying that he is.
It has come to be generally considered disgraceful, if not disgusting, to age. The commercial world and the promoters of mental and physical health bombard us with products and techniques that claim to retard, if not reverse, aging. The implication is that ignorance or laziness is what keeps us from staying young, and the elderly have only themselves to blame.
As a result, an elaborate system of dissimulation has arisen, with which people conceal their own ages and reassure one another of eternal youth: “Oh, I’m too young to remember that,” “Your daughter? Why I thought you two were sisters,” and so on.
It is taken to such an extreme that many old people forgo – and claim to be insulted by – respect and consideration.
Yet the two complaints you received are not parallel. “Young lady” is not a title of respect, but an apparent comment on age, born of the notion that everyone wants to seem young.
You will still get complaints, like the one about using “sir,” from those deluded enough to think that giving up the privileges of age will make them seem young. But no reasonable person can fault you for showing respect.