Finally—a snappy answer when someone calls you “young lady”

It’s great to see Peg Cruikshank blogging for the Silver Century Foundation alongside Margaret Gullette and me. Cruikshank is the author of Learning to Be Old, among other important books, and her first post tackles what she calls the “Young Lady Dance.” What’s her response to being addressed as “young lady?”

“Why are you calling attention to my age?”

As Cruikshank points out, she has yet to be thanked for this excellent corrective. People tend to deny that they’ve done any such thing, or respond indignantly because, hey, they’re not biased—and, hey, it’s a compliment. I’ve had people insist that women love being called “young lady.” But it’s condescending even to women who actually are younger; it’s embarrassing for the no-longer-young who feel insecure about it; and for those of us who’ve stopped being embarrassed about being older, it’s infuriating. (Here’s my take on it.) 

Unless we call out ageist language, people keep using it. Tone matters.  Next time some clown calls me a young lady, I’m going to try a slightly gentler take on Cruikshank’s rejoinder: “Hmm . . . how come you’re calling attention to my age?”


37 thoughts on “Finally—a snappy answer when someone calls you “young lady”

  1. I am 57 and have slugged out working in a male dominated career. I am accomplished, educated and trained on current management techniques in a challenging career field. When store clerks and servers call me young lady I respond “Did you just cal me an accomplished 57 year old United Steates Marine Young Lady”? Works Every Time!!

  2. I’m in my mid twenties and hate being called young lady. It seems inappropriate, especially in a professional work setting (my situation)

  3. I HATE it! So demeaning and faux-complimentary–like I’m supposed to giggle and bat my eyelashes…..I always tell the guy (it’s ALWAYS a guy) that unless he’s 90 he’s not allowed to call me a young lady. I’m 71 and I know what I am and “young lady” isn’t it.

    1. My FEMALE dentist called “YL”…
      The second time I corrected her
      She said ” all the ladies love it when I call them yl” No they don’t At the time I was 75 That was the end of her… dentist

    2. I don’t blame you. I am 74 and think it is beyond ridiculous to be called “young lady.” Nothing wrong with saying “maam” if you don’t know my name.

  4. A clerk in a local store calls elderly women, like myself, “young lady.” Finally, I told her that I cringed every time I was called that, and I told her why. I said that I am obviously not a young lady, and that calling me one says to me that what I am is not alright. I felt badly because I know I hurt her feelings. She thought she was being kind.

  5. I was shopping at a local department store when a young female clerk walked up and asked me, “Can I help you sweetheart?”. I’m a 60 year old, college educated, female and up to that point was feeling pretty good about myself. I ignored it only for her to call me “babydoll” next. That was it. When I went to pay for my items, I informed her it was rude to call someone you don’t know by those names and asked her to please stop it. What really shocked me though was there were three other women, close to my age, behind me and they also spoke up about how much they disliked those terms. I am a Southerner and a lot of people say it’s just part of our culture. It isn’t. True Southern mamas like mine taught their children to be respectful to older people and to say “sir” or “ma’am” not sweetie, darling, babydoll, cutie, or honey. I’ve read other articles where people say they don’t mind these terms, most of them are men, and if they don’t that’s fine. However, I do mind. It’s really okay to simply say, “May I help you?”. Short and to the point without making me feel like I’m about 100 years old.

    1. That all depends on your perception. Being over 65, I look at the term of “young lady”, as a term of endearment, not disrespect. When I’m called, “ma’am”, I feel that it ages me! & I’ve told that to those who say, “Ma’am”…”Miss” or “Ms” would be more appropriate. It actually makes me feel good when I hear, ‘young lady’ as I’ve woke up, showered, got dressed & made it, & prefer to take the ‘compliment’ rather than scowling about it like a cynical hoot. I’ll take “young lady” over “ma’am”. It’s nice when you have ears to hear instead of dissecting on the negative, or “age appropriate” crowd. I prefer to be called by my name rather than “granny”; just because an offspring chose to multiply doesn’t give the grandchild the right to use “granny” as I find THAT disrespectful in the tone it gets used. [That’s stereo typing, & name calling!] Take the compliment side of it, plain & simple, the “kiss” method of “Keep It Simple——-” instead of becoming ‘persnickety’. Embrace the fact that when you’re in your 90’s & hunched over from the weight of the world being on your shoulders, the career behind you & you hear “young lady” you still have all your teeth & can laugh about it. I prefer to ‘think young’ as well, don’t walk around with a bag full of pills. Be grateful when you hear “young lady” & take it as a compliment, as it may be the only time you ever hear it. Know ‘who you are’! Peace out!

      1. To each her own! But to continue to hear “young lady” as a compliment as the decades go by is to deny the fact that we are no longer young, and internalized ageism takes root in that denial. It also validates the fundamentally ageist notion that young = better.

      2. So, basically when someone calls you something that makes you feel bad, take it as a compliment. No, I will not.

      3. I wholeheartedly disagree with you on this subject. I will be turning 70 in a month. I absolutely love it when someone calls me young lady. Also, I work part time at a senior retirement home. The residents love it if I call them young lady or young man. It is not meant as a slur or derision. It is positive acknowledgment. It is a lot better than being called “Ma’am. I also like it when store clerks refer to me as “Miss.” Anything but the dreaded “Ma’am” is fine. All of you people who are telling us that it is bad are way too full of yourselves.

        1. You are completely entitled to your opinion Laura — insult-free, to boot! The fact that others disagree doesn’t make us full of ourselves; it means our experience and knowledge base is different from yours. We’ve chosen to acknowledge our age rather than deny it, believing it to be a healthier and happier way to inhabit our later years.

      4. So “granny” is disrespectful, but “young lady” isn’t? Why don’t you just shrug that off as well? YL is not a compliment because it, in fact, has nothing to do with how you look and behave. Aren’t you lucky to be able to not “walk around with a bag full of pills.” You think those of us who do, do it by choice and because it’s so much fun? The real kicker though, and the clue to your own ageist attitudes, is that you try to “think young.” Not active, creative, innovative, thoughtful…but young. Bit ageist, aren’t you?

      5. LOVE THIS!! Thank you and I agree! There’s no harm in being called young lady. I actually like hearing this, especially when it comes from men around my age. It’s an endearment and kinda says to me that they know we’re in the same boat together.

  6. I don’t like hurting others, but I’m not about to be called a young lady at 64. So I make a joke out of it, to let the other person know how ridiculous it sounds to me by saying: “Thx, hon, but in my case the young lady ship sailed about 50 years ago…”

  7. You know it’s a shame feminism has become so arrogant & those who preach it so ignorant – and I say this as a fourth generation feminist whose great-grandmother was in the 1st wave & built herself up from uneducated & poor to educated multiple propery landowner on her own hook – that a compliment isn’t a compliment. What do you think a ‘lady’ is the local street walker? If the speaker is older than you they’re not gonna call you hey nag or hey you old bittie regardless of how justified it maybe.

    I’m a well educated woman with a lot of life experience – the sort of life experiences that have people commenting I should write a book when they hear it – and when an older man (or woman) refers to me as ‘young lady’ I take it as it’s meant to be a compliment. But then I’m not a knickers in a bunch modern “feminist”, who are really just embarassments to original feminism.

    1. love the response!! guess I dont understand how it is a compliment? That I look young for my age (which the stranger could not know)? That I am still standing and can carry groceries? That i have a youthful energy despite my obviously being not young? I simply dont get it. I do get that the person INTENDS it as a compliment. But it feels infantalizing — someone feels compelled to somehow make me feel “better” about being older, they’re taking care of me in some way.

  8. I’m 52, and I cringe every time I get called young lady, and what’s odd is that it’s coming from middle-aged men. It’s patronizing. They might as well just pat me on the head while they’re saying it. My response is now, “oh, hello there young man,” which usually does the trick.

  9. I so appreciate these responses. I was in a dental office this morning and the dental assistant, who looks to be no older than 25, called me “young lady” (I’m 63 with a full head of white hair that I love.) I responded quickly that I did not appreciate it since I was probably old enough to be her grandmother. And this was in a so-called professional office.

  10. I am 54, and 10-20 times/day since I turned 50, in hospitals, at work, in restaurants, at bookstores… everywhere… I get not only young ladied but also “Dear, My Dear, Dearie, Sweetie, Sweetheart, Doll, Cookie, Cupcake, Huns, Honey, Love, Lovey, My Love, Darling and weirdly enough…

    Plus whole big sentences like “Oh, MY DEAR HUNS, we have eaten our food, we did WELL with our FOOD, didn’t we Sweetie” and “OH, my LOVE, what else can I call you but MY DEAR, SWEET OLD LOVE” and “OH NO DEAR, NO, YOU CANNOT WORK, NO DEAR LOVE, DEAR LADY TWO JOBS, NOOOOO, whyyyyyy, my LOVE?!!”… ” You’re retired, of course!!!” also “NO, we don’t have to check your HEART HUNS, YOU’RE JUST OLD” (the caps represent loud, slow Babytalk)…

    Also from a man my age “These last years of our career blah blah blah … (I’m no where near retirement – he’s got a great pension apparently LOL)” and…. a waiter at a fancy restaurant who served male customers with respect said “WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW IN THE LAST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE….”

    My personal favourite is ‘WE STILL HAVE OUR TEETH NOW DEAR, THAT SOOO GOOODDDDD HUNS, we have TEEETH … so LUCKY to have TEEEEETH…..”….

    I’m 5 foot 5, 135 lbs, muscular, a doctoral level professional, my hair’s not grey… but I must admit my face is quite a roadmap LOL I listened to many many variation on the above themes, and I don’t want to totally self-isolate or give up!! But it was starting to effect my self-esteem and quality of life until I began to politely talk back to the ageists!

    So I always say “please don’t call me … (whatever) and please stop talking to me in that way; please serve me the same as all the other customers. I speak in a polite gentle tone. Since, this has happened to me thousands perhaps even tens of thousands of times since I turned 50, most people have been polite and stopped the Elderspeak and then served me just like any other person. Of the thousands who changed their channel, only 3 young men and 1 young woman leaned over me, threatened me and threw me out of their establishments so I went to management in those cases. In only own case (the refusal of cardiac care to a “Dear”) was it truly a matter of life and death so I went to patient relations and had my ongoing care elsewhere.

    I think if we all start saying a strong NO to this type of treatment (and to age discrimination in hiring and health care); it will change!! Perhaps not in my lifetime especially if the abuse keeps up, but it will change!!

    PS I’m no where near the American South (have dealt with ageist crap in the Northern US, and in Canada in rural and urban areas in multiple provinces, across thousand of miles. I’m good with M’Am… M’am is respectful, appropriate… anywhere!! I’ll also answer to Miss, Sir, Hey You, and BOB (Bob = Bad… Old… Bird) 😉

  11. I am 35, I own my own farming business and went to an Ag expo in Texas ( I am from California). I expected some major sexism due to my field of work (happens in California as well) and on top of that it being Texas (just from the stereotypes and stories I have heard), but I was still stunned into silence when a gentleman running a heavy machinery booth I was checking out said to me (apply thick texan accent):
    ” Hey there young lady, is your husband looking for some equipment?”
    So in this situation I found it very insulting and demeaning, as if I was not the intelligent independent woman I am, but just a simple young wife. Now young lady doesn’t necessarily trigger me in other situations (ie grocery store or hotel or more formal setting), but in a business setting it is not appropriate at all. I felt dismissed and disrespected.

  12. Oh come on, it’s an old fashioned phrase. My god, what words can we say to show affection or kindness to someone. Young Lady at any age is a sweetness. How political are we going to get. Get over it and remember your femininity! That is where our inner power comes from.

    1. It’s different for me, Joanie. My power comes from deeper inside me, and being called “young lady” feels dismissive and condescending. To each her own,

      1. I’m 63, nobody called me young lady when I was young and I certainly don’t appreciate it now when I’m so obviously not. It’s condescending and gets my back up.

      2. Referring to “to each her own,” (won’t bother to reply to Joanie, who also didn’t give her age): tolerating ageism (sexism, racism, etc.) doesn’t just harm the one person to whom it is addressed. It harms all of us in the society.

  13. I have enjoyed the comments. I changed dentist when she called me Young Lady every visit. I called her Y L back but she didn’t stop. New male dentist- I told him on my first visit not to call me that. Yesterday a new visit and he greeted me with y l. I replied Hello Young Man. He said sit down Young Lady and I told him it was an ageism comment so stop. I pay for respect M B Tasmania

  14. There’s a new guy that pumps gas at our local gas station. I always get my gas there because it’s less than two dollars a tank and I like to think it helps the local economy. However, this guy has not only called me YL twice, last time he washed my side mirrors and asked me if I could see the dino in the mirror. What the actual….?? I’m furious and preparing a snappy retort for my next fill up. It’s condescending and insulting. I’m 60 and he’s at least as old as I am.

  15. Don’t want your f’n terms of endearment. If you are working for the public, you need one rule…..don’t call anyone anything period. You can be professional and polite without calling an “old” person sweetie just to make yourself feel good. It is demeaning and self serving.

  16. Interesting comments and appreciate everyone’s opinions on this. I am educated and in my mid-60’s. For me being called a “Young lady” is just plain uncouth. I have found that men only call girls or older women “young lady”. I was not called “Young Lady” by anyone when I was in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I realize the person who makes the remark probably meant no harm, but they are clueless. I set my boundaries and usually politely tell them “Please don’t call me that”. I even had one guy respond with, “Well what am I supposed to call you?” I answered with what you call everyone else. The men weren’t being called “Young Gentleman” so why are you calling me “Young Lady”.

  17. LOL! I think anyone who answered on this page was googling, ‘being called young lady.’ At least, that’s what I did! Yesterday, this 68 year old ‘young lady’ was addressed that way at a Nordstrom store by a very young salesman…At first, I was insulted! I whispered to my cousin, who was next to me, ‘Did he just refer to me as a young lady?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes,’ and we both laughed! But I was insulted because it was the very first time in my ‘older’ life I had been referred to as such. However, after reading everyone’s responses, I’ve decided I’m not offended! We are constantly trying to teach younger people to be respectful to everyone, including the older generation, and as such, I realize he meant no harm…I suppose I’ve also decided it’s better to be referred to as, ‘young lady’, than ‘old biddy’! (And responding negatively would have definitely made me feel like one!)

    1. Respectfully, you might want to reflect on your reluctance to identify as older. Also on the fact that many older women find it condescending rather respectful to be called “young lady.” But to each her own! I hope you found what you were looking for at Nordstroms.

      1. Sadly, no, I didn’t find what I needed at Nordstrom’s! And you are probably correct to assume that I am ‘reluctant’ to be identified as older since I am so very young at heart! As for others finding it condescending, I’m sure they will make their feelings known to whomever dares to identify them in that regard! I have no doubt that my ‘sisters’ can take care of themselves!

Leave a Reply to Aileen Drill Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *