Hi, Carolyn: The other day I was in a store when a woman of a certain age tore into the checkout clerk (20-something male) when he called her "ma'am." I thought the clerk was making an effort to be polite, but the woman reprimanded him for blatant sexism and ageism. I could tell the clerk was embarrassed but was so dumbstruck by her outburst that I couldn't find the words to intervene. Would you have stepped into this if you'd been there?

— What's In a Name?

What’s In a Name?: I freeze like a headlit deer, but probably would have commiserated with the clerk afterward. Ugh.

Can anyone suggest a term of address for service exchanges that isn’t a social land mine? I’ll take “ma’am” over “young lady,” which risks activating some people’s punching mechanisms (not mine, of course), and if you call me “mom” I will let it slide if you’re 23 and just trying to sell my kids new sports gear. Ideas?

From the gallery:

●How many men are offended when a clerk calls them "sir"? None I know.

[True, but “sir” just says “male,” not “male visibly past his youthful prime,” like “ma’am” vs. “miss.” CH]

●"Ma'am" is a perfectly respectful way to address a customer.

●People started calling me "young lady" when I got around 50 and I am not having it. I have lived every one of my 50-plus years and earned the title of ma'am, so you'll get no giggles and jumpy-claps from me with that young-lady stuff.

[I just jumpy-clapped “jumpy claps.” CH]

●"Ma'am" is a 100-percent-correct way to address a woman you don't know. If anyone overreacts to that, chalk it up to her having a bad day. (I'd probably have frozen, too, but I imagine myself telling her, "It beats the hell out of b----.")

●I'm a 43-year-old woman and can't fathom how "ma'am" would be offensive to anyone.

●"Young lady" will get your head snapped off, as will "honey," "sweetie" and "dear."

[Honeys, dears and sweeties can call me “honey,” “dear” and “sweetie.” CH]

●I've lived in the Deep South all my life, and always taken for granted that females from their late teens or so forward are "ma'am." Here it's not reserved for women "of a certain age."

[I prefer “vintage women” myself. CH]

●As a person raised in the South, I call everybody ma'am and sir, even my cats. "No ma'am! Don't jump on that table!" I think folks who chafe at attempts at politeness typically have personal issues going on.

●That woman needs to get over herself. My father always called a man "sir" when he was talking to someone he didn't know. Even when my father was older than they were.

●Last week, a toll booth operator in Florida called me "baby girl." I'm 43. I'm going to start using "baby child" (for a non-gendered version) from now on.

●All we need to do is drop the idea that using a vocative adds politeness.

●I think "Hey, you!" is just about the only term that isn't offensive to someone.

[Except those who expect “sir” and “ma’am.” Hahaha. CH]

●Not everyone feels like a clear gender. The world's changing.

[You win, Tiger. CH]

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.