Personally, I'm experiencing this as a status thing.
I came back to my home town from Washington as a forty-year-old widow, with what passes in Caucasian circles for black hair, wearing nice, teacherly, casual cotton suits and dresses. People called me "Ma'am." I felt that, as Valerie Harper observed a few years ago, Today I Am a Ma'am; it might be nice if we could stop time and stay thirty forever, but the world doesn't work that way, and we might as well take the credit for our extra years.
Time passed. My hair still passes for black. I'm still wearing the same nice, teacherly suits and dresses; I chose them with the intention of wearing them until they fell apart, which is what older folks in my part of the world do, but some people have noticed that I've not been adding to my classics-to-wear-until-they-fall-apart wardrobe lately. The word has got about that, although I'm a rich man's widow, I'm not a rich widow.
So, although I certainly don't look younger than I did when my husband died, I catch members of the trashy-envious-spiteful class bumping me back down from "Ma'am" to "Honey."
There is absolutely nothing friendly or affectionate about this behavior. It's as obnoxious as these nasty little creatures physically dare to get. It's their way of saying "We don't want to show you any respect because, whatever you've done with the first half of your life, you've not become rich."
Because the New York Times found some pathetic old extroverts who claimed not to mind the phony endearments, discussed on page two of the article linked below, I'd like to set the record straight. It's not endearing, and it's not excusable. I don't care if you're from Lee County; I don't care if you grew up in a coal camp; I don't care if you grew up in a pigsty. If you're employed, your employer is responsible for correcting any pigsty manners you may have learned. If you let any references to body secretions plop out of your mouth when you're talking to me (or to any friend or relative of mine), you will say loudly and clearly, "I BEG YOUR PARDON, MA'AM" (or "SIR"). Or your employer will say it for you. And thank us for not washing your nasty mouth out with soap.
Because there are some obscure religious sects that used to preach that we shouldn't use titles, even the no-particular-status, generic "Sir" and "Ma'am" that are used only to keep us from blurting out people's names in public, let me set the record straight for people whose grandparents belonged to those sects too. You don't actually have to "call" anybody who's already there. You can just look at the person to whom you are speaking. But if you feel a need to "call," make sure that what you're "calling" a customer indicates respect. Customers don't need "kindness" out of the likes of you, and they're probably not pleased or proud to have attention called to the fact if they've ever spoken to you in any social situation. Customers' names are either "Sir" or "Ma'am," and if you're confused about which one to use, you can try "Your Honor."
In Washington, when I was younger than most working adults and looked even younger than I was, I used to hear "Miss" in stores. Yes, you may call a customer "Miss," or "Mister," if you know the customer is thirty years younger than you are. Yes, there are a few people in my home town who can still call me "Miss" in a store, if they so choose. If you are in your late seventies and can still do a job, I can understand why you might be proud of that.
But "honey," which literally means "body secretions of an insect" and has been used in slang to refer to any body secretions, is not a word anybody should use to address a fellow human in public.
And, according to the studies discussed in this article, you should be very, very careful about even the terms of endearment that really are endearing--in private--the sort of pet names you might call your own parents, at home, but should not call anyone else's parents. This web site routinely anonymizes characters, real or composite, with cute little nicknames that may include things like "Granny" or "Uncle." I use those fictional names in cyberspace, along with "Joe Smith" and "Jane Doe," and "Tracy," and so on, because I don't use them in real-world conversations. In the real world, the presumption that older people don't remember who may or may not be a grandchild, but are likely to feel loved if everybody calls them "Grandma" or "Sweetums" or some such thing, can be very harmful to seniors who don't get angry about it. They may actually accept the presumption that they're helpless, useless, and out of touch...
Also, according to the discussion at this blog site, you should be very, very careful about using any kind of pseudo-endearments when talking to people with disabilities, who get the same toxic messages from the ignorant and the just plain mean:
Note especially the comment by Dakiwiboid, and others, about the related practice of belittling patients by asking the apparently younger and more able-bodied companion about them, as if the patient couldn't hear or speak. I've sat beside patients in hospitals, as a private nurse or as a relative, and felt the patients' blood pressure rising.
What about the (oppositional?) types who want to deny their age by saying, "I look over my shoulder to see what older person they're addressing" as Ma'am, Sir, etc.? I know those employees who want to vent their socioeconomic resentments have a real problem with doing this, but if you could just overcome your fear of your social and moral superiors and make eye contact with the person to whom you are speaking, that would clear up the confusion nicely, thank you. You don't have to stare into our eyes; one or two seconds of eye contact is sufficient to show whom you're addressing.
If you are a person who calls strangers "honey," no worries, Pottymouth--everybody out there is your social and moral superior. Deal with it.