Ma’am? Damn!

2 old ladies on a bench
Image by lamazone via Flickr

If there’s a word that shrivels the heart, it’s this.

Writes Natalie Angier, one of my favorite thinkers, in The New York Times:

If ma’am is meant as a verbal genuflection to power, the message is lost on many real-life powerful women, like Senator Barbara Boxer, who told a brigadier general to refer to her as “senator” rather than “ma’am” at a hearing last year. “I worked so hard to get that title,” she said, “so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”

I put together a completely unscientific poll of my own, courtesy of the online service, SurveyMonkey, and asked some three-dozen professional women how they felt about the word “ma’am.” The group included lawyers, writers, scientists, policymakers, business executives and artists, who ranged in age from 20 to 65. Of the 27 women who responded, only 2 said they liked being called ma’am, applauding the word as “polite” and “because it amuses me”; 10 were neutral; and the remaining 15 disliked it to varying pH levels of causticity. As Jill Soloway, a Los Angeles-based writer who worked on the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” explained: “It makes me think I’m fat and old, like an elderly aunt.”

There are other reasons to dislike the term ma’am — for its whiff of class distinctions, for being dismissive, stiff and drab. “If someone calls me ma’am, it’s superficially a sign of respect, but it’s also creating distance,” Dr. Kroll said. “It’s saying, I’m not going to have a serious conversation with you; I’m not going to engage with you.”

Katha Pollitt, the columnist and poet, said, “It’s part of those routine word packages that are forever flying by.”

It’s also deeply American, this automatic ma’aming thing. I grew up in Canada where people generally don’t use that word. I’m not sure what they say, but they don’t say ma’am.

I’m of an age that marks me as old to some and — because some people, even in bright light, still think I’m 10-15 years younger than I am — maybe not. I veer wildly between the charming “young lady” (not said sarcastically) and the dreaded ma’am.

You can call me almost anything.

But don’t call me me ma’am!

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5 thoughts on “Ma’am? Damn!

  1. I can understand Senator Boxer’s response to “ma’am.” GTitles are always tricky. A few years ago I thought my doctor should be called by his first name. His first name is Monroe and I don’t know any “Monroes.” It was awkward and after a short while I went back to “doctor.” I am a “ma’am” guy if the lady is a stranger and I need to address her for a reason – dropped her purse, backing into me, left her keys on a counter, etc. I wouldn’t take offense to someone saying “hey mister!” I am too old for “dude.” But not too old to say it. Tom Medlicott

  2. Sarah

    I’m kind of mixed on whether I like “ma’am” or not. I used to use when I did telephone surveys, because it seemed like a good counterpoint to “sir” when I was asking awkward questions about STD’s or smoking habits. I never used it when I was working at the music store because I was told to use names when possible by the owner.

    I’ve been called ma’am in restaurants and on the phone, and it always results in a minor twitch on my part. I just turned 21 a fortnight ago, I don’t view myself as a ma’am. I don’t view myself as a ‘miss’ either, but looking at it…I’d rather use names than honorifics for comfort on my part if nothing else.

  3. I’ve first-named my ob-gyn for years but only after asking her permission. She’s my age and an extremely warm person, so it feels right — less so with the parade of my other doctors.

    Sarah, happy birthday! I’m not sure I like any of these, but we have to call each other something if we don’t know the person’s name. Working retail has made me more comfortable now asking for someone’s name, if the situation feels right.

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