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Don’t call me ma’am

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

The Queen 13
The highlight of my brief stint working for a bookstore was seeing Gloria Steinem approach my register. She exuded poise, beauty and strength and I missed an opportunity to express my admiration; I took the stack of magazines she handed me (no, Ms. was not one of them) and I rang her up. I didn’t even address her in any particular way, either than “Hello, thank you and you are welcome” but I wonder how she would have reacted had I called her “ma’am”.

The first time the moniker was lavished on yours truly was a few years ago:  the boyfriend of my former sous-chef, a pleasant and well-mannered young man who, at the time, was in the Marines Corps, introduced himself, hand extended, with “It’s very nice to meet you ma’am”. I instinctively turned around to see who he was talking to but there were no other “ma’ams” standing there. “Please, call me Claudia”.

“Yes, ma’am”.

Whenever I have to check one of those boxes asking for a suffix, I always opt for the neutral Ms. as I am of the generation who refuses to be defined by our marital status. People who know my name but are not on familiar terms with me can address me with Ms or, as this is the States, and, furthermore, laid back California, Claudia will always do. But what of those daily encounters with people who don’t know me? How are they expected to call me? Ma’am fits the bill but ma’am also irks me. Terribly. And I know many women my age share this feeling.

But why is it? Am I refusing to go gently into the night and pointlessly raging on? In my mind, the only woman I could possibly address in such a manner is Queen Elizabeth.

My trusted Merriam Webster informs us that the first usage can be traced to 1668. The definition of “madam” tells us that  it is “used without a name as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman” – from the Middle English, by way of the French “ma dame” or “my lady”.

Both the French Madame and the Italian Signora don’t faze  me as much and both are addresses used for women who are, presumably, married or of a certain age. But in Italy, where women retain their maiden names on all documents, Signora doesn’t necessarily implies marriage – it’s polite to use with any woman over 40.

I suspect French works along those lines too.

There is something archaic and too old-fashioned about ma’am. It might be that “ma dame”, my lady: that implied possession and, by extension, a presumed marital status, of belonging to someone. Semantics, you might argue, that have little place in everyday conversation. But I have no other explanation for my, and many other women’s, aversion to the term. That I am not alone, it’s clear from just random examples:

Barbara Boxer to Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who addressed her as “ma’am.” She told the general that she preferred to be called “senator”: “I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it…

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series Prime Suspect: “Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don’t like ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen, so take your pick.”

In both cases, the speaker, real or fictional, preferred a title related to her workplace. But what of the hapless barista, the shop assistant, the well-meaning librarian? Is it reasonable to expect they remember to address me as Ms.? Should I point it out?

I welcome your suggestions and, until I can be convinced otherwise, if you come across me, do me a favour and don’t call me ma’am.

To be filed under Just in Case – should you ever be introduced to Queen Elizabeth, you are supposed to address her as “Your Majesty” for the first time. From then on, you can downgrade to “ma’am”.

 

For a different take on the issue, check the cougarden

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33 Comments

    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I remember when you wrote about that. Fraulein resurfaces in most German movies made in Hollywood.

      January 10, 2015
      |Reply
  1. Since I am in my mid-forties, ma’am just makes me feel old. Why can’t people just settle for just a hello without having to attach a title? I’m sure it is different in each culture.

    January 9, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I am sure it is. I wish it didn’t irk me so much but it does. It could be that it also sounds terribly old-fashioned and, in my mine, the world has moved on. Or maybe is, just as you say, an age reminder. I am usually such a stickler for manner…

      January 10, 2015
      |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      You are absolutely right Sandy. I wish American culture was more akin to the Indian traditions, where respect for the elderly is part of daily fabric.

      January 9, 2015
      |Reply
  2. I grew up answering ‘yes ma’am’ to my mom so perhaps my take on the ma’am dilemma is due to that significant tidbit. I don’t mind if someone calls me ma’am and I find it slips out when I am speaking to an older woman 60+ or to a man who is above me in rank or as in my dad’s age. Funny isn’t it?

    February 4, 2013
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    • I must confess I have used it a few times too….despite my ranting

      February 4, 2013
      |Reply
  3. I don’t mind being called ma’am at all. It is a heck of an improvement from when I was called, “girlie”! Hey girlie! It was a shock the first time I was called ma’am because it was a tipoff that I wasn’t as young as I thought I was! But here in America where you could be called a lot worse names than ma’am, I wouldn’t complain! There is so little respect for anyone these days that ma’am is a refreshing departure! The English language doesn’t use different endings on words (polite form) to show respect as it does in the Italian language. We’re all lumped into one. I can see how a woman with a title would want and deserve to be addressed with her title. I think you are just suffering from the adjustment to senior citizen perhaps? Now there’s a term that bothers me!!! I’d much rather be called ma’am! If you’re not there yet, wait until you’re pooled into that category! Then you’ll really have something to complain about! lol!

    February 3, 2013
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    • Oh I am sure it’s an age adjustment – although I am still a long way from senior citizen. That, in my mind, is 65 and over. Am hoping by that point I will have stopped caring what others call me!

      February 4, 2013
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      • Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you but AARP accepts people into their ranks at age 50 and they love to use the phrase! Also, movie theaters provide discounts for senior citizens and you don’t have to be 65 for that either. All I can say is, fight it for as long as you can! lol! I’m still fighting it! What I always think about is driving. People think if you have gray hair and you’re driving that you are automatically a bad driver. I think there is a mindset about it. So, I will continue to dye my hair mostly for that reason! Plus, I let it go gray once and I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. It just wasn’t me. Aging really takes some getting used to and it probably doesn’t help to be living in a youth-oriented society.

        February 4, 2013
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        • You will be happy to know I recently read a statistics published by the insurance companies on how older drivers are immensely safer than younger ones! As to grey hair, I hav about 12 and can’t stand to look at them. So I get my hair coloured….try getting old in LA, where most women refuse to acknowledge their age! as if…

          February 4, 2013
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          • How are we safer? This oughta be good! Our eyesight is worse, our reflexes are slower, our joints ache, please, enlighten me! lol! When I only had 12 white hairs, I would pull them out and I could spare them then. As long as my eyebrows are still brown, I can get away with coloring my hair. Yes, having lived in tinsel town, I can imagine aging would be harder.

            February 4, 2013
  4. Interesting post and comments. It’s funny, ma’am doesn’t bother me at all. I take it as a sign of respect and actually think it’s cute. I had a student last semester who called me ma’am and even tipped his hat when he greeted me (then took it off in class and what a mess his hair was!) sweet kid nonetheless. As far as feeling old when being called ma’am, maybe we are “old” 😉 I certainly am in the eyes of my 17-year-old students. And I am fine with that. I love how my 66-year-old mama proudly wears her age. She loves being “old.” Ask me in ten or twenty years–I hope I will feel the same way and follow in her footsteps, absorb her attitude. So “ma’am me” all you want! 🙂 BUT I do have a word that irks me, and for this one, few sympathize with me (unfortunately!)–it’s the word “guys.” I KNOW that it’s supposed to be all-inclusive, but I hate it when a group of women say to another group of women: “Hi guys!” I am not a guy. My choice of diction in class is “guys and girls,” “women and men,” “guys and gals,” or even “y’all.” Not the best solutions, but more precise. If you ever have the desire, a post about this would be very interesting to me. As far as I know, I have few supporters and should just accept it 🙂
    Great post as always!
    Greekgirl
    http://www.redgreektomatoes.com

    February 1, 2013
    |Reply
    • Well, I am guilty as charged. In the kitchen I would often use “you guys” to include boys and girls. And, for someone who cares about words as much as I do, it’s pretty unforgivable. But you are the English teacher. Do you want to write a post on English teachers’ pet peeves?

      February 1, 2013
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  5. I hate ma’am and have blogged about it in the context of the service industry. Unless a guy is wearing a cowboy hat and chaps, save it.

    February 1, 2013
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  6. I feel your pain Claudia – apart from anything else, Ma’am is such an ugly word (Signora and Madame are much nicer sounding). In the UK it is a word becoming almost exclusively associated with the Queen. I can only imagine it being used in confrontational situations here in everyday use – i.e. as a mock honorific.

    February 1, 2013
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    • HI Eddie, glad to see you are reading us instead of sleeping! Thanks for chiming in and for validating my feelings

      February 1, 2013
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    • People been calling you ma’am Ed?

      February 6, 2013
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  7. It doesn’t actually bother me at all to be addressed as ma’am; but, I’m a southerner and I live in a country where people (who are not my relatives) frequently refer to me as “maman” (mother), tantie (aunt) or “vieille mère” (old mother) as a sign of respect:-). The first time somebody called me “auntie” as a sign of respect (when I was only 30) really bugged me though!

    January 31, 2013
    |Reply
    • Now, why is it that I find tante and maman endearing but not ma’am. And I think I would stop at vieille mere! But the culture you are steeped in is very different and should be honored as such. Am working through my ma’am issues and you guys are helping me!

      January 31, 2013
      |Reply
  8. {Main St. Cuisine}
    {Main St. Cuisine}

    Your post tickled me, especially since I live in the South East. In Southern cities as I’ve been finding out these past few years, saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No ma’am” is considered quite polite. After living in Southern California for almost 25 years (very casual, as you mentioned) it’s taken some getting used to. Southerners regularly address women as “Miss,” using their first name (even if a woman is married). In my case, “Miss Allison.” I have to admit there is an old-fashioned quality to it that I rather like. In any case, your post is beautifully written…

    January 31, 2013
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    • With English not being my first language, and having grown up with British English to boot, I realize my reaction is somewhat skewed so I do appreciate all your comments and clarifications.

      January 31, 2013
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  9. There is an unspoken rule that the Queen and I are to be addressed in the same manner….

    January 31, 2013
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  10. I hate it when I’m called the equivalent of “Sir” in any language, but that’s mostly because it makes me feel old.

    I believe “ma’am” is sometimes used in a slightly condescending way, as in “don’t worry about the complicated issues you don’t understand anyway ma’am, we’ll handle those”.

    January 31, 2013
    |Reply
    • As some of the comments show, it’s also very much a geographic statement. Being in Southern California, it sounds like an irritant but in South Carolina nobody would bet an eyelid. But yes, it reminds me I am older than I feel!

      January 31, 2013
      |Reply
  11. If it helps, I can assure you that when someone with military background calls you “ma’am” it is a sign of respect. A major would call a female officer below his or her rank by rank “Lieutenant” or “Captain” but a female officer above his or her rank would be “Colonel Smith” (or whatever her last name) the first time, and then either “Colonel” or “Ma’am” after that. Having not grown up around the military, it threw me off to be called “ma’am” for about the first ten years of my husband’s career. Eventually I grew to understand that it was a term of respect and no amount of my own annoyance (or begging people to stop calling me that!) would change the custom. Funny thing: now that my husband is retired and we are back to living in a more laid-back part of the country, I almost miss being called “ma’am.”

    Don’t ask me how, but I actually knew that tidbit about addressing the Queen.

    January 31, 2013
    |Reply
    • I realize there is something completely idiosyncratic about my response so I try not to get visibly annoyed when something addresses me that way. Thank you for your exhaustive explanation on military code – something that would have eluded me forevermore. And I guess you are all set if you are ever introduced at court!

      January 31, 2013
      |Reply

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