Monday Musings: Just don’t call me Ma’am…

Posted by on Aug 30, 2010 in musings | 8 comments

I ran across an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times discussing what I call the ‘ma’am factor.’ If  you read it, you may agree with Author Natalie Angiers that for many of us of ‘a certain age, being referred to as ma’am makes us cringe.

M’aam refers to ‘madam’ or during days of yore, was a respectful term for royalty. Today, ma’am is largely used by folks residing in the deep South or the Midwest and remains a word of respect. In the past couple of years, I’ve been called ma’am at grocery stores, liquor store, the movies and department stores. And yet, so far as I am concerned, m’aam is my maiden aunt, my mother, anyone but me.

I am a tailgater,  a woman who was born in the early 1960, in between the Boomers or Gen X’ers. I am part of a generation of women who were at the precipice of post-feminism changes, the now generation, taught at an early age that we could enter the workforce and have a family and have it all and be everything we aspired to be. And the one thing we didn’t aspire to be was to be a ma’am.

Angier aptly expresses what I have felt time and again:

Behind the link between “ma’am” and “old” is the familiar feminist observation that, whereas a man remains “mister” and “sir” from nursery to nursing home, a woman’s honorifics change depending on her marital status and, barring that, her age. A young miss walks a few miles, and, wedding ring or no, wham, she’s a ma’am. For many women, then, the insertion of the word “ma’am” into an otherwise pleasant social exchange can feel like a tiny jab, an unnecessary station-break to comment on one’s appearance: Hello, middle-aged- to elderly-looking woman, how may I help you this evening? Thanks, prematurely balding man with the weak chin, I’ll take that table over there, in the corner.”

Like Angier, like Mrs. Aragon, I’d rather be called nothing than be called ma’am.

What about you?


  1. 8-30-2010

    I’d rather be called nothing. Absolutely.

    • 8-30-2010

      I agree Wendy. the term is an antiquated one that is unintentionally condescending.

  2. 8-30-2010

    I use the local public library often and am amused by the constant use of “ma’am” by one of the librarians. He is a Latin American whose general manner of relating to patrons suggests he thinks Americans are all a bunch of John Waynes or farm-raised simpletons who speak low, slow, and are inarticulate. In an effort to appear intelligent and efficient by contrast, he always speaks so quickly that his words run together and is frequently asked to repeat himself. He answers many questions with a sort of condescending mock respect, punctuated with “ma’am”.

    People may have differing reasons for addressing women this way, but to me, it’s just an outdated term that is often used by people who are a little square.

    • 8-30-2010

      I can’t comment on why or why not the librarian uses that term. But I agree that it is outdated. It simply doesn’t apply to me or most women who are my contemporaries.

      Thanks for your comment John!

  3. 8-31-2010

    Seriously folks, I’ve used the term my entire life (ONLY 43 years, thank you) and have had it used towards me since I was about 17. It is simply polite. No reference to age. I’m a writer and editor and went through school at the peak of the 90’s politically correct craze. I couldn’t write a sexist sentence if I wanted to, too ingrained. I grew up in urban mid-western cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Denver. You may not like it, but it is simply someone trying to be polite. Generally because they believe they owe you respect!

    • 8-31-2010

      Faye – I agree that it is a polite term and in some neck of the woods, it is common use. What can I say? I cringe? It’s an antiquated term that challenges my fabric. Perhaps some of that is my Northeastern upbringing. I automatically give folks a free pass depending on where they are from. Still, I’d prefer to be called anything but.

      Thank you for your comment.

  4. 8-31-2010

    Hi Liz,

    I have to jump in the commentary here. I think people are just being polite. I also think it’s in large part about your own perspective. I have always looked younger than I am and have always wanted to be older…I remember being in my teens and dreaming about being in my 20s. I just turned 40 this year and I still look young…I find myself wanting to tell people…”Hey, I’m 40 years old, ya know?” I would much rather be called Ma’am than Miss! Just my 2 cents. 😉

    • 8-31-2010

      I totally agree. It’s the polite factor. Personally, I have never wanted to be older, or any other age than the age that i was or am at the time. Except now – being on the precipice of 50 is a bit different and I want to stay there as long as possible. Thanks Danielle!

Leave a Comment

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