Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Ma'ams

It was the usual back and forth email exchange we all do. I sent a note to a supplier I have worked with for years, requesting some equipment for a project. I tried to make the message as complete as I could, but obviously not complete enough. The project manager queried me back about one loose end: was billing to me or to the end client? I responded as succinctly as possible, adding what I thought was a note of respect: "To me, ma'am." The project manager quickly wrote back, "Ew. You ma'am'd me."

So much for trying to be nice.

If you look it up, both "sir" and "ma'am" are nominally titles of respect or courtesy, not insults.  While both are used all over, it is far more prevalent in the south, and has even been enshrined into law in Louisiana. Dubbed the "Aretha Franklin Bill" as a nod to the song "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," they have a statute on the books that requires children in kindergarten through fifth grade to respond with a polite "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am," or "yes, sir" or "no, sir" when speaking to teachers, principals and other school employees. Or as a northern friend who visited Houston put it, "I've been repeatedly ma'am'd here... it's a veritable ma'am-appolussa!"

In these parts the terms are used more intermittently, usually to convey that the person offering up the appellation defers to the person being addressed. In fact, unlike in the military where it is almost used as punctuation ("Sir, yes sir!"), it's not uncommon to hear said title and a first name mixed into the conversation, which is surely the yin and yang of familiarity and deference: "Well, Ken, I think you have the right approach, if I say so myself, sir." That's what they call covering all your bases.

But while "sir" can be used with no trace of irony, "ma'am" carries more baggage. Originally a colloquial shortening of "madam," it began as a respectful form of address to a married woman ("miss" was for unmarried women), and was later restricted to the queen, royal princesses or by servants to their mistresses. And today? Perhaps the sentiment is best captured by actress Helen Mirren in her role as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on "Prime Suspect." As she explained to her male subordinate, "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."

Most women I talked to would seem to agree, and you can find countless other examples.  In the premier episode of "Star Trek: Voyager," Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway told a young male ensign that "ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain." In the seminal comedy "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Mary and her neighbor Rhoda decide there's nothing worse than being 30-ish and single, except maybe being called ma'am in an episode entitled "Today I am a Ma'am." And Senator Barbara Boxer interrupted a brigadier general who addressed her as "ma'am" at a congressional hearing, and asked him to address her as "senator," saying "I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it."

In my own very unscientific survey, ma'am seems to jab a female like a poke in the ribs. Los Angeles-based writer Jill Soloway once wrote "It makes me think I'm fat and old, like an elderly aunt." And New York Times reporter Natalie Angier wrote that it can be an unnecessary station-break comment on one's appearance in an otherwise routine and pleasant social exchange: "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."

Then there's Al Bundy. The patriarch in the comedy "Married... with Children" was also against ma'am, though from a slightly different angle. He and his friends, tired of being dominated by women, formed "NO MA'AM," which stood for the "National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood." Not to be outdone, the women formed F.A.N.G., short for "Feminists Against Neanderthal Guys."

Al Bundy. Barbara Boxer. Mary Tyler Moore. Names you'd be hard pressed to put into the same sentence in any other context. But none want ma'am to be the state of affairs. I, for one, will do my best going forward. When no official title is apparent, I guess I'll just have to find an alternative. "Buddy" and "pal" don't really cut it, "sister" and "dear" are too familiar and "hey you" too impersonal. So female person, if I don't talk to you, understand it's my way of showing respect.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is finding out more and more that when talking, less is more. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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