What's In A Title, Ma'am?

In every woman's life, there comes a time when someone calls her "ma'am."

It's usually an indication that you've reached a certain age or bearing that signals you are an elder, or someone who deserves a certain level of respect. Some women don't like it because it makes them feel, well, old.

Some women don't like it because they are senators.

During a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this week, the junior senator from California and a brigadier general from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were discussing the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study — the LACPR, in government jargon. Hardly the kind of discussion likely to go viral — until this exchange:

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL WALSH: Ma'am, at the LACPR ...

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D-CA): You know, do me a favor, could you say "senator" instead of "ma'am"?

WALSH: Yes.

BOXER: It's just the thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Yes, thank you.

WALSH: Yes, Senator.

Walsh wasn't making a point about Boxer's gender — as befitting a military man, he addressed the male senators as sir and Boxer as ma'am.

But people can be touchy about titles, especially when they've worked hard to get them. If you slaved away on weekends and missed family dinners at home to be that senior vice president of your company, admit it — it would get under your skin a bit if someone introduced you at a large meeting as just a veep.

Whenever a president is referred to as Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton or Mr. Obama, you can be sure news organizations are being bombarded with e-mail. Not that news organizations don't have their own protocols. Certainly Daniel Schorr deserves his status as senior news analyst, and NPR is happy to recognize that.

If you earned your Ph.D. and you want to be called doctor, so be it. As for those who don't think much of titles, I would ask, what does it really take away from you to recognize another's achievement?

Sen. John McCain and many TV pundits were among those who have needled Boxer over the exchange with Walsh, even though there appear to be no hard feelings between the two of them. They are said to have had a pleasant phone conversation since the hearing.

So if Barbara Boxer wants to be referred to as senator instead of ma'am — what's the harm?

Titles have a function. They let us know what someone does. They let us know what level someone has achieved. And yes, sometimes a title is a signal: "I have authority over you."

The latter is particularly helpful with kids. Many children aren't allowed to address adults by their first names, but rather "Mr. Simon" or "Uncle Scott."

To quote a posting from a child-care blog on the subject of addressing people:

Showing respect is never a bad thing.

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