Please Don't Call Me 'Ma'am'

Even when it's meant to be polite, or deferential, for many women 'ma'am' is as welcome as a poke in the eye. The New York Times' Natalie Angier describes the politics of polite, and how women can be addressed politely without inferring their age or marital status.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

When addressing a man, the choices are few, straightforward and relatively neutral: mister or sir. There might be a twinge, of course, the first time you get called sir but, come on, doesn't it also make you feel kind of good. For women though, the choices are fraught. Second wave feminists were able to encapsulate an entire movement by naming their magazine "Ms." And few women think twice about correcting an unwelcomed Mrs. or Miss. But what do you do about ma'am?

This is how Senator Barbara Boxer of California reacted last year while questioning Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Well, why has it been delayed?

Brigadier General MICHAEL WALSH (U.S. Army): Ma'am, at the LACPR...

Sen. BOXER: You know, do me a favor. Could you say senator instead of ma'am?

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Yes.

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

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Yes, Senator.

LUDDEN: It's just a thing.

In a column in New York Times "Week In Review," reporter Natalie Angier dug into why exactly ma'am rankles. If you want to see that column, we have a link to it at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Natalie Angier joins us from the -here in our studio in 3A. Thanks for speaking with us today.

Ms. NATALIE ANGIER (Reporter, The New York Times): I'm glad to be here.

LUDDEN: And to our listeners, does being called ma'am bother you and why? Is there an elegant way to address someone and stop ma'am-ing you? 800-989-8255 or email us at talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Natalie Angier, what's wrong with ma'am?

Ms. ANGIER: Well, I think, for one thing, I know it's a regional thing and people in the South are used to it, but in many parts of the country, a woman doesn't get called ma'am until she is, oh, somewhere around 30.

LUDDEN: Older than us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah. And so, you know, Roz Chast, the cartoonist, had a great cartoon, "Debra Gets Her First Ma'am," and she has this horrified look on her face. So, I think for a lot of women, it's a sign of feeling like they're past their prime. And it's a kind of a difficult situation to be in because on the one hand, you know, people are saying it to be polite, on the other hand, it makes you feel very impolite and makes you feel a little upset. So, I wanted to look into, you know, how many other women share the feeling with me and it turns out many of them do.

LUDDEN: Including Barbara Boxer, the senator now. I think more than just making her feel old, it sort of felt like she saw it as a putdown.

Ms. ANGIER: She did, I think in her case, of course, she feels like she earned the title senator. And I accumulated a lot of examples from - for example, if anyone remembers the "Prime Suspect" series when Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison says, I don't like to be called ma'am. Governor or boss will do just fine.

So I think that there's a feeling like ma'am is not associated with having status although it does come from madam, from madame, but for a lot of women, it's just almost a brush-off and it also makes them feel, as one woman put it, you know, like my old maiden aunt. And she doesn't want to feel that way. You don't want to have that be a factor of every little exchange you have with a store clerk. So, I said okay, well, this is supposed to make me, as a woman, feel better and it's making me feel worse, maybe we don't need it.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, let's take a few calls here. We've got Leslie(ph) on the line from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good.

LESLIE: Good. I work as a waitress. And I get - I have a lot of college kids. And a lot of them call me ma'am. And in my experience with them is well, gee, ma'am was my mother back in the '60s. And in (technical difficulty) you can just call me Leslie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: Exactly, yes.

LUDDEN: But you correct them.

LESLIE: Well...

LUDDEN: Or you just think that.

LESLIE: Yeah, nice though.

LUDDEN: You want your tip, so you don't want to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LESLIE: (Unintelligible). College kids are very good because most of their parents are very - you know, working class, that work their ways up, and some of them work as waitresses. So it's very nice.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thank you, Leslie. Let's hear from Martha(ph) in Huachuca, Arizona. Is that how you say it?

MARTHA (Caller): Yes.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

MARTHA: Well, I am about to be a great-grandmother and I have no objection to being called ma'am. What I do object to, and it happened yesterday, is being called dear, sweetie, sweetheart and honey, and so forth. And it is, in my opinion, very inappropriate.

LUDDEN: Who called you that?

MARTHA: It was a checkout at Safeway.

Ms. ANGIER: All at once?

LUDDEN: Well, do they call - you're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Did they call you all of those things at once?

MARTHA: I didn't hear what you said.

LUDDEN: Did they use all those...

MARTHA: No, no, no, no. They just called me dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTHA: And when I ride Amtrak, the waiters call me dear and sweetie and honey and so forth, unless I write to the president and warn them that they will not get a tip if they do.

LUDDEN: Have you done that?

MARTHA: I had indeed.

LUDDEN: You wrote to the president of Amtrak?

MARTHA: Yes.

LUDDEN: What did you say?

MARTHA: I said, you know, I am going on this journey at this time, and if anybody on the crew calls me anything inappropriate such as dear, sweetie, honey and so forth, they will not get a tip.

LUDDEN: But ma'am is okay?

MARTHA: Yes.

LUDDEN: And what's the difference?

MARTHA: Oh. Dear and sweetie is for family and close friends. It's not for strangers and servers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Natalie?

Ms. ANGIER: Well, one of the things that I found - a lot of readers wrote in, says the thing they hate the most is being called young lady when it's obvious they're not. They hate that too. And I'm not gonna defend any of these alternatives. I think that the best alternative and the one that - you know, I did this little survey. All of these women prefer, in most cases, nothing. If someone is looking at you and serving you your food or giving you your change, they say, you know, here you go.

MARTHA: Right.

Ms. ANGIER: And with a thank you very much. And it doesn't have to be - you don't have to put the honorific in. If there's any doubt, leave it out.

MARTHA: Yes.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Martha, thank you so much for that phone call.

MARTHA: Thank you. Bye.

LUDDEN: We've got a tweet here from Shannon Annie(ph), who tweets: Doesn't bother at all. I prefer ma'am to being called miss. The battle scars of marriage have earned me the right to be called ma'am.

Ms. ANGIER: Yes. I think that, you know, if you someone doesn't mind, that's good. The problem is that because a lot of women do mind, and then it's a question of what - what anyone is going to say. And that's why, as I said, I think that there is a question in my mind in many, many interactions to whether anything is necessary. I like professional courtesy. Please and thank you are grace notes enough. To add that little ma'am or miss or young lady or your dear, it always seems like an unnecessary interjection. And I'm not sure that it increases the sense of goodwill or courtesy between people. Since you're interacting with a person, you're smiling, hopefully, at them and looking at them, so why do you need to call anyone anything?

LUDDEN: We just got an email from John(ph) in North Carolina, who says he thinks Senator Boxer is not very knowledgeable about many things, but the military in particular.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: The general was calling her ma'am out of respect, he writes. And it is how he would refer to his female superiors in the military. I have no idea if that's actually true.

Ms. ANGIER: That is true, yes.

LUDDEN: But we certainly we have this, you know, protocol in the military. And, you know, I grew up in Tennessee, used to sound like it and used to say, yes ma'am, no sir.

Ms. ANGIER: Right. Yes. And there are regional differences and certainly in the military it is customary, and so that's why it always get a little bit dicey. But if you're in a nonmilitary situation, maybe the safest thing, as I said, is to try to be very courteous without groping for some term that is not necessary.

LUDDEN: Let's take another call. Autumn(ph) is in Sebastopol, California. Hi, Autumn

AUTUMN (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

AUTUMN: Thank you for taking my call. I grew up in Arkansas for the first 20 years of my life, and so I might be biased a little bit. And I've been living in California for the last 20 years. And I feel very respected and honored when someone says ma'am to me. And I also have a question referring to what the person said earlier about how now it is such a trigger for so many of us. And I'm wondering why we are so triggered by something that once was something that meant respect. And I'll take my answer off the air.

LUDDEN: Thank you for the call.

Ms. ANGIER: I think that, in fact, it is because of the difference between being called miss or ma'am. And it's the same thing in Spanish with senorita or senora. So there's a certain age at which it becomes more appropriate to use the older woman's term. And I think for a lot of women, they feel uncomfortable - I mean, sure, you know you're not 20 anymore. But does that have to be part of your interaction with a stranger? So the question is, how is it making you feel? And, in fact, out in California, a lot of the women I spoke to out there seem to have, you know, a particular antipathy towards the term ma'am. Maybe because it is a youth-oriented culture or maybe just because they just see it as unnecessary and they like to be friendly without having to be formal.

LUDDEN: Is there a generational thing? Or we have lost the - you know, some sort of honorific with the - I mean in Europe you can still - you know, you're just seen as so rude if you don't say bonjour, madam or mademoiselle. You know, they won't even answer your question. But we're such a more casual society. Has it kind of slipped over the generations?

Ms. ANGIER: We are casual. And I don't actually advocate for a loss of all courtesy. I just - the question is where you put your courtesy. And since there has been this question of whether or not somebody has to change at some point -what age is it that you suddenly become a ma'am? Why should that be something to even think about? I think that's a good question, a legitimate question to ask.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's hear from a guy. Jim in Rockford, Michigan. Hi, there.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Yeah. This is a great subject. And I've been accused over the years of being overly polite or respectful. And I think sometimes that people -you know, and you have to realize that a lot of people are raised to address women as ma'am and men as sir. And I think it's meant to be respectful. And it's not meant to be derogatory or - I say thank you, ma'am, when people do -when a lady's doing something for me. I mean, it's an appreciation for their actions.

LUDDEN: And does it work for you or have there been some hostile responses?

JIM: Well, my wife's been told several times by a couple of different servers that if I wasn't already taken, I should be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: I'd like to thank my mom for teaching me to, you know, respect people and to be kind and gracious and realize that kind words cost me nothing.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Jim. We've got another man out there. Marty(ph) in Austin, Texas. Hi there.

MARTY (Caller): Yes, ma'am. I - and I knew I was going to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: I can't help it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: It's part of the way I was raised. And where I came from, a military family and being raised in the South, if you don't say sir or ma'am, you get the back of somebody's hand. So I will say I'll flip it around because recently I've been chewed out by more women in the South than up North.

LUDDEN: Really?

MARTY: In fact, I was in New York City last fall and was pleasantly surprised by the little winks and looks I got whenever I said ma'am to - especially someone younger than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: And - but what are they doing in the South?

MARTY: Exactly. They - a young lady at a store on Times Square, I asked her for some help. And she said: If you keep calling me ma'am, I'll help you all night long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTY: You all have a good one now.

LUDDEN: Thanks. You too. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So Natalie, that was working for him.

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah, well, again, I think if you hear somebody say it with a Southern accent, you're probably going to take it more kindly than if it's somebody from Manhattan saying it, in which case it's usually said in a very annoyed tone of voice and is not used as a term of courtesy. It can sometimes be a - be said with some irritation. So a lot of it does depend on delivery.

I think that one of the problems is, if you make a distinction between a ma'am and a miss - this happened to me once at a sandwich counter here in Washington, where the guy turned to a woman in her 20s, said: How can I help you, miss? Turned to me and said: How can I help you, ma'am? And I thought: Oh, okay, well...

LUDDEN: Ouch.

Ms. ANGIER: ...gee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: Thanks a lot, guy. You know, and so it seemed like he's making that distinction based on my appearance which, okay, I admit it, but that does that have to make me feel good? Is that something that I'm supposed to smile about?

LUDDEN: Well, he might have thought you'd be upset if he called you miss.

Ms. ANGIER: Well, I think I would have - if he had said, how can I help you today, and said it with a smile, I would have been really happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: But this is sort of like reminding me of the distinction. Oh, young lady, older lady. Who needs it? It doesn't necessarily add to the pleasantry of the day.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's hear from Scott in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

SCOTT (Caller): Yeah. I was wondering, do you see the same issues with, you know, men being addressed as sir, you know, making them feel old, as opposed to - I mean, there isn't a distinction like there is between miss and ma'am, but still, it's a, you know, sir is my father, you know, kind of attitude.

Ms. ANGIER: Yes. My husband hates being called sir, especially by a young woman. And I think that it is true that when you're younger, you don't get called sir as much, so that when you start getting called sir, it does feel like, oh no, so I've reached that age.

But you know, all I can say is if a guy wants to write his own little essay about it, I'm perfectly happy to read it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCOTT: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Scott, thank you. Here is an email from Claudia in Gainesville, Florida: I got my first ma'am when I was 20, and it was a shocker, even though I'm from the South. What I can't stand is calling every woman Miss Suzie, Miss Diana or Miss whatever. It's appropriate for grade schoolers to address their teachers in this fashion, but that habit should end soon thereafter.

Ms. ANGIER: Yeah. Hear, hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: There's another email here: I interact with - this is from Jennifer Sousa(ph). I interact with the Spanish-speaking community a lot, and I relished my first senora - I wasn't married - at 35. I also like being called ma'am. It feels respectful, maybe though I like getting older and feel sexier and happier as I get older. I get from the general population they do not.

Ms. ANGIER: Well, yeah. I mean, it's good that you feel that way. And I wish that everyone could, but in - to be honest, this culture doesn't exactly affirm the glories of older women. So they're doing more these days, but it still has not quite caught up.

LUDDEN: So you say you really prefer, you know, when in doubt, leave it out. You don't have any suggested alternatives?

Ms. ANGIER: Well, you know, actually, I think that Helen Mirren said -governor. Now, I like the sound of that one. So what will it be today, governor? That sounds fine to me.

Yeah, I think that something a little bit humorous, even madam said with a kind of a proper degree of lightness can be good. But the ma'am just sounds a little bit too cursory and in my view not at all, not at all conducive to my happiness. And if it's meant for me, well, maybe I would rather just skip it.

LUDDEN: So do you correct people when they - what's your reaction when that happens?

Ms. ANGIER: No. That's the thing. I mean, if you do, you'll end up looking kind of like this kind of shrewish person. So you're kind of in this position where you're not allowed to say anything but you go cringe, cringe.

I did actually once try. Well, these guys that I know up at the farmers market who call me ma'am like four times in a sentence, ma'am. I finally said: I'm not the queen, you know? I'm not...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGIER: I'm not the queen. And my daughter got very embarrassed. So...

LUDDEN: All right. Well, just to prove that it all depends on where you're coming from, we've got an email from Melody(ph) in Contra Costa, California, who writes: As a male-to-female transgendered person and a - I am delighted whenever a clerk or waitress calls me ma'am. It makes my day.

Ms. ANGIER: Well, that's good.

LUDDEN: Natalie Angier is a science writer for The New York Times. You can find a link to her article "The Politics of Polite" at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thank you so much.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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