NPR logo

What's In A Title, Ma'am?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105717857/105718018" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What's In A Title, Ma'am?

Commentary

What's In A Title, Ma'am?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105717857/105718018" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ALISON STEWART, host:

In every woman's life there comes a time when someone calls her ma'am. It is 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…

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

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): You know, do me a favor, could you say senator instead of ma'am?

Mr. WALSH: Yes.

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

Mr. WALSH: Yes, Senator.

STEWART: The brigadier general, Michael Walsh, wasn't making a point about Senator Barbara Boxer's gender. As befitting a military person, he addressed the male senators as sir and Senator 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 email - 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?

Senator John McCain and many TV pundits were among those who have needled Senator Boxer over the exchange with Brigadier General Walsh. Even though there appears 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 kids 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Respect")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) What you want, baby, I got it. What you need, you know I got it. All I'm asking for is a little respect when you come home. Hey baby, when you come home. I ain't gon' do you wrong, while you're gone…

STEWART: Send me a tweet. Our Twitter user name is NPRWeekend. You're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.