Don’t Call Me Ma’am

Do not call me maamI was having lunch with a friend a few weeks ago at a small cafe. It was a cold late winter day, and when the waiter brought over the big bowl of vegetarian chili I had ordered with a pile of cheese on top, I started to salivate.   The food, the conversation, the ambience- everything was good.  And then our waiter, who looked like he had just started to shave, came over to clear my empty bowl.

“Are you done, Ma’am?  Can I take your bowl, Ma’am?”

I knew he was just being polite, but I had to suppress the urge to say, “Don’t call me that, you twit.  I’m not a ‘Ma’am.’  What makes you think I’m a ‘Ma’am?’”

But I just said “thank you,” made a joke about how I wasn’t going to eat the empty plate, and I looked at my friend.  She knew what I was thinking.

“Don’t you hate that?” my friend whispered,   “Couldn’t he have just said, ‘can I take your bowl?’  Did he have to stick the ‘Ma’am’ on there?  Do you think there is an age where it is OK if someone calls you ‘Ma’am’?”

I gave this a few seconds’ thought.  “It’s not ‘Never,’” I said.  But when is it?

Would I be ok being “Ma’am” at 90?  Sure, that will be ok.  80?  Probably.  70? Possible.  60?  Unlikely.  50-something?  What was it about being called “Ma’am” that made me want to punch the waiter in the face?

“Unless I become the Queen of England,” I told my friend, “I don’t want to be called ‘Ma’am’ again until I am 70.”

A brief survey of my 50-something friends (at least the ones in the northeast region of the country) all agreed.  They hated to be called ‘”Ma’am.” They thought it was synonymous with “old,” or “married.”  Many were offended.

In 2009, Senator Barbara Boxer lashed out at General Michael Walsh for addressing her as “Ma’am” and not “Senator,” (you can watch the video here) and the Ma’am debate went wild. General Walsh was accused of being a misogynist, a sexist, a plain old pig of the worst sort.  Did Boxer over-react?  Was the General simply being respectful?    If you can call the queen “Ma’am” can’t you call a senator “Ma’am?”  And would it be wrong to address a male senator as “sir?”

I asked my 23-year-old son if he ever called anyone “Ma’am.”  He has never lived anywhere other than the northeast.  “Of course,” he said,   “All the time.  It is polite.”

“Do you only use it with people you think are old?”

“Of course not.”

“Would you call a thirty-year-old woman ‘Ma’am?’”

“Of course, especially if she were in a position of respect.  Or my boss.”

“Does it matter if she is married?”

“How would I know if she were married?  No it wouldn’t matter.  Does the term ‘sir’ mean old to you, Mom?  Does it?  What’s the matter with you? It’s the same thing.”

“Huh,” I thought sarcastically,  “My son is hardly ever wrong.”  But it turns out his position is backed up by a number of sources.  According to dictionary.reference.com, ‘’ma’am” is simply short for madam, a polite term of address to a woman, originally used only to a woman of rank or authority.

Wiki (yeah I know, but I quote other sources too) says:  “Madam, or madame, is a polite form of address for women, often contracted to “ma’am”…The term was borrowed from the French madame, which means “my lady.”

According to Merriam Webster, Ma’am is used to “politely speak to a woman who you do not know.”     Even Urban Dictionary says, “Ma’am is a shortened version of the word Madame, which was formally used when addressing women in the days when etiquette and common courtesy were commonplace.”  I miss those days.

So I feel like a fool now to have been offended by being addressed as “Ma’am.”  I’ve changed my mind and my attitude.  It’s just plain old dumb to be offended by a word that is meant to be nothing more than a polite gesture or a term of respect.   We may all need an attitude adjustment.   “Ma’am” does not mean “old” or “has-been.”   It does not mean “married lady.”  It is the only universally accepted polite address for an adult female.  We have just got to get over ourselves when we are “Ma’amed” –for the sake of civility and common courtesy.

Yes siree, we do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ronna Benjamin

Ronna Benjamin

When BA50’s Managing Editor and Partner, Ronna Benjamin, turned 50, she had an epiphany. After 28 years of practicing real estate law at both a large downtown law firm and then solo at her own firm, Ronna realized how much she loved writing and how much she hated lawyering. She jumped into the world of writing at betterafter50.com and never looked back. Ronna writes humorously about the things BA50s are concerned about – personal experiences with adult children, the illnesses and quirks of aging parents and in-laws, and their own mental, emotional or physical health issues (READ: insomnia, anxiety, and bulging waste line). She is an active BA50 with her pulse on what BA50s care and are talking about from politics to the most recent episode of Downton Abby. A native Bostonian who loves to spend time with her husband and three adult children, Ronna also enjoys sailing, cooking, running, and biking, and she tolerates skiing so she is not left home during family vacations. 

  19 comments for “Don’t Call Me Ma’am

  1. April 9, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Ronna, take it from me, a Texan at heart, m’am is the equivalent of sir and (some) kids are brought up to say “Yes, Sir” or “No, M’am” as a sign of respect to any adult. Pretty sure it is a regional, southern practice, and, actually, kind of sweet, once you get used to it if you did not grow up with that tradition.

    • Alexis
      April 9, 2013 at 9:39 am

      I, too, grew up in Texas. We moved there when I was 7 years old and my parents immediately taught me that I needed to start saying “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing adults. INow that I live far from Texas, it makes me smile to hear it.

    • Vicki
      April 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

      In Texas, if you DON’T say ma’am or sir, you are just plain rude. I am 54, and I say it to 19 year old waitresses. It is a term of respect to anyone, no matter their age. A firm handshake and a friendly greeting will get you far.

  2. April 9, 2013 at 8:09 am

    I’m 66 and I hate being called maam…..however, you mentioned Sen. Boxer taking a military person to task….the military is trained to call civilian women “maam” and men “sir”….my son was in the Army for 22 years – that’s how I know that! Also, in the South, kids are brought up to say maam and sir…

    It doesn’t make me crazy but I don’t care for it. Maybe when I’m 70. or 80!

  3. Brett Cook
    April 9, 2013 at 8:58 am

    M’am I can deal with, but “Dear” puts me over the roof. It is all I can do to keep from baring my teeth and going for the wretched perpetrator’s jugular, or breaking into sobs because REALLY, do I look THAT old, infirm,dotty,or feeble? Just wait – M’am will sound like music to your ears after some twit addresses you as ” Dear. ” And women are as bad, if not worse, then men when it comes to using that particular 4 letter word. Especially in doctor’s offices. Oddly, ” Honey ” doesn’t bother me half as much. A woman of any age can be ” Honey,” – ” Dear ” is clearly reserved for those who are over the hill.

    • Ronna Benjamin
      April 9, 2013 at 10:04 am

      I’m hearing you! It is so condescending!

      • Robin Zorn
        April 9, 2013 at 10:30 am

        For me it’s definitely “hon” that makes me see stars. Whether its the waitress, the checkout person or anyone — don’t call me hon. Years ago I left GOod Mornong America pretty much over this exact issue!

  4. Deborah
    April 9, 2013 at 9:31 am

    When I teach down in the Florida Keys the kids always call me Miss..not with my name attached…or ma’am..Not one kid..every kid. So does the principal. It is out of respect. I am 54. I always thought the “Miss” was cute!

  5. April 9, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I have lived most of my life in the South, and Ma’am never bothered me until I hit 50 years-old. Now I think it’s because the politeness isolates me — puts me in the category of “no longer in the game but wise and appreciated.” I know it’s all in my head, because I heard a young man called a woman his age ma’am the other day. But, I’m with you. It still bugs me.

  6. Marlene Clayton
    April 9, 2013 at 10:57 am

    It use to bug me too but if you live long enough you grow in to it. Your son as usual is right.

  7. Sandy Presser
    April 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Ronna…Never did and Never will like to be called Ma’am. I guess it’s a polite way of addressing a lady, but when I’m called Ma’am I just say “the name’s Sandy” . I also don’t like to be called “Hon” especially when it’s from a younger person (and everyone seems to be younger than me these days). Oh well what else is new?????

  8. EVITA DODEL
    April 10, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Ronna, thank you for the great article!
    I felt the same and didn’t know what to do with that :-)
    From now on I will make a “switch” and will accept is as a polite gesture.
    Thank you!

    Evita H. Dodel

  9. Jan
    April 22, 2013 at 10:40 am

    “Hun” puts me right over the edge!!!!!

  10. April 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I didn’t realize it wasn’t common knowledge that using ma’am and sir was totally expected in the South.

    My mother never made us use the terms, unless she was angry with us, so it has negative connotations for me. When my kids want to get a rise of out me, they start ma’am-ing me.

    Gloria

  11. Datdamwuf
    April 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    The reason we get pissed off at being called ma’am is that it doesn’t happen until we reach a “certain age”. Only kids called me ma’am until I was over 50, so it’ no wonder I equate the sudden appearance of ma’am with looking old. Sort of like how we become invisible at some point and wonder WTH is going on…

  12. Virginia
    August 19, 2013 at 1:46 am

    Have lived most of my life in the South, so was raised on that “polite” phrase. Even though I find myself saying “Yes,Ma’am” to other women, I HATE it when I am called that. Actually, I only hate it when someone who appears to be of college age or older does! The older they are, the older I feel.

  13. SallyB
    January 26, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Being called ma’am can ruin my day. I grew up in the Northeast and now live in the South, so it happens constantly. I’m 40, and it made me just about apoplectic until I turned 40. Now I just feel resigned. I can take it when a server or someone in a store calls me ma’am because I figure they’re being polite to the customer. But when a peer does it, I find it totally offensive. This woman who looked about my age called me ma’am in yoga class the other day and I might have glared at her and I spent the rest of the class fuming (oh, the irony!)

  14. emmy
    February 1, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    I despise the word “ma’am”. It should be banished from the english language. I’m in my 20′s and would much rather be called miss. Being called “ma’am” just makes me see red. I’m from seattle not the south.

  15. voiceofreason
    March 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Ma’am originally was age neutral but that has changed in modern usage for some people. Some people do see it as a term for women not in their twenties or thirties. It’s hard to know for certain kid the person using it on you sees it as neutral or age-based. I think it’s primarily an age based term, and that’s kind of offensive because you’re deeming a woman less than in a society that assigns greater social value to younger females.

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