I 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.