I’m from Australia where addressing women with ‘ma’am’ almost never occurs.
Although I find my Southern American uncle and my cousins who all refer to our elder female relatives as ma’am and anyone younger as miss quite endearing.
If anything we find it respectful not insulting.
It does seem as though Angier’s article misses the point, but I understood that the biggest complaint against the word ‘ma’am’ these days was because it suggested that the recipient was quite old. People who feel this tend to prefer ‘miss’ or ‘ms’.
Also, regarding the Captain Janeway quote, someone should point out that the quote takes place in the very first episode. Later in that same episode, the crew does end up in a ‘crunch’ and that young ensign refers to her as ‘ma’am’ for the rest of the seven year series.
I think, too, that it depends on the context and how it is used. There is a tendency for certain bureaucrats and customer service representatives to address the member of the public/customer with whom they are dealing as “ma’am” (or “sir,” when dealing with a man) as a way of demonstrating surface politeness while being as obstructive as possible. Of course, one is more likely to take note of the use of the term in a context where it in fact is offensive than when it is simply used as a communicative lubricant (“Excuse me, ma’am, I forgot to ask how you would like your steak cooked?”) As a result, those to whom “ma’am” isn’t a native idiom may tend to find it offensive because that is how they think they hear it being used.
The stark intolerance for regional speech says far more about the listener than the speaker. How strident would the listener be if the speaker were an ambassador from another country, or if the listener were visiting another land? How many “cultural consultants” teach tolerance of “foreign” speech with an eye toward fostering understanding.
Anyone who views “m’am” as an insult should clear their ears out so they can hear what the speaker is really saying. Yo! It ain’t all about YOU!
I like (new) Battlestar Galactica’s approach to this – women in authority are called “sir” just like the men, with no explanation whatsoever. Mostly I like it because I love linguistic quirks that add to the flavour or world-building of scifi, and this is an awesome example.
That said, I’m from Australia and I would like to be able to give my elders the respect of “sir” or “ma’am” without sounding like a kook. But, we don’t do that here. “Yeah” is pretty commonplace.
One more thing – I love that I can ALWAYS pick an article written by Maeve Maddox from the form, content and style.
I’m a male Yankee who has lived and travelled in the South and Mid-west enough to have acquired the use of the word “Ma’am”.
It should go without saying that one does not use “Ma’am” in place of some title.
I say it as a form of courtesy and respect— a habit that, perhaps, other Yankees might do well to acquire. 🙂
Once when I was about eleven or twelve years old (not terribly long ago) a store clerk called me “ma’am”, which I thought (and still do think) was very odd since I was clearly a child, and should be referred to as “miss”. However, I see no problem in referring to adult women as “ma’am”. With young adult women, I think either “ma’am” or “miss” would be appropriate.
I find it a bit strange that any female senators/officers/etc. might object to being called “ma’am”. A man holding the same title might sometimes be called “sir”, so for a woman to sometimes be called “ma’am” is the same thing, right? “Ma’am” isn’t replacing the title; it’s just the honorific.
Almost as annoying as the fact that Angier is attacking a polite form of address (and very illogically at that) is the fact that she uses the word “foment” with a positive connotation. As far as I know, a person can foment a sense of ill will, but can only arouse a sense of good will.
I’m from Texas, and my family says Ma’am, and Sir, Miss and Little Miss as easily as breathing. These forms of address provide a small cushion of verbal “space,” which is necessary in polite society, just like recognizing “personal space.”
I grew up in Florida and, out of habit, I often address the children with “sir” or “ma’am.” When I was working in the recreation industry, many of my customers were children and teens. Using the honorifics was a way of maintaining a friendly professionalism. I wasn’t their parent or babysitter so by addressing them as adults I showed that I was seeing them as individuals. It helped them set their expectations of me and the kind of behavior I expected of them.
In each of these examples, the context is a that of a woman asserting her right to a title previously reserved for men.
I don’t disagree with you. But. I think there is another dynamic here, and that each of the quoted instances has another connotation.
In each case, the use of Ma’am could be construed as demeaning a figure of authority. Ma’am – madam – carries an “organizational” connotation of the lady of the house, with an intimation of housework. Until Captain Janeway is assured that she is being respected in her authority as captain, until the nurse is assured she is recognized as authority over the patient, and until Senator Boxer is assured that she is perceived as acting in her role as Senator – reference to roles or areas of knowledge or authority outside the organizational role they are operating in is indeed belittling. And gender, I think, has little to do with it.
I have difficulty addressing emails and phone calls to Senator Dr. Coburn’s office as “Dr. Coburn”, though his staff and his usage clearly stick to “Dr. Coburn”. If that is how Dr. Coburn perceives himself, I won’t disagree. Yet, my contacts have been in context with his role as Senator, not physician.
Some insistence on title is important in defining roles and relationships, and in making a table of organization effective.
I expect that Captain Janeway would have responded about the same way if the Ensign has addressed her with “Sir” instead of “Ma’am”. At least, that was my experience as an enlisted man in the US Navy. If Captain Janeway has been an officer not in command, then Ma’am or Sir would be appropriate; in the case cited, though, “Captain” was the name of the role she assumed on the starship, and in this case had little to do with her rank. Ma’am and Sir are reasonable usage with regard to rank of a superior officer; but not to the Captain of the ship.
“Ma’am” and “sir” are polite. When anyone, child or adult, errs on the side of courtesy, they never err. If Nurse Jackie has a problem with it, that’s all her problem.
When I moved to Baltimore a few years ago I soon found that nearly all adolescents and tweens refer to their elders as Mister & Miz — such as Mister John, Miz Julie. Adults also sometimes employ this usage — sometimes to show respect, sometimes just to be friendly. In any case, it’s always polite.
I grew up in New England where it is not uncommon for women to take offense at being called “Ma’am,” but my sons were born in the South and raised on military bases where it would have been the height of rudeness (and may have even subjected them to corporal classroom punishment in those states which still allowed it) if they did not follow the yes, Sir, no, Ma’am rule.
We settled in New England ten years ago, and my sons have often mistakenly given offense to teachers, social workers, and store clerks when they only mean to express respect.
Angier may have chosen inappropriate examples, but the hostility towards these honorifics is real. Every year, at least one of my sons came home from school the first week saying he had been threatened by a trip to the principal’s office if he didn’t stop using sir or ma’am with a teacher.
No matter what tone you use to say “Yes, sir” to a Massachusetts peace officer, you sound like a smart aleck to him.
I think you misunderstand that men would have taken the same offense as the women did in the given examples. In military settings it is customary during conversation to address superior officers “Sir” or “Ma’am” instead of their rank. Some female officers feel there is a taint of inferiority suggested with “Ma’am” and prefer that their rank be acknowledged. Male officers do not feel this inferiority about “Sir,” but I think it likely that rank will become the preferred form of address as our culture continues its trend toward gender non-specific job titles.
Interesting topic. Thanks for posting.
BTW, here in Massachusetts we can’t find “tonic” signs anymore. 🙁
Brad: “I expect that Captain Janeway would have responded about the same way if the Ensign has addressed her with “Sir” instead of “Ma’am”. At least, that was my experience as an enlisted man in the US Navy. ”
Actually, that conversation DID begin with the ensign calling her “Sir.”
It is apparently Starfleet’s convention to use “sir” regardless of gender. Janeway, acknowledged that, but, with her captain’s prerogative told him that despite protocol, she’d prefer ma’am, but better yet, Captain.
I picked up “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the Navy as well. It is a sign of respect, and a habit I’m fine with keeping, and if Angier has a problem with that, I think she needs to be beaten over the head with here own PC stick.
That being said, habit aside, if the intent of the the use of Sir or Ma’am is to convey respect, then using when they don’t wish it is disrespectful and disingenuous.
Similarly, if in the Navy, we called a Chief “sir” or “ma’am” we’d hear about it (“Can you see this Anchor…?).
As a woman from Alabama, I can say with all certainty that “ma’am” isn’t impolite when used in the south. I think that’s the key. Many language terms change meaning when used away from “home.”
Once I went to Utah, and told a woman, “Yes ma’am.” She gave me a wierd look and told me, “My mother’s inside.” 😉
I went to an Army football game yesterday. Upon leaving, I glanced with admiration at a West Point cadet who was standing around to falicitate the crowd. He greeted me “Have a good day ma’am”. I was so touched with the politeness with an air of deference and that my presence was acknowledged.
ApK, I think even below Chief the phrase “I work for a living” came up. Thanks!
I have worked several different cities in the South as well as north of the Mason-Dixon line. In general I agree, but there are still times when “Ma’am” mistakes the domestic or respect usage for the name of a position. In addressing a lady in the community or as a member of a household, I cannot remember when Ma’am wasn’t appropriate, if not expected. In professional context, Ma’am usually connoted a person in a higher ranked position within the organization. An office worker might receive a ma’am when someone asked for a favor, but might not, too. One’s supervisor or manager nearly always got one.
I find that using the term of respect helps me to establish my end of a respectful relationship.
Am I the only one who thinks the author should have used “colloquialism” rather than “colonialism?”
I am a public affairs non-commissioned officer in the US Army Reserve and must correspond with officers and other NCOs quite often. Whenever I do, I first address a female officer by her rank and then switch to the occasional ma’am in an email. If I were to be corresponding with a male officer, I first address him by rank and then switch to sir. AP Style requires that rank be used only on first reference and then dropped, however that seems rude in direct correspondence (to refer to Captain Johnson as plain old Johnson). I believe as long as the context is respectful, my superiors are not objectionable to my use of these idioms. In conversation I do the same unless a particular officer prefers otherwise – then I address them as they wish. I do the same in church: I first address my elders and officers of the church by the position they hold such as; Mrs., Sister, Deacon, Brother or Pastor and then switch to ma’am or sir. Only young women have complained about being referred to as ma’am (I’m not that old is the usual response) and only enlisted males do not like to be called sir as that word is reserved for officers. There is never any insult purposely implied by the use of either term.
In Minnesota, when addressing others, we hardly use the terms “sir” or “ma’am.” But on a recent visit to a southern state, the clerk at the grocery store thanked me with a “sir” after he bagged what I had gathered. I found it respectful. My wife did not mind being a “ma’am” either. “I am not used to being called a ‘ma’am,’” she told me. “But it’s fine by me.”
Being polite is not disgraceful, nor does it disgrace others. And to my southern brothers and sisters, keep on being polite; and, yes, teaching children to be respectful when addressing grownups–anyway a society sees fit–is not a detriment of true pride.
“Regional colonialism”? Suggesting that the south is a colony of the northeast or that its relative status is in some other way colonial — that is, secondary or inferior? That analysis doesn’t ring true to me.
When I grew up in Boston, a soda was a carbonated drink containing ice cream. The generic term for the carbonated drink itself was “tonic.” I learned to use the word “soda” when we moved to California. It never occurred to me that Boston was in any way a colony of Los Angeles.
No, you’re not the only one ;-).
Thanks for posting this very interesting article. I feel that I am the “odd one out”, since I don’t live in the U.S., and my native language is Spanish (Southern Cone variety). This being said, I just love the ring of “Sirs” and “Ma’ams”, which I do find typical of the South, and to me they are honorific forms of address “lightly salted with deference”.
When I first went to the U.S. (Hyattsville, Prince George’s County, Md.), on an A.F.S. scholarship, back in 1957-58, “soda” was a carbonated drink with ice-cream in it, and a Coke was a soft drink.
As to your use of “regional colonialism”, I surmise that you refer to the attempt of one region to assert dominance over another.
I always enjoy, being myself a professional linguist (certified translator), reading your views, with which I nearly always tend to agree.
I am born and bred in the MID-South, not an hour from Memphis, TN. If I did NOT say “Ma’am” when addressing a female more than 2 years my elder, I got a switch or a paddle (whichever was closer).
Of course, I’m 50 now and times were a little different then. I have never regretted this lesson nor the means bt which it was taught. I understood clearly that it was, is, and always will be a sign of respect. And I will always address a lady with the honorific term, “Ma’am”, unless she gives me reason to doubt her honor.
As an enlisted Marine, however, when anyone addressed me as “Sir”, I promptly responded that I was not an Officer and that “Marine” or my name was preferred.
When I entered the work force I politely rejected the honor of “Sir” until I became a supervisor and later an employer. And then, I did not request or demand it. But if it was offered, I accepted it as a gentleman should accept a compliment.
As I grow grayer (or greyer for my friends across the pond) and wider I tend to hear the term directed toward me more frequently. In my mind, I have always been a working man and hardly deserving of any particular deference. However, I accept the term in the spirit given… with as much grace as I can muster.
If I offend a member of the fairer sex by honoring her with the term “Ma’am” I view it as that person’s loss. There are a LOT of other things that I COULD be calling them. And many not nearly as flattering. 😀
I meant colonialism, as in this definition from the OED:
The colonial system or principle. Now freq. used in the derogatory sense of an alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peoples by a large power.
By “regional colonialism” I mean more than attitudes towards language. I’ll expand on the idea on my own site some time.
You got it.
Where I come from, children are taught that responding to grownups with a mere “yes” or “no” is impolite. “Yeah” is unforgivably rude.
Regional colonialism!! Where I come from, children are taught to say “yeah waddeva”; “yes” is mildly impolite; “ma’am” would be unimaginably rude!
(No, not really, but assuming that “yeah” and rude and “ma’am” is polite is really no different than the other way around; by holding out in favour of one over the other, you’re practising the very thing you’re complaining about)
I see this objection to ma’am as ridiculous ego trip. If they don’t like a certain type of respect, then they don’t deserve respect.
>>(No, not really, but assuming that “yeah” and rude and “ma’am” is polite is really no different than the other way around; by holding out in favor of one over the other, you’re practicing the very thing you’re complaining about)<<
The 'no, not really' is the key there. If we really visited a culture where rude and polite customs were reversed…say, where burping loudly at the table was a compliment to the chef, then, YES, we might want to surprise our upbringing and habits and respect the culture.
But we don't live there. In NO part of the US (or, as far as I know, the UK or any English speaking country) is "whaddeva" to an elder considered polite and "ma'am' considered inherently rude.
To argue otherwise is to completely miss the point of etiquette and how language is used to communicate courtesy and respect.
Surprise = suppress. Darn the lack of an edit feature….
I wouldn’t dare address a young girl as Ma’am ’cause she would take offense saying , “I’m not your granny you &$*%/)!
I wouldn’t call her miss ’cause it sounds like “missy”
It’s like addressing a guy who I don’t know as “Mister” it sounds disrespectful with no last name.
excuse me should do or I’d ask her her name
I´ll stick to ma’am and sir for elder people
May I put in my two penn’orth from across the water? Here in Britain ma’am is a title of honour for the nobility or similar. It is thus highly formal and not heard in daily speech. When we hear it from American speakers it certainly locates them, and sounds nicely quaint, but I can’t imagine it occasioning offence!
With Angier’s logic, we should just start letting doors land in the faces of women walking through on the chance that holding it open could offend them. Perhaps we shouldn’t help a woman to her feet who has fallen, or offer to help her carry a heavy load.
Does she think “sir” is disrespectful as well?
I teach my children to use “sir” and “ma’am” unless the person they are addressing lets them, or us, know otherwise.
This seems to be the usage in Britain:
“Ma’am” is used when addressing a female officer in the British army, where “sir” would be used to a male officer.
Children in school normally address teachers as “sir” or “miss” – unless using a full name eg “Mr Jones” or “Mrs Smith”.
Interestingly “madam” as a form of address is quite rare but used in two very different contexts:
1 ultra polite usage when addressing, say, a customer in a high class shop “Would you step this way, please, Madam”
2 by someone in authority giving an order but framing it politely eg police officer “Madam, please remove your car it is causing an obstruction” No way can you refuse to comply with this request!
But we don’t live there. In NO part of the US (or, as far as I know, the UK or any English speaking country) is “whaddeva” to an elder considered polite and “ma’am’ considered inherently rude.
But in many parts of the US “whaddeva” is not considered impolite; and there are certainly parts where “ma’am” is considered somewhat rude (see the article!)
Whether a word is polite or impolite depends on who’s saying it to whom, and how they say it, not on the word itself. Maeve writes that “[w]here I come from, children are taught that […] “[y]eah” is unforgivably rude” — and if you teach them (successfully) that “yeah” is rude, then presumably they’ll only say “yeah” when they mean to be rude, so that “yeah” becomes rude as a result of teaching that; but many/most children are either not taught that (or don’t accept it) and they in no way intend rudeness when they say “yeah”: therefore it’s not rude. And I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults.
Peter says “I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults.”
Surely we all speak differently depending on the addressee and how well we know them and our relationship to them. I wouldn’t expect my 8 yearold grandson to speak to his playmates in the same way he speaks to his teachers. I think this difference picked up more by example than consciously taught.
and there are certainly parts where “ma’am” is considered somewhat rude (see the article!)<>I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults
Children need to be taught and guided until they have the maturity to make decisions on their own. It's not abuse, it's parenting.
Your elders, your teachers, your sensei, always deserve respect, no matter how old you are, and more formally polite language to address them, rather than the more familiar language used among peers, is the instant way to communicate that respect.
Of course the tone and context could render it–or any compliment– facetious or ironic, but to assume, as Angier apparently does, that word itself is to blame because of the tone that some people use to deliver it to some people, is just wrong. Missing the point entirely.
Hopefully that will continue into adulthood. For myself, I tend to use the words of polite respect until the person demonstrates they don’t deserve them. 😉
Last night I heard a character in a crime drama address someone on the telephone repeatedly–and extremely deferentially–as “Madam Secretary.” I guess that “madam” is still alive in American speech, even in TV-land.
Once when I was a teenager, I was called ‘ma’am’ and felt very confused. I had always figured it was short for ‘madam,’ as in the head of a household. A married woman would be ‘ma’am’ and an unmarried woman would be ‘miss.’ Though, I am from Northern New York and it seems we only say ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ or ‘miss’ when we are addressing someone either much older or much younger than ourselves.
As a woman, it’s bad enough that because I’m a woman, I can’t go into a store without hearing the high-pitched mosquito whine in my ear: “Can-I-help-you-ma’am?” And because I’m a woman, I have a lot of people telling me I have no choice but to put up with it because it’s just being polite. But today I heard this even higher-pitched whiny voice: “Can-I-help-you-m’im?” M’im!!! There’s a limit. I put up with a lot of things in the name of politeness, but that’ll be the day I answer to “M’im”!!! That’s not polite. That’s just silliness. I deserve better than that. Much better. Seriously!!! I walked out on the sale and bought the item at a competitor’s store, where the sales staff didn’t feel they had to talk down to me, hold my hand for me and treat me like a child in the name of being polite.
I’m a grownup. I’m not your grade 3 teacher. I’m not your Aunt. I’m not your Mom. And if I ever visit the Deep South, I’ll cut them some slack, but I live in the twenty-first century North. “Ma’am” is bad enough, but “M’im” is just plain silly. Grow up.
I am from Indonesia. I am a teacher of English. I am very happy to follow the discussion of using the word ma’am. As a teacher of English this discussion can be used as teaching material in my English class. Thanks for the Information I have got from your website.
Being addressed as ma’am or sir is most definitely considered respectful and complementary along with being polite. Anyone who is so miserable such as Peter & Guest would not understand such an act of kindness. Though it may not be something they are used to, it is still acceptable as a courtesy and a sign of respect, therfore should never be looked at as an insult or degrading.
Children who are raised to respect their elders and peers grow up to be adults who have respect for the world around them. Those who don’t have respect, wind up as criminals, cheaters, liars, etc. It is important to instill good ethics in young children and using ma’am and sir is a good start. It is more about respect than politeness.
No one seems to see irony of the attitude of “It’s a term of respect, it’s how I was raised, and screw them if they don’t like it.”
I’m from NY and a grad student in her mid-twenties. Most people I know who are within a few years of my age DETEST being called ma’am. We like being treated with respect, but not being made to feel like we’re old, and ma’am to us means some dowdy, frumpy woman middle-aged or earlier.
It’s also completely unfair that there’s age differentiation for women but not men, WTF. Men are sir whether old or in their teens, but for us we have a term that suggests oldness- and women aren’t supposed to bew old according to society -_-
“Ma’am to us means some dowdy, frumpy woman middle-aged or earlier.”
Cher, where did you and your friends get that idea? Here is an explanation of the usage of “ma’am” from Merriam-Webster.com:
“used to politely speak to a woman who you do not know”
There is no age connotation. If you are an adult female, you are appropriately referred to as “ma’am,” but “miss” would be appropriate, too, for young adult women.
I’m here because someone I’m interacting with professionally–someone who has been doing a very bad job, I might add–has called me “mam” at least three times by email. It’s usually in the context of “Yes mam, I received that file” or something similar.
I grew up on the West Coast and have spent most of my adult life in Michigan and Massachusetts. I’m now in Chicago. I work in a very international field and do a lot of international travel. This correspondent is in Illinois, and he doesn’t sound Southern on the phone.
I’m flummoxed by the comments here because “ma’am” (and “mam”) sounds completely rude to me. It sounds like an anachronistic insult and vaguely condescending. I have a PhD but do NOT expect or like people to use any honorifics for that–they can just use my freaking first name (or “Dr.” for formal business correspondence if they have to). “Ma’am” conjures the patriarchy, feigned deference, unwarranted respect, ageism, etc., etc. It’s a relic, and I’ll be happy to see it go.
Where I’m from – the Northeast – “ma’am” implies a woman over 50. Calling an older woman “ma’am” amounts to saying “Hey, old lady, I noticed that you are old!” and using it on a younger woman is still worse.
Why on earth would anyone consider it respectful to use an “honorific” on people you know will likely be insulted by it, just because it sounds more “civilized” to you? Unless you intend to say “yo, wrinkled old hag, you sure are no spring chicken!” please do NOT say “ma’am” in NY.
Regardless of age, I find the term offensive. As a shortening of ‘madam’, using it places me in a position of power and authority that I do not claim over anyone else, particularly *without my consent*. Is it impossible for folks to respect my notion of politeness and gracefully not use it when I request that you don’t? Being called out for making someone uncomfortable should be respected as well, if we are to be culturally competent when interacting with each other.
I agree with this story 100%. But the overuse of Sir and Maam isn’t just agist. I started geting hit with that nonesense when I was 30 years old. Preety young. The people who are using it are uncomfortable in social settings. Two they don’t like people that much. Three, they may be using it to control people. FInally many adults who use it, are in full denial that they themselves have become grownups. I have seen many young adults who play around for decades. One day they turn around and they are much older. Can’t handle it. So they then call their peers these names. They don’t face that they have to grow up.
There are reasons too. Some transplants to new towns don’t know the original folks that lived there. They aren’t a part of the towns comings and goings.
Its a form of communication laziness. The person also might be more antisocial that 99% of people. I can always stop and talk for a second about something if its worth while.
Finally. I had a lot of girlfriend and alot friends. I suspect that people who are very shy don’t know how to hit those buttons that people like where the other person is just loving the conversation. I’m extroverted. Beyond extroverted.
I think it also its passive aggresive. Its a way to get back at the other person. To not full engage emotionally with people.
I’m a northerner, though from an old family that values tradition. I grew up saying “ma’am” and “sir” to strangers as a polite form of address, and while “sir” can make me feel old, I still appreciate the gesture. The ladies in my family do, as well. We in America have gotten away from our formerly polite culture and become in large measure the stereotype the rest of the world always said we are. Shame on us for valuing such brutishness and calling it equality.
I was a college student in midwest when I was first addressed as “ma’am.” Coming from western Canada I was used to being called honey, sweetie, darling, young miss, etc but “ma’am” was totally out of my boundary! I asked my college friend who grew up in the region and she confirmed me the cashiers were only being polite. I still find it strange; I feel that the term must be associated with older female adults in their 40s and above.
“‘ma’am’ implies a woman over 50. Calling an older woman ‘ma’am’ amounts to saying ‘Hey, old lady, I noticed that you are old!’ and using it on a younger woman is still worse.
Why on earth would anyone consider it respectful to use an ‘honorific’ on people you know will likely be insulted by it, just because it sounds more ‘civilized’ to you? Unless you intend to say ‘yo, wrinkled old hag, you sure are no spring chicken!’”
Completely agree, and I’m from the South.