Call Me by My Name
By the time you reach 40 you’ve certainly had your first “ma’am-ogram". Probably from someone much younger than you but, in the worst case scenario, by someone you thought was much older than you.
How dare they call you “ma’am”, you are clearly still a …what?
By a certain age, being called “Miss” seems like a punchline but I much prefer it to what happened to me the other day when I stepped up to the counter at a trendy, high-end fast food chain in LA.
“Can I help you, Sir?” the young man taking orders asked.
“What?” I asked, eyes wide. “Did you just call me, “Sir”?
“Yeah,” he replied without blinking, “Can I take your order?”
Now I know this is Los Angeles where anything goes, but few people besides this guy would think I was a man. So I shrug it off and give him the benefit of pre-occupation, poor eyesight and just being plain bad at his job.
Which brings us to the question of why it’s necessary to define women by calling us “Ma’am”, “Miss” or in my case, “Sir”, at all.
Natalie Angier, author of the Politics of Polite says, “Behind the link between “ma’am” and “old” is the familiar feminist observation that, whereas a man remains “mister” and “sir” from nursery to nursing home, a woman’s honorifics change depending on her marital status and, barring that, her age. A young miss walks a few miles, and, wedding ring or no, wham, she’s a ma’am. For many women, then, the insertion of the word “ma’am” into an otherwise pleasant social exchange can feel like a tiny jab, an unnecessary station-break to comment on one’s appearance: Hello, middle-aged- to elderly-looking woman, how may I help you this evening? Thanks, prematurely balding man with the weak chin, I’ll take that table over there, in the corner.”
In fact, Angiers created an informal online poll of three-dozen professional women asking how they felt about the word “ma’am.” The group included lawyers, writers, scientists, policymakers, business executives and artists, who ranged in age from 20 to 65.
Of the 27 women who responded, only two said they liked being called ma’am, applauding the word as “polite” and “because it amuses me”; 10 were neutral; and the remaining 15 disliked it to “varying pH levels of causticity.”
What became clear was that most women preferred not to be called anything. As in, “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” instead of “Sorry, I didn’t see you, Ma’am.” Or in the case of a professional or workplace situation, most women preferred to simply be called by their name.
Me? I now prefer anything over “Sir”.
Where do you stand on Ma’am vs. Miss ? Reply in the comments below.