Ma’am and Mrs.

29angierimg-articleInline Natalie Angier talks about the politics of polite and the division over whether being call "ma'am" is respectful or an insult.

Still, if you’re a woman born any
time before the Clinton administration, chances are you’ve been called
ma’am on more than one occasion — by solicitous waiters asking whether
you were “Done working on that, ma’am?” and hovering store clerks
wondering if they can “help you find anything, ma’am,” and traffic cops
telling you to “Move your car, ma’am, this isn’t a parking lot,” and the
perky, hardworking fellows at the farmers’ market who see you week
after week but will always cram so many ma’ams into every transaction
that you realize there’s no turning back, you’ve been ma’amed for life.

I'm very much in the ma'am-is-an-insult camp. I mean you might as well call me "grandma" or "wrinkle-face" or "too old to be seen in public." I hate it so much that if a waiter calls me "miss" rather than "ma'am," I'll give him a better tip. 

I also hate Mrs., though not quite as much as ma'am. When kids call me Mrs. McKenna or even worse, Mrs. Husband's Last Name, I grit my teeth and tell them to call me Miss Laura. I'll even accept being called "Jonah's mother" over Mrs. McKenna.

Question of the Day: Is ma'am an insult?


35 thoughts on “Ma’am and Mrs.

  1. I don’t mind “ma’am” at all (but I’ve been mistaken for age 40 since age 14, so perhaps I’m inured). But I’d really rather prefer a unisex “sir.”

  2. Ooh, I hate being called “Mr. First Name,” and I would hate being called “Miss (or Mrs.) First Name” if I were a woman. It’s so southern. I like my children’s friends, and the building staff, to call me “Mr. Last Name.”
    The point is, if you’re a child, or a waiter, you may offend someone whatever you do, so you shouldn’t worry about it. Another point is that, as an authority figure and/or dispenser of tips, it is kind of unfair to penalize people who have no way to guess your preference upfront, or to know your maiden name.

  3. I like being called “Mr. Wife’s last name” on the phone only because it means I can hang-up without waiting to make sure it isn’t someone to whom I owe work or money.

  4. I got used to being Miss Amy in Washington, DC (with kids’ little friends) and I’m acclimatizing to ma’am and being Mrs. P here in Texas. (I’ve never gotten used to the pediatric habit of referring to parents to their faces as mom and dad–my names on the chart, people.)
    They really beat “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” into the kids at school here and it genuinely sounds better than a bare yes or no from a small child. It’s almost as if a sentence isn’t grammatical unless it’s got a ma’am or a sir tacked on it. I’m not totally sure what the etiquette with ma’am and sir is between adults locally, especially those who know each other, but I get yes, ma’am from my cleaning ladies and the college facilities guys (it sounds very chivalrous when a guy is about to get you back your hot water or give you a new dishwasher) as well as from local female peers. Locally, I think “yes ma’am” between adult equals means “I hear what you said and I’m going to get right on it.” I don’t venture to use it myself, since there are probably subtleties I’m not getting.
    Speaking of not getting subtleties, here’s Barbara Boxer and her famous “Call me Senator” moment:

  5. I have no problem with ma’am, provided the appropriate attitude of courtesy and respect accompanies it. I mean, how can you be insulted by courtesy and respect?
    Would you rather be told “This way to your table, Madam”?

  6. If I had a problem with ma’am, I’d better move. It in no way makes me feel old as it’s used here irregardless of age. I just appreciate that someone is attempting to be courteous. I know it’s not intended this way, but Miss sounds condescending to me.
    I prefer Lee (or Miss Lee) and used to cringe at being Ms. Last Name though now I just giggle at being Mrs. Kids Last Name. I’d prefer Mrs. Kids Last Name to my own.

  7. Ma’am is, I think, the proper way to address the queen of the UK, regardless of how old she is at the time.
    I think I use Ma’am sometimes. I find “sir” quite bizarre (though like an earlier commenter I’ve been considered old since I was very young, and unlike most, my dad actually is one).

  8. I read Angier’s piece and sympathized with folks because they really can’t win. *I* hate being called “miss”, which happens in NYC a lot (on the subways, in stores, by police officers). I’m over 40, I look it, I have two kids with me… and I feel that I should be called “ma’am” out of respect. I feel like “miss” is really infantilizing and condescending.
    Incidentally, I also hate when my child’s teacher addresses me as “Mrs. Husband’s Last Name” when I have signed every single one of her notes, forms, letters and sent-home spelling tests with my maiden name.

  9. “Miss” makes me feel 800 times older than “ma’am” because it makes the person saying it sound like a preschooler. “Ma’am” just sounds a bit servile.

  10. Yeah, I’d have to move if I thought ma’am was an insult, too. But regardless of the geographical realities, I find “miss” condescending. I’m not 18, I don’t look 18, I don’t want to BE 18. Ma’am is fine.
    I’ve overheard two different waiters refer to women whose faces clearly showed at least 50 years of life as “young lady” in the last month and a half (what can I say, we’re on a sudden tear of dating around here) and both times, I wanted to smack the guy. Talk about assholish behavior.
    Ma’am is fine. Ma’am is good.
    I really am Mrs. Husband’s Last Name, so that won’t doesn’t bother me, either. Maybe I’m just a neanderthal.

  11. Oh, Miss Jody doesn’t bother me. That’s the acceptable way for kids to call the mothers of their friends down here, that or Mrs. Last Name, and I like it fine.

  12. It’s so completely regional. When I taught in the south, all my students said “Yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” and would have been positively distressed at being told to stop – because that would be RUDE! It’s for any woman higher up in the hierarchy than you, basically, and has nothing to do with age. (Whereas I don’t think I ever heard anyone call anyone ma’am in New England, but then, I moved away around age 21, so maybe I was just too young to be called it?)
    Anyway, ma’am doesn’t bother me at all – I don’t get why it’s insulting at all.
    I would personally a thousand times prefer to be called ma’am than Mrs. Mrs bugs the crap out of me. (Though I think I’d make an exception if I had kids and it was their friends calling me that, since I called everyone “Mrs. Whoever” when I was a kid.)

  13. I don’t like Miss, mostly because that’s what the first year students tend to call me while addressing my male colleagues as Professor or Doctor.

  14. I went to college in Texas and was first ma’am-ed at the tender age of 18. Then it bothered me. Now I couldn’t care less. Being called “Mrs. Husband’s Last Name” really irks me though I do enjoy saying “There is no Mrs. Husband’s Last Name” to phone solicitors.

  15. The worst ever naming experience I’ve ever had was in my daughter’s pre-K class in DC where it seems that the children had been instructed to address other children’s parents as “Chloe’s dad,” “Zoe’s mom,” “Noah’s dad,” “Boaz’s mom,” etc. I guess that was probably a reaction to the problem of not knowing or caring to know what name the adult favored.
    Speaking of naming issues, what to call the in-laws is another eternal problem.

  16. I prefer ma’am; I consider it a form of respect. I hate “miss” because of the sneering condescension that comes with it. I’m 43, and while I look young, I sure the hell don’t look like I’m under 21.
    Locally, I think “yes ma’am” between adult equals means “I hear what you said and I’m going to get right on it.”
    “Miss” at my age means “I didn’t hear you, don’t want to hear you, and am not going to pay any further attention to you. You aren’t important enough.” Unlike the gravitas that comes with “ma’am.”
    But I give people from the South a break on that; they have different codes than the North.

  17. When I was last waiting tables, maybe at 25 or so, I certainly would have never called any woman who could have possibly been older than me “miss.”

  18. “Ma’am” is bad, but “Miss” is worse. I’m 35 now, and it just seems brown-nosing or patronizing, particularly when it’s coming from a man in his 20s.
    I do like telling telemarketers who ask for “Mrs. Brooks” that there’s no such person; they get really confused when I say I’m married to Mr. Brooks. And when people call me “Mrs. Brooks” when I’m already feeling testy, I must admit I have been known to respond, “It’s Doctor Madsen-Brooks.”

  19. Where I come from it used to be (and still is to some extent) normal to address people as “ducky” or “love” or (in the West Country) “my love”. Complete strangers, men and women (women are more likely than men to use “ducky”, but it is addressed to men and women equally). Ma’am really is ok.
    Does anyone object to being addressed as “Mister”? (the male readers — I can imagine why the female readers might take offence at it).

  20. “Speaking of naming issues, what to call the in-laws is another eternal problem.”
    A very underrated reason to have kids: in-laws can then be safely called “Grandma/Grandpa.”

  21. I am a strict “yes ma’am” “no sir” person. I use it all the time for phone interactions, with store clerks. I also use it with my students, most of whom are younger than I am. But, yes, I am a southerner and was brought up very strictly to use that terminology. I do wonder about passing it on to my daughter, who is from NJ, and where so much seems to be conveyed in the usage of the words.

  22. “I do wonder about passing it on to my daughter, who is from NJ, and where so much seems to be conveyed in the usage of the words.”
    I think part of the regional problem is that “yes, ma’am” is often sarcastic mock deference up North, while I don’t think I’ve yet heard a sarcastic “yes, ma’am” in three years in Texas.

  23. Ma’am is surely preferable when compared to the NY-Latino habit of addressing any female, even little girls, as mama or mami. To me, the latter sends the message that motherhood rather than simply woman-hood or person-hood is the most important thing to emphasize when interacting with a female stranger. (I have less of an issue if strangers refer to me as ‘mami’ when I am out and about with my son, and I do think that mothers deserve respect.)
    Also, I don’t want to be frail or dead any time soon, but what’s wrong with gaining some respect as one gracefully ages?
    Also, being called ‘chief’ or ‘boss’ can be fun among friendly colleagues, especially for women bosses. But it’s a little scary because of its boss-slave connotation.

  24. We’re trying–and probably failing–to teach our daughter regionally-appropriate manners. It’s hard, though, to explain that in rural Virginia you call ALL adults Mr./Ms. Surname, but in urban Austin you call everyone except doctors/teachers/priests by their first name. At least nobody in Austin will get offended by sirs or mams.
    The surname/first name thing was the hardest transition I had to make in moving from Southern small town life to an urban environment and a corporate culture set by Berkeley CA. I grew up calling all adults by their surname, and expected the same once I became an adult — in fact was called Mr. Brumfield more than a few time in more-formal high school/college classes. It was a shock to get laughed at when I addressed my first boss as Mr. R____. And although I’m now comfortable with it–and even with my daugher calling friend’s parents by their first names, which was a practice I associated with “free love” and modern art as a youth–I still get irritated by the ambiguity when there are three Jasons, four Chrises, and three Daves just within my 30-person department.

  25. ambiguity when there are three Jasons, four Chrises, and three Daves just within my 30-person department.
    Just give them nicknames based on physical characteristics and their biggest failure at the office.

  26. I don’t care one way or another about “ma’am,” but Mrs. My-last-name drives me nuts. I get it from my MIL, and even my husband can’t keep it straight. “It’s MS.! Like the MAGAZINE!” I yell. But that particular mnemonic seems not to work for him.

  27. I’ve tried to teach our children to use Ms. FirstName, but some of our friends prefer Mrs MarriedName and correct the children. There is no right answer..
    Certainly don’t see ma’am as an insult: for the most part I think it is intended as respectful, and the intent can be honored. What about Ms ? am I misleading my children ?

  28. If a family friend or neighbor has a doctorate and I know it, I’ll refer to them in front of the kids as “Dr. Smith” or “Dr. Jones.” Who knows, maybe it will inspire the kids to get one of their own.

  29. Since I’ve now lived in VA longer than I’ve lived anywhere else I’ve accommodated to ma’am; I even use it myself sometimes, completely non-ironically. I don’t like Mrs even though I am technically Mrs HisLastName. In situations where people know what I do, I prefer Dr. or Professor since that’s what my male colleagues are called. Otherwise, seriously, I don’t stress about it much. There are way worse things to call someone than ma’am.

  30. Not one but two of the servers at my local cafe (not Starbucks, btw!) recently addressed me as “dear.” I’m 44, they’re about 24, so it makes me feel like their dotty old aunt. I’ve gone to that cafe for a decade, and I told the owner that it must stop!

  31. I’ve been rabid about keeping my own name since I was 15, but I guess I’m mellowing. I figure my kids’ teachers and my kids’ friends have enough to worry about without keeping track of my last name. If they call me Mrs Husband’s Last Name, I go with it. But I give brownie points to anyone, like my daughter’s guidance counselor, who comes up with Ms Birth Name.
    Same for ma’am. Nobody knows what you want, so as long as there’s some attempt to be polite, it’s fine with me.
    But here’s what irks me: relatives who know your preference but refuse to honor it. Grrrr….

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