The Queen of My Self

Continuing from yesterday, here are responses from readers to Natalie Angier’s article “Just Don’t Call Me …,” (New York Times, Week in Review, Aug. 29, 2010):

To the Editor:
I have to wonder how many women surveyed in your “completely unscientific poll” were from the Midwestern and Southern states (and no, the Virginia suburbs of Washington do not count).

I am an Ivy League graduate, a liberal and a feminist, but see nothing “desexualizing” or “classist” about the word “ma’am.” Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., I was taught that it was a term of respect: nothing more, nothing less. I gave the title to my mother, to cafeteria workers and even to my teenage babysitters.

The next time some poor unsuspecting waiter refers to Natalie Angier as a “ma’am,” I hope she does not coldly dismiss him. There’s a better than average chance that he’s a transplant from my neck of the woods. Where we come from, calling someone “ma’am” is a sincere attempt at courtesy. And goodness knows, our country needs more of that.

– Amy Watson, Birmingham, AL

To the Editor:
I had to smile upon reading the essay about manners. You may have just taken on every teacher south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the salutation is not only encouraged but, at least in the past, very much expected.

When we moved from Rhode Island to Georgia in 1977, our daughter was in the second grade. At our first teacher’s conference, I was told that she needed to show more respect to the teacher by only answering, “yes, ma’am or “no, ma’am.” I tried to explain that our Yankee background did not include this particular show of manners and that she was not being rude.
I’m not sure I got my point across, but I have never forgotten the admonition!

– Sandra Moore, Washington Township, NJ

To the Editor:
“Just Don’t Call Me . . .” doesn’t mention that “madam,” hence, “ma’am” is from the French “madame,” meaning “my lady.” Sounds, what? Courtly, romantic, classist?

But for me, at any age, better than the phone solicitor’s “Karen, I just want to tell you about … ” A little respectful formality and distance, please! And some humanity. What should I call that waitress with the hot plate when I need more water?

The younger woman who slices my bread at the market hands it to me and says, “Here you are, my lady,” and I think it’s delightful, as I did when a woman older than I picked up a paper I’d dropped on a Paris Métro platform and called out, “Ma chérie, you dropped this.” I always say to the woman at the market, “Thank you, my dear.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could call one another “my dear” and really mean it?

– Karen Goodman,Studio City, CA

To the Editor:
I have never been a great fan of being addressed as “ma’am,” and years ago came up with a simple way of letting others know what to say instead.

While out to dinner with my spouse one evening, our server asked, “Would you care for something to drink, ma’am?”

I shook my head, signaling disapproval, and motioned for her to come closer. “It’s not ‘ma’am,’ ” I said sotto voce. “It’s ‘goddess.’ “

She nodded, and then asked with a big smile on her face, “Can I take your order, Goddess?” which she, my spouse and I all agreed sounded much, much better.

Another time, after being similarly instructed, a server asked if instead of Goddess, she could address me as “diva.” “Care for a refill, Diva?” worked for me.

– Lesléa Newman, Holyoke, MA

Coming tomorrow, more reader responses.

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to

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