The Queen of My Self

The Queen of My Self

Terms Of Endearment Or Disrespect? – Part 2

posted by Donna Henes

Here are more 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:
Having said “ma’am” all my life to be polite, I read “Just Don’t Call Me …” with chagrin. To learn that “ma’am” is outmoded because it makes women feel old has me feeling, well, old.

- Mark Weston, Armonk, NY

To the Editor:
Natalie Angier’s discussion of the term “ma’am” in society was revealing to this native Southerner, whose mother taught him to say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” without fail. What a pity that some women cannot accept a term of respect when it is offered. Another aspect of civility is lost.

- Hunter George, Birmingham, AL

To the Editor:
Many people object wrongly, I think, to the term “ma’am.” If the queen of England is content with that form of address, which is nothing more than a title of respect, irrespective of age, how can one take umbrage?

Now, when I hear “Move your car, lady,” I see red. That’s patronizing.

- Helen Benardo, Bronx, NY

To the Editor:
I do not have a problem with anyone calling me “ma’am.” What I hate and find totally insulting is when a man calls me “young lady” when we both know it’s a lie. 

- Susan Immergut, New York, NY

This from the Wikipedia explanation of Ma’am:

Ma’am – 1660s colloquial shortening of madam (q.v.). Formerly the ordinary respectful form of address to a married woman; later restricted to the queen, royal princesses, or by servants to their mistresses.
n. – A woman of refinement.

After addressing her as “Your Majesty” once, it is correct to address The Queen of the United Kingdom as “Ma’am” for the remainder of a conversation, with the pronunciation as in “ham” and not as in “chum” or “farm.”

Usage of “Ma’am” is becoming increasingly uncommon in the United States and in Western Canada and is already out of common usage in Australia, New Zealand and England.

In the past, the term was to be used only for married women, In practice, however, those who cling to the use of the term “Ma’am” tend to address only older women this way, while they address younger women as “Miss.”
Because of this age divide, most U.S. women object to the use of “Ma’am” or “Miss” as addresses as there is no formal equal address for a younger man in common use. Men are always called “Sir”, whether they are 18 or 80, while an 18-year old woman would be called “Miss,” and a 40-year old woman “Ma’am.”
As of 2010, most American women equate the label “Ma’am” as meaning “Old lady” and eschew its use. In fact, in 2009 the European Union issued guidance against the use of status-specific titles for women as the title for men, Mr., makes no reference to a man’s marital status. By the same token, the use of “Ma’am” for women over 40 and of “Miss” for women in their teens, twenties and thirties is seen as expressing the same sexism.

As society progresses, it is now more common to state, “Would you like milk with your tea this evening?” rather than, “Would you like milk with your tea, Ma’am.” The former query is inclusive, as it does not label the person to whom the question is being made and therefore does not offend. The latter sentence does label the person being questioned, and is more likely to offend than to not offend.

How do YOU feel about being called ma’am?

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


Terms Of Endearment Or Disrespect? – Part 1

posted by Donna Henes

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

The Politics of Polite – Part 2

posted by Donna Henes

Continued from yesterday,

Just Don’t Call Me …
By Natalie Angier

If ma’am is meant as a verbal genuflection to power, the message is lost on many real-life powerful women, like Senator Barbara Boxer, who told a brigadier general to refer to her as “senator” rather than “ma’am” at a hearing last year. “I worked so hard to get that title,” she said, “so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”

I put together a completely unscientific poll of my own, courtesy of the online service, SurveyMonkey, and asked some three-dozen professional women 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 2 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. As Jill Soloway, a Los Angeles-based writer who worked on the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” explained: “It makes me think I’m fat and old, like an elderly aunt.”

There are other reasons to dislike the term ma’am — for its whiff of class distinctions, for being dismissive, stiff and drab. “If someone calls me ma’am, it’s superficially a sign of respect, but it’s also creating distance,” Dr. Kroll said. “It’s saying, I’m not going to have a serious conversation with you; I’m not going to engage with you.”

Katha Pollitt, the columnist and poet, said, “It’s part of those routine word packages that are forever flying by.”

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.

Defenders of ma’am consider it a dignified term. Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column, is one of them. She pointed out that in England ma’am is used to address royalty of whatever age, and she attributed women’s ma’am-aphobia to the “prudishness” of modern society. “Everyone is in denial about age,” she said. “Why would you want to do away with showing respect for age? What do you gain by saying don’t treat me with respect just because I’m older? What sort of devil’s bargain is that?”

Maybe we just need a jazzier term. “How about madame?” suggested Ms. Pollitt, with that final E lending the second syllable a theatrical drawl. “Madame sounds glamorous and powerful, like you’re a serious and effective person in the world.” Bonnie Bassler, a Princeton biologist said she was perfectly happy to be called “Your Highness.”

Or how about nothing? Does nothing work for you? In my survey I posed a series of hypotheticals. For example: You’re at a restaurant with friends, and the waitress wants to warn you that your plate is hot. Would you prefer she say, “Careful, ma’am, that plate is very hot,” or, “Careful, miss,” or, “Careful, dear.” More than 80 percent of the respondents chose option number four: “Careful, that plate is very hot.” For one moment, a ma’am you’re not.

Just call me Mama!

Coming tomorrow is Part 2.

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

The Politics of Polite – Part 1

posted by Donna Henes

The following article by Natalie Angier appeared in the New York Times last month. It certainly struck a chord in me. Or should I say, a sore point?

Just Don’t Call Me …
By Natalie Angier

Classes are now underway at Pennsylvania State University, and Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology, linguistics and women’s studies, will soon be greeting her undergraduate students with the usual brief spiel. “I get up and say, you can call me Dr. Kroll, or professor, or Judith if you like, but do not call me Mrs.,” she said. “I am not Mrs. Kroll. I kept my name when I got married and my husband kept his name.”

There is one other honorific that Dr. Kroll dislikes and that she dearly wishes she could bar from the classroom: ma’am. Whenever a student says, “Yes ma’am” or “Is that going to be on the test, ma’am?” Dr. Kroll says she cringes and feels weird. Yet because ma’am, unlike Mrs., isn’t factually incorrect, Dr. Kroll resists the urge to scold. “My first take has got to be, this person is just trying to be polite,” she sighed.

Another day, another ma’am-ogram: you may not want it; it may make you feel flattened, desexualized, overripe and nearly through; but trust me, ma’am, we’re doing it all for you.

There are weightier problems in the world. 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.

Ma’am is, of course, a contraction of madam, and its usage varies by region. Southerners and Midwesterners will ma’am with greater frequency than do the residents on the East and West Coasts, said Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand” and a linguistics professor at Georgetown. “You’re more likely to hear ma’am when somebody is annoyed.”

In theory, ma’am is a courtesy term, meant to convey respect and graciousness lightly salted with deference. Yet much evidence suggests that when it comes to fomenting a sense of good will ma’am fails even more spectacularly than “Have a nice day.”

Certainly in popular culture, many female characters rebel against the ma’am tag. In the mordant, high-end medical soap, “Nurse Jackie,” when a policeman struggling to help subdue a disturbed patient made the mistake of referring to Edie Falco’s eponymous character as “ma’am,” Nurse Jackie shot back, “So help me God, do not call me ma’am — uncuff him!”

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series “Prime Suspect” told her male subordinate: “Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don’t like ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen, so take your pick.” To which came the inevitable answer, “Yes, ma’am, anything you say.”

In the premier episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway informed a young male ensign that “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain,” and when, a few moments later, the ensign called her ma’am, the captain retorted, “It’s not crunch time yet — I’ll let you know when.”

Coming tomorrow is Part 2.

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

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