Yesterday, I posted a link to an article from the Times on the nature of titles and the response of some women to being called ma’am. My female Twitter audience seemed to agree that they didn't really care for the title—though older females indicated that ma’am didn’t bother them as much. I have only been called ma’am once. I was definitely put off by it, but the sales clerk who did it had to be about fifteen, so perhaps I looked like a ma’am to her. (Still, yikes!) Ma’am is my mom, my aunts, my mother-in-law. Ma’am can now probably be applied to some teachers I had in school. My feeling is that I am not a ma’am. I might become one in the future, but for now that is not me.
But we’ve talked about identities—if I can be a researcher, bibliophile, wife, daughter, mentor, sister, daughter-in-law, strategist, writer and any number of other roles (including dishwasher and litter “scooperer”)—so why does ma’am rankle me so much? My other identities are a mix of gender, hobbies, and profession. Ma’am is a gendered expression. So what’s the big deal? The article points out that if you have earned a title, being called ma’am almost seems like an insult. But if you’ve earned the title of “Dr.” or “Professor” or “Judge” or “Chief” then you deserve to be acknowledged in this way if you prefer. Ma’am doesn't draw attention to any accomplishment—it's about age, and in a culture where youth is prized highly (the beauty industry seems to be doing quite well), ma’am can feel like an unexpected chill on a wonderful summer day: unwelcome, unexpected, and incomprehensible.
Responses to being called ma’am might tell us something about constructions of respect. When I was in North Carolina for grad school, I invited my students to call me Krystal. After all, I had called my own TAs by their first name as an undergrad. But several students—and they were good students—insisted on calling me Miss Krystal. Miss Krystal? Where was my mint julep? I was on my way to being a professor, and these were college students—was Miss Krystal the babysitter? Miss Krystal just didn’t seem to work. I understood that those students who insisted on this title were showing me respect. And I really appreciated the effort, but if we were going to be formal, then perhaps Ms. D’Costa would have been preferable. I must have seemed as foreign to my students as they appeared to me—how could I not want to be treated with respect? We were in a liminal space: I wasn’t quite a professor, so Ms. D’Costa was too formal, but I wasn’t their peer, so Krystal was too informal. The department assistant was also called Miss XXX. I made the mistake of calling her just XXX, and while her response was polite, it was definitely cold. (I wised up the next week and added the proper personal title and she warmed up immediately.) These personal titles seem to help define not just roles but spaces and interactions as well.
I wonder what prompted these regional differences in the use of personal titles. Recently, while visiting my goddaughter in North Carolina, some neighbors came over and their children all called me Miss Krystal (yes, I did have a flashback, and since I was in the middle of a game with them, I really did feel like the babysitter). I have never called my neighbors anything other than by their first names—including the sitter! In the grand scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal. It really doesn't bother me much—and maybe I have my former students to thank for that. However, I’m not ready to be a ma’am. If you must add a personal title, let’s stick with Ms.
[Edit: Note: I worked as a teller as an undergrad for a large bank. I regularly called my older female customers ma'am. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but now I wonder ... ]