Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Don't Ma'am Me

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.

[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 ... ]

Photo by fauxels from Pexels


  1. Recently I met a friend from NYC in FL. She is about 60 and after dinner I insisted on walking her to her car. Although it seemed like a safe neighborhood, it was dark and the streets were empty. She thought I was crazy and even a little put out that I would even think of walking this hardened New Yorker to her car. It was a good thing though because she had forgotten where she had parked!

    I did this because my behavior was built into me by my upbringing and my culture. I am polite. I think it is the same for people who use m'am out of respect or call you Miss Krystal. It is just part of who they are, so why single it out as offensive?

    Living in the South, I get the Mr. Mark stuff all the time too and it drives me nuts. However, I also know that this is simply a sign of respect and a part of the sub-culture of the South. Assigning this term dismissively to mint juleps (a symbol of the Old South) seems a bit over the top to me Krystal.

    It strikes me that putting up a fuss about m'am is a sign of cultural intolerance in a way. It seems to me that it would be the same as writing an article about being offended because an inner city youth speaks differently than you or an elderly person has different views on spending because they grew up in the Depression.

    The way we speak and show respect is part of our diversity, part of our culture, part of our personal heritage. I hope you and your friends would show some grace to people who are trying to show you respect in their own humble way.

    So there. I disagreed with you on something! : )

  2. Hey Mark! Good to hear from you! My response to you actually exceeded the space allowed for comments so it is continued below.

    I recognize that the mint julep statement may have struck a chord with my southern friends out there, but it was my honest reaction to the situation. I had serious culture shock when I went down to NC for school. Raised in a completely urban environment, the ways of city life are definitely hard wired into me. Like your friend, I have no qualms about walking to my car in the dark or crossing the street away from the crosswalk against the light (something which my NC cohort teased me mercilessly about). I had trouble adjusting to all the green, initially, as sad a statement as that is to make. I had trouble with the fact that people said hello when they passed me on the sidewalk -- strangers, said hello! The first time this happened, I stopped and waited for him to ask for directions, but it turned out that all he wanted was to say hello. Everything around me was strange. The closest I can probably liken the experience to is probably the first time you head out into the field for fieldwork -- it's always a shock, no matter how well prepared you think you are.

    Anyway, the purpose of that little digression is to help illustrate that I was definitely having a moment of culture shock. And I recognize it. Everything was different, and for me my title in that situation seemed like the only thing I could control. I definitely recognized that my students were being respectful, and as a first year TA, I appreciated it. (It definitely could have gone a lot worse.) And I quickly realized that this was the cultural norm after my "run-in" with the department assistant.

    Your judgment of cultural intolerance is perhaps a bit strong. I am not in any way suggesting that they were wrong for titling me as they did. This post is more a testament to my own discomfort and a reflection of the disparities between the use of these particular titles because just as I initially was unable to understand the continued use of Miss even after an invitation to use just my first name, they were also unable to understand my invitation.

    Your point about upbringing is well taken - we, my former students and I, were raised in two very different environment, and our meeting resulted in a cultural clash. Interestingly, as I grew more comfortable in NC, the titling seemed more natural. I also recall at least one student who would address me as Krystal via email and Miss to my face. I'm not going to label this as progress because that would imply one of us was correct, but I will say it suggests a recognition of differences. It never fit perfectly in my mind, but it was something I could live with. (Because at the end of the day, as I say above, it's not that big of a deal, really.)

    Unfortunately, this discussion about personal titles has revealed that at least in the north, these types of titles are something viewed as differently women. You are simply Mister Mark. For you Mister is simply a form of respect. And while I agree in certain contexts, Miss, Ms., and Mrs. are also forms of respect, they also offer more information about a woman's status than she might be willing to share. Or that she has been taught is appropriate to share. I have been a Miss and I am happily a Mrs, but I've settled on Ms. These things mean different things to different people. As a Mrs. too many assumptions are made about me (which we can chat about offline if ever you're inclined). In my professional circle, when I chose to become a Mrs. many of my female colleagues were less than supportive at my "taking" my husband's name.


  3. (Con't from previous)

    Ma'am similarly implies a certain age -- it encourages assumptions. You have no such marker. Perhaps there would be less of a discussion about these issues if a singular title could be agreed upon, one not aligned with age or relationship status. (If Miss were universal, and stripped of its associations, there would probably be less of a fuss.) So I stand by my final line -- I am certainly not ready to be a Ma'am yet, and accept the age gradient that comes along with it. Happily in most circumstances when a personal title is used, I get Miss. Used in the context of "How can I help you, miss?" I can live with it.

    But I actually agree with you wholly in your last statement, and I will repeat it here for readers:
    "The way we speak and show respect is part of our diversity, part of our culture, part of our personal heritage. I hope you and your friends would show some grace to people who are trying to show you respect in their own humble way."

    Indeed, I hope my readers aren't beating anyone up over a title -- or penalizing grades or anything in that range of unpleasantness :)

    As always, Mark. It was a pleasure.

  4. I hate being called ma'am, and used to confront it. But once I hit 30 I realized that, to an 18 year old, I AM a ma'am. So now I let it slide because they're trying to be respectful. But I still don't like it.

  5. Ah, ethnohistorian. That was pretty much the case with the fifteen year old sales clerk (she could have been older, but I doubt it). I'm sure to her I looked like a ma'am!

  6. The stores aren't really polite to teenagers, either. When I was a teenager, I used to have store staff follow me all over to make sure I wasn't shoplifting. I've had a rude saleslady insist to my face that I was under fourteen years old when I was actually twenty-two, and it's not flattering to a twenty-two-year-old woman and university student to be told she looks like an underdeveloped twelve-year-old. At the makeup counter I've also been steered away from bronze and brown makeup colors to some "nice pinks" (in other words, nice little pinks for a little girl like you).

    The stores are pretty much contemptuous of everybody. Retail sales aren't exactly the best model for courtesy and social relations. Most clerks and managers call you sir and ma'am because they just want to take your money and push you out of the store as fast as possible so they can push more customers and maximize their profits with minimum effort and cost to themselves. It's become a model for customer service and it's very clear they don't care, and that sales staff are underaged, under-trained, underpaid, and overworked, and probably in a daze themselves from having to handle customers in volume. It's no wonder that sales staff become rude themselves. Sales staff just put themselves on automatic and everyone who doesn't look like s/he is in school is called sir or ma'am. Welcome to social relations and civility for our globalized society. Civility is not what it used to be (if it ever was in our idealized view of the golden age of manners, which seems to be the 1950s right now), although it's gotten worse with globalization.

  7. I am eighteen, and I have been "ma'am"ed a lot. I don't exactly follow the popular teenage clothing trends(like neon clothes and platform shoes) and I tend to dress a little conservatively, but I don't think I look 30. I've been "ma'am"ed in airports (especially in Logan, for some strange reason), in stores, and on the phone. And I'm still technically teenager! I don't get it, and I have to say it's a little bit insulting.