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.