“Ma’am” and Regional Colonialism

By Maeve Maddox

Where I come from, children are taught that responding to grownups with a mere “yes” or “no” is impolite. “Yeah” is unforgivably rude. As a child I was taught to say “yes, sir, no, ma’am” and when I grew up, I continued to say it. When I lived in England, women whom I’d addressed as “ma’am” would sometimes smile and tell me that over there “ma’am” was reserved for the queen.

A recent segment on National Public Radio (Sept. 8, 2010) has alerted me to the fact that in some regions of the U.S., women perceive “ma’am”as a put-down. NY Times reporter Natalie Angier apparently wants the honorific wiped out of American speech altogether.

This attack on the use of “ma’am” is an example of what I call regional colonialism.

In every country, the people who live in the major population centers ridicule the speech and manners of those who live in other parts of the same country. Parisians laugh at French southern accents just as much as New Yorkers make fun of southern American speakers. Now that everyone in the country consumes the same news and entertainment media, the continued existence of regional vocabulary and pronunciation is at the mercy of the speakers and writers who control the media.

An example of the media driving out previous southern terminology is that of the word “soda” to mean”soft drink.” When I was young, a “soda” was an ice cream treat. The first time I heard the word “soda” used to mean “cold drink from the vending machine” was in the mouth of a character on Law & Order. Now all grocery stores, North and South, have “soda” aisles where one finds Coke, Dr. Pepper, RC, and other carbonated beverages. (I did notice a fairly recent sign in a local supermarket that listed “soft drinks” on the same sign as “sodas.”)

Angier wrote an article, “The Politics of Polite,” in which she lambastes the use of “ma’am.” She acknowledges that “ma’am” usage varies by region. She even quotes a Georgetown professor:

Southerners and Midwesterners will ma’am with greater frequency than do the residents on the East and West Coasts…

but having made this obligatory nod to regional usage, she goes full steam ahead to argue that nobody should “ma’am” anybody.

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.”

The “evidence” Angier presents consists of the results of a “completely unscientific poll” of her own, and the following examples from the media:

Barbara Boxer to Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who addressed her as “ma’am.” She told the general that she preferred to be called “senator”: “I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it…,

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series Prime Suspect: “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.”

Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway to a young male ensign: “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain.”

In each of these examples, the context is a that of a woman asserting her right to a title previously reserved for men. If I were in a gathering in which all the male academics were being called “Dr.” and someone addressed me as “Ms.,” I’d be annoyed too.

Angier’s fourth example from the media of a character who rejects the use of “ma’am” is from a television series called Nurse Jackie:

when a policeman struggling to help subdue a disturbed patient [makes] the mistake of referring to Edie Falco’s eponymous character as “ma’am,” Nurse Jackie [shoots] back, “So help me God, do not call me ma’am — uncuff him!”

According to reviews, Nurse Jackie is an irascible drug-addicted curmudgeon who uses language as a cudgel. I wouldn’t read too much into her objection to “ma’am.”

I have no illusions as to what the outcome of the assault on “ma’am” will be if the East Coast and West Coast media take it up as a cause. A pleasant and civilized idiom native to my region will give way to a more abrupt manner of address that is preferred by those who control the national media.

Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to say “Yes ma’am” to my four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter so that she’ll acquire the habit. She can deal with regional colonialism when the time comes.

50 Responses to ““Ma’am” and Regional Colonialism”

  • Tony Hearn

    May I put in my two penn’orth from across the water? Here in Britain ma’am is a title of honour for the nobility or similar. It is thus highly formal and not heard in daily speech. When we hear it from American speakers it certainly locates them, and sounds nicely quaint, but I can’t imagine it occasioning offence!

  • Rod

    I wouldn’t dare address a young girl as Ma’am ’cause she would take offense saying , “I’m not your granny you &$*%/)!
    I wouldn’t call her miss ’cause it sounds like “missy”
    It’s like addressing a guy who I don’t know as “Mister” it sounds disrespectful with no last name.
    excuse me should do or I’d ask her her name
    I´ll stick to ma’am and sir for elder people

  • ApK

    Surprise = suppress. Darn the lack of an edit feature….

  • ApK

    >>(No, not really, but assuming that “yeah” and rude and “ma’am” is polite is really no different than the other way around; by holding out in favor of one over the other, you’re practicing the very thing you’re complaining about)<<

    The 'no, not really' is the key there. If we really visited a culture where rude and polite customs were reversed…say, where burping loudly at the table was a compliment to the chef, then, YES, we might want to surprise our upbringing and habits and respect the culture.

    But we don't live there. In NO part of the US (or, as far as I know, the UK or any English speaking country) is "whaddeva" to an elder considered polite and "ma'am' considered inherently rude.

    To argue otherwise is to completely miss the point of etiquette and how language is used to communicate courtesy and respect.


  • poch

    I see this objection to ma’am as ridiculous ego trip. If they don’t like a certain type of respect, then they don’t deserve respect.

  • Peter

    Where I come from, children are taught that responding to grownups with a mere “yes” or “no” is impolite. “Yeah” is unforgivably rude.

    Regional colonialism!! Where I come from, children are taught to say “yeah waddeva”; “yes” is mildly impolite; “ma’am” would be unimaginably rude!

    (No, not really, but assuming that “yeah” and rude and “ma’am” is polite is really no different than the other way around; by holding out in favour of one over the other, you’re practising the very thing you’re complaining about)

  • Maeve

    @Erin, Hz
    I meant colonialism, as in this definition from the OED:

    The colonial system or principle. Now freq. used in the derogatory sense of an alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peoples by a large power.

    By “regional colonialism” I mean more than attitudes towards language. I’ll expand on the idea on my own site some time.

    You got it.

  • BA

    I am born and bred in the MID-South, not an hour from Memphis, TN. If I did NOT say “Ma’am” when addressing a female more than 2 years my elder, I got a switch or a paddle (whichever was closer).

    Of course, I’m 50 now and times were a little different then. I have never regretted this lesson nor the means bt which it was taught. I understood clearly that it was, is, and always will be a sign of respect. And I will always address a lady with the honorific term, “Ma’am”, unless she gives me reason to doubt her honor.

    As an enlisted Marine, however, when anyone addressed me as “Sir”, I promptly responded that I was not an Officer and that “Marine” or my name was preferred.

    When I entered the work force I politely rejected the honor of “Sir” until I became a supervisor and later an employer. And then, I did not request or demand it. But if it was offered, I accepted it as a gentleman should accept a compliment.

    As I grow grayer (or greyer for my friends across the pond) and wider I tend to hear the term directed toward me more frequently. In my mind, I have always been a working man and hardly deserving of any particular deference. However, I accept the term in the spirit given… with as much grace as I can muster.

    If I offend a member of the fairer sex by honoring her with the term “Ma’am” I view it as that person’s loss. There are a LOT of other things that I COULD be calling them. And many not nearly as flattering. 😀

  • Nelida K.


    Thanks for posting this very interesting article. I feel that I am the “odd one out”, since I don’t live in the U.S., and my native language is Spanish (Southern Cone variety). This being said, I just love the ring of “Sirs” and “Ma’ams”, which I do find typical of the South, and to me they are honorific forms of address “lightly salted with deference”.

    When I first went to the U.S. (Hyattsville, Prince George’s County, Md.), on an A.F.S. scholarship, back in 1957-58, “soda” was a carbonated drink with ice-cream in it, and a Coke was a soft drink.

    As to your use of “regional colonialism”, I surmise that you refer to the attempt of one region to assert dominance over another.

    I always enjoy, being myself a professional linguist (certified translator), reading your views, with which I nearly always tend to agree.

    Best regards.

  • hz

    To Erin.

    No, you’re not the only one ;-).

  • Cindy Cotter

    “Regional colonialism”? Suggesting that the south is a colony of the northeast or that its relative status is in some other way colonial — that is, secondary or inferior? That analysis doesn’t ring true to me.

    When I grew up in Boston, a soda was a carbonated drink containing ice cream. The generic term for the carbonated drink itself was “tonic.” I learned to use the word “soda” when we moved to California. It never occurred to me that Boston was in any way a colony of Los Angeles.

  • Ken

    In Minnesota, when addressing others, we hardly use the terms “sir” or “ma’am.” But on a recent visit to a southern state, the clerk at the grocery store thanked me with a “sir” after he bagged what I had gathered. I found it respectful. My wife did not mind being a “ma’am” either. “I am not used to being called a ‘ma’am,’” she told me. “But it’s fine by me.”

    Being polite is not disgraceful, nor does it disgrace others. And to my southern brothers and sisters, keep on being polite; and, yes, teaching children to be respectful when addressing grownups–anyway a society sees fit–is not a detriment of true pride.

  • Danny McCormick

    I am a public affairs non-commissioned officer in the US Army Reserve and must correspond with officers and other NCOs quite often. Whenever I do, I first address a female officer by her rank and then switch to the occasional ma’am in an email. If I were to be corresponding with a male officer, I first address him by rank and then switch to sir. AP Style requires that rank be used only on first reference and then dropped, however that seems rude in direct correspondence (to refer to Captain Johnson as plain old Johnson). I believe as long as the context is respectful, my superiors are not objectionable to my use of these idioms. In conversation I do the same unless a particular officer prefers otherwise – then I address them as they wish. I do the same in church: I first address my elders and officers of the church by the position they hold such as; Mrs., Sister, Deacon, Brother or Pastor and then switch to ma’am or sir. Only young women have complained about being referred to as ma’am (I’m not that old is the usual response) and only enlisted males do not like to be called sir as that word is reserved for officers. There is never any insult purposely implied by the use of either term.

  • Erin

    Am I the only one who thinks the author should have used “colloquialism” rather than “colonialism?”

  • Brad K.

    ApK, I think even below Chief the phrase “I work for a living” came up. Thanks!

    Jessica Ojeda,

    I have worked several different cities in the South as well as north of the Mason-Dixon line. In general I agree, but there are still times when “Ma’am” mistakes the domestic or respect usage for the name of a position. In addressing a lady in the community or as a member of a household, I cannot remember when Ma’am wasn’t appropriate, if not expected. In professional context, Ma’am usually connoted a person in a higher ranked position within the organization. An office worker might receive a ma’am when someone asked for a favor, but might not, too. One’s supervisor or manager nearly always got one.

    I find that using the term of respect helps me to establish my end of a respectful relationship.

  • PL

    I went to an Army football game yesterday. Upon leaving, I glanced with admiration at a West Point cadet who was standing around to falicitate the crowd. He greeted me “Have a good day ma’am”. I was so touched with the politeness with an air of deference and that my presence was acknowledged.

  • Jessica Ojeda

    As a woman from Alabama, I can say with all certainty that “ma’am” isn’t impolite when used in the south. I think that’s the key. Many language terms change meaning when used away from “home.”

    Once I went to Utah, and told a woman, “Yes ma’am.” She gave me a wierd look and told me, “My mother’s inside.” 😉

  • ApK

    Brad: “I expect that Captain Janeway would have responded about the same way if the Ensign has addressed her with “Sir” instead of “Ma’am”. At least, that was my experience as an enlisted man in the US Navy. ”

    Actually, that conversation DID begin with the ensign calling her “Sir.”
    It is apparently Starfleet’s convention to use “sir” regardless of gender. Janeway, acknowledged that, but, with her captain’s prerogative told him that despite protocol, she’d prefer ma’am, but better yet, Captain.

    I picked up “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the Navy as well. It is a sign of respect, and a habit I’m fine with keeping, and if Angier has a problem with that, I think she needs to be beaten over the head with here own PC stick.

    That being said, habit aside, if the intent of the the use of Sir or Ma’am is to convey respect, then using when they don’t wish it is disrespectful and disingenuous.
    Similarly, if in the Navy, we called a Chief “sir” or “ma’am” we’d hear about it (“Can you see this Anchor…?).


  • Tammi Kibler

    I grew up in New England where it is not uncommon for women to take offense at being called “Ma’am,” but my sons were born in the South and raised on military bases where it would have been the height of rudeness (and may have even subjected them to corporal classroom punishment in those states which still allowed it) if they did not follow the yes, Sir, no, Ma’am rule.

    We settled in New England ten years ago, and my sons have often mistakenly given offense to teachers, social workers, and store clerks when they only mean to express respect.

    Angier may have chosen inappropriate examples, but the hostility towards these honorifics is real. Every year, at least one of my sons came home from school the first week saying he had been threatened by a trip to the principal’s office if he didn’t stop using sir or ma’am with a teacher.

    No matter what tone you use to say “Yes, sir” to a Massachusetts peace officer, you sound like a smart aleck to him.

    I think you misunderstand that men would have taken the same offense as the women did in the given examples. In military settings it is customary during conversation to address superior officers “Sir” or “Ma’am” instead of their rank. Some female officers feel there is a taint of inferiority suggested with “Ma’am” and prefer that their rank be acknowledged. Male officers do not feel this inferiority about “Sir,” but I think it likely that rank will become the preferred form of address as our culture continues its trend toward gender non-specific job titles.

    Interesting topic. Thanks for posting.

    BTW, here in Massachusetts we can’t find “tonic” signs anymore. 🙁

  • John A

    “Ma’am” and “sir” are polite. When anyone, child or adult, errs on the side of courtesy, they never err. If Nurse Jackie has a problem with it, that’s all her problem.

    When I moved to Baltimore a few years ago I soon found that nearly all adolescents and tweens refer to their elders as Mister & Miz — such as Mister John, Miz Julie. Adults also sometimes employ this usage — sometimes to show respect, sometimes just to be friendly. In any case, it’s always polite.

  • Brad K.

    In each of these examples, the context is a that of a woman asserting her right to a title previously reserved for men.

    I don’t disagree with you. But. I think there is another dynamic here, and that each of the quoted instances has another connotation.

    In each case, the use of Ma’am could be construed as demeaning a figure of authority. Ma’am – madam – carries an “organizational” connotation of the lady of the house, with an intimation of housework. Until Captain Janeway is assured that she is being respected in her authority as captain, until the nurse is assured she is recognized as authority over the patient, and until Senator Boxer is assured that she is perceived as acting in her role as Senator – reference to roles or areas of knowledge or authority outside the organizational role they are operating in is indeed belittling. And gender, I think, has little to do with it.

    I have difficulty addressing emails and phone calls to Senator Dr. Coburn’s office as “Dr. Coburn”, though his staff and his usage clearly stick to “Dr. Coburn”. If that is how Dr. Coburn perceives himself, I won’t disagree. Yet, my contacts have been in context with his role as Senator, not physician.

    Some insistence on title is important in defining roles and relationships, and in making a table of organization effective.

    I expect that Captain Janeway would have responded about the same way if the Ensign has addressed her with “Sir” instead of “Ma’am”. At least, that was my experience as an enlisted man in the US Navy. If Captain Janeway has been an officer not in command, then Ma’am or Sir would be appropriate; in the case cited, though, “Captain” was the name of the role she assumed on the starship, and in this case had little to do with her rank. Ma’am and Sir are reasonable usage with regard to rank of a superior officer; but not to the Captain of the ship.

  • Colleen

    I grew up in Florida and, out of habit, I often address the children with “sir” or “ma’am.” When I was working in the recreation industry, many of my customers were children and teens. Using the honorifics was a way of maintaining a friendly professionalism. I wasn’t their parent or babysitter so by addressing them as adults I showed that I was seeing them as individuals. It helped them set their expectations of me and the kind of behavior I expected of them.

  • Deborah H

    I’m from Texas, and my family says Ma’am, and Sir, Miss and Little Miss as easily as breathing. These forms of address provide a small cushion of verbal “space,” which is necessary in polite society, just like recognizing “personal space.”

  • Emma

    Once when I was about eleven or twelve years old (not terribly long ago) a store clerk called me “ma’am”, which I thought (and still do think) was very odd since I was clearly a child, and should be referred to as “miss”. However, I see no problem in referring to adult women as “ma’am”. With young adult women, I think either “ma’am” or “miss” would be appropriate.

    I find it a bit strange that any female senators/officers/etc. might object to being called “ma’am”. A man holding the same title might sometimes be called “sir”, so for a woman to sometimes be called “ma’am” is the same thing, right? “Ma’am” isn’t replacing the title; it’s just the honorific.

    Almost as annoying as the fact that Angier is attacking a polite form of address (and very illogically at that) is the fact that she uses the word “foment” with a positive connotation. As far as I know, a person can foment a sense of ill will, but can only arouse a sense of good will.

  • phil dragonetti

    I’m a male Yankee who has lived and travelled in the South and Mid-west enough to have acquired the use of the word “Ma’am”.

    It should go without saying that one does not use “Ma’am” in place of some title.

    I say it as a form of courtesy and respect— a habit that, perhaps, other Yankees might do well to acquire. 🙂

  • kelly

    I like (new) Battlestar Galactica’s approach to this – women in authority are called “sir” just like the men, with no explanation whatsoever. Mostly I like it because I love linguistic quirks that add to the flavour or world-building of scifi, and this is an awesome example.

    That said, I’m from Australia and I would like to be able to give my elders the respect of “sir” or “ma’am” without sounding like a kook. But, we don’t do that here. “Yeah” is pretty commonplace.

    One more thing – I love that I can ALWAYS pick an article written by Maeve Maddox from the form, content and style.

  • Nick Corcodilos

    The stark intolerance for regional speech says far more about the listener than the speaker. How strident would the listener be if the speaker were an ambassador from another country, or if the listener were visiting another land? How many “cultural consultants” teach tolerance of “foreign” speech with an eye toward fostering understanding.

    Anyone who views “m’am” as an insult should clear their ears out so they can hear what the speaker is really saying. Yo! It ain’t all about YOU!

  • Kathryn

    I think, too, that it depends on the context and how it is used. There is a tendency for certain bureaucrats and customer service representatives to address the member of the public/customer with whom they are dealing as “ma’am” (or “sir,” when dealing with a man) as a way of demonstrating surface politeness while being as obstructive as possible. Of course, one is more likely to take note of the use of the term in a context where it in fact is offensive than when it is simply used as a communicative lubricant (“Excuse me, ma’am, I forgot to ask how you would like your steak cooked?”) As a result, those to whom “ma’am” isn’t a native idiom may tend to find it offensive because that is how they think they hear it being used.

  • Stephen

    It does seem as though Angier’s article misses the point, but I understood that the biggest complaint against the word ‘ma’am’ these days was because it suggested that the recipient was quite old. People who feel this tend to prefer ‘miss’ or ‘ms’.

    Also, regarding the Captain Janeway quote, someone should point out that the quote takes place in the very first episode. Later in that same episode, the crew does end up in a ‘crunch’ and that young ensign refers to her as ‘ma’am’ for the rest of the seven year series.

  • hz

    I’m from Australia where addressing women with ‘ma’am’ almost never occurs.

    Although I find my Southern American uncle and my cousins who all refer to our elder female relatives as ma’am and anyone younger as miss quite endearing.

    If anything we find it respectful not insulting.

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