“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”

  • Valerie

    “‘ma’am’ implies a woman over 50. Calling an older woman ‘ma’am’ amounts to saying ‘Hey, old lady, I noticed that you are old!’ and using it on a younger woman is still worse.

    Why on earth would anyone consider it respectful to use an ‘honorific’ on people you know will likely be insulted by it, just because it sounds more ‘civilized’ to you? Unless you intend to say ‘yo, wrinkled old hag, you sure are no spring chicken!’”

    Completely agree, and I’m from the South.

  • Michelle

    I was a college student in midwest when I was first addressed as “ma’am.” Coming from western Canada I was used to being called honey, sweetie, darling, young miss, etc but “ma’am” was totally out of my boundary! I asked my college friend who grew up in the region and she confirmed me the cashiers were only being polite. I still find it strange; I feel that the term must be associated with older female adults in their 40s and above.

  • David Kriebel

    I’m a northerner, though from an old family that values tradition. I grew up saying “ma’am” and “sir” to strangers as a polite form of address, and while “sir” can make me feel old, I still appreciate the gesture. The ladies in my family do, as well. We in America have gotten away from our formerly polite culture and become in large measure the stereotype the rest of the world always said we are. Shame on us for valuing such brutishness and calling it equality.

  • Buster Boy

    I agree with this story 100%. But the overuse of Sir and Maam isn’t just agist. I started geting hit with that nonesense when I was 30 years old. Preety young. The people who are using it are uncomfortable in social settings. Two they don’t like people that much. Three, they may be using it to control people. FInally many adults who use it, are in full denial that they themselves have become grownups. I have seen many young adults who play around for decades. One day they turn around and they are much older. Can’t handle it. So they then call their peers these names. They don’t face that they have to grow up.

    There are reasons too. Some transplants to new towns don’t know the original folks that lived there. They aren’t a part of the towns comings and goings.

    Its a form of communication laziness. The person also might be more antisocial that 99% of people. I can always stop and talk for a second about something if its worth while.

    Finally. I had a lot of girlfriend and alot friends. I suspect that people who are very shy don’t know how to hit those buttons that people like where the other person is just loving the conversation. I’m extroverted. Beyond extroverted.

    I think it also its passive aggresive. Its a way to get back at the other person. To not full engage emotionally with people.


  • M

    Regardless of age, I find the term offensive. As a shortening of ‘madam’, using it places me in a position of power and authority that I do not claim over anyone else, particularly *without my consent*. Is it impossible for folks to respect my notion of politeness and gracefully not use it when I request that you don’t? Being called out for making someone uncomfortable should be respected as well, if we are to be culturally competent when interacting with each other.

  • Evie

    Where I’m from – the Northeast – “ma’am” implies a woman over 50. Calling an older woman “ma’am” amounts to saying “Hey, old lady, I noticed that you are old!” and using it on a younger woman is still worse.

    Why on earth would anyone consider it respectful to use an “honorific” on people you know will likely be insulted by it, just because it sounds more “civilized” to you? Unless you intend to say “yo, wrinkled old hag, you sure are no spring chicken!” please do NOT say “ma’am” in NY.

  • SC

    I’m here because someone I’m interacting with professionally–someone who has been doing a very bad job, I might add–has called me “mam” at least three times by email. It’s usually in the context of “Yes mam, I received that file” or something similar.

    I grew up on the West Coast and have spent most of my adult life in Michigan and Massachusetts. I’m now in Chicago. I work in a very international field and do a lot of international travel. This correspondent is in Illinois, and he doesn’t sound Southern on the phone.

    I’m flummoxed by the comments here because “ma’am” (and “mam”) sounds completely rude to me. It sounds like an anachronistic insult and vaguely condescending. I have a PhD but do NOT expect or like people to use any honorifics for that–they can just use my freaking first name (or “Dr.” for formal business correspondence if they have to). “Ma’am” conjures the patriarchy, feigned deference, unwarranted respect, ageism, etc., etc. It’s a relic, and I’ll be happy to see it go.

  • GB

    “Ma’am to us means some dowdy, frumpy woman middle-aged or earlier.”

    Cher, where did you and your friends get that idea? Here is an explanation of the usage of “ma’am” from Merriam-Webster.com:

    “used to politely speak to a woman who you do not know”

    There is no age connotation. If you are an adult female, you are appropriately referred to as “ma’am,” but “miss” would be appropriate, too, for young adult women.

  • Cher

    I’m from NY and a grad student in her mid-twenties. Most people I know who are within a few years of my age DETEST being called ma’am. We like being treated with respect, but not being made to feel like we’re old, and ma’am to us means some dowdy, frumpy woman middle-aged or earlier.

    It’s also completely unfair that there’s age differentiation for women but not men, WTF. Men are sir whether old or in their teens, but for us we have a term that suggests oldness- and women aren’t supposed to bew old according to society -_-

  • demz taters

    No one seems to see irony of the attitude of “It’s a term of respect, it’s how I was raised, and screw them if they don’t like it.”

  • Becky the Floridian

    Being addressed as ma’am or sir is most definitely considered respectful and complementary along with being polite. Anyone who is so miserable such as Peter & Guest would not understand such an act of kindness. Though it may not be something they are used to, it is still acceptable as a courtesy and a sign of respect, therfore should never be looked at as an insult or degrading.

    Children who are raised to respect their elders and peers grow up to be adults who have respect for the world around them. Those who don’t have respect, wind up as criminals, cheaters, liars, etc. It is important to instill good ethics in young children and using ma’am and sir is a good start. It is more about respect than politeness.

  • Suhanto Kastaredja

    I am from Indonesia. I am a teacher of English. I am very happy to follow the discussion of using the word ma’am. As a teacher of English this discussion can be used as teaching material in my English class. Thanks for the Information I have got from your website.

  • Guest

    As a woman, it’s bad enough that because I’m a woman, I can’t go into a store without hearing the high-pitched mosquito whine in my ear: “Can-I-help-you-ma’am?” And because I’m a woman, I have a lot of people telling me I have no choice but to put up with it because it’s just being polite. But today I heard this even higher-pitched whiny voice: “Can-I-help-you-m’im?” M’im!!! There’s a limit. I put up with a lot of things in the name of politeness, but that’ll be the day I answer to “M’im”!!! That’s not polite. That’s just silliness. I deserve better than that. Much better. Seriously!!! I walked out on the sale and bought the item at a competitor’s store, where the sales staff didn’t feel they had to talk down to me, hold my hand for me and treat me like a child in the name of being polite.
    I’m a grownup. I’m not your grade 3 teacher. I’m not your Aunt. I’m not your Mom. And if I ever visit the Deep South, I’ll cut them some slack, but I live in the twenty-first century North. “Ma’am” is bad enough, but “M’im” is just plain silly. Grow up.

  • Samantha

    Once when I was a teenager, I was called ‘ma’am’ and felt very confused. I had always figured it was short for ‘madam,’ as in the head of a household. A married woman would be ‘ma’am’ and an unmarried woman would be ‘miss.’ Though, I am from Northern New York and it seems we only say ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ or ‘miss’ when we are addressing someone either much older or much younger than ourselves.

  • Maeve

    Last night I heard a character in a crime drama address someone on the telephone repeatedly–and extremely deferentially–as “Madam Secretary.” I guess that “madam” is still alive in American speech, even in TV-land.

  • ApK

    and there are certainly parts where “ma’am” is considered somewhat rude (see the article!)<>I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults

    Children need to be taught and guided until they have the maturity to make decisions on their own. It's not abuse, it's parenting.

    Your elders, your teachers, your sensei, always deserve respect, no matter how old you are, and more formally polite language to address them, rather than the more familiar language used among peers, is the instant way to communicate that respect.
    Of course the tone and context could render it–or any compliment– facetious or ironic, but to assume, as Angier apparently does, that word itself is to blame because of the tone that some people use to deliver it to some people, is just wrong. Missing the point entirely.

    Hopefully that will continue into adulthood. For myself, I tend to use the words of polite respect until the person demonstrates they don’t deserve them. 😉

  • Mary Hodges

    Peter says “I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults.”
    Surely we all speak differently depending on the addressee and how well we know them and our relationship to them. I wouldn’t expect my 8 yearold grandson to speak to his playmates in the same way he speaks to his teachers. I think this difference picked up more by example than consciously taught.

  • Peter

    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.

    But in many parts of the US “whaddeva” is not considered impolite; and there are certainly parts where “ma’am” is considered somewhat rude (see the article!)

    Whether a word is polite or impolite depends on who’s saying it to whom, and how they say it, not on the word itself. Maeve writes that “[w]here I come from, children are taught that […] “[y]eah” is unforgivably rude” — and if you teach them (successfully) that “yeah” is rude, then presumably they’ll only say “yeah” when they mean to be rude, so that “yeah” becomes rude as a result of teaching that; but many/most children are either not taught that (or don’t accept it) and they in no way intend rudeness when they say “yeah”: therefore it’s not rude. And I consider it abuse to teach children to speak or behave in a way distinct from adults.

  • Mary Hodges

    This seems to be the usage in Britain:

    “Ma’am” is used when addressing a female officer in the British army, where “sir” would be used to a male officer.

    Children in school normally address teachers as “sir” or “miss” – unless using a full name eg “Mr Jones” or “Mrs Smith”.

    Interestingly “madam” as a form of address is quite rare but used in two very different contexts:
    1 ultra polite usage when addressing, say, a customer in a high class shop “Would you step this way, please, Madam”
    2 by someone in authority giving an order but framing it politely eg police officer “Madam, please remove your car it is causing an obstruction” No way can you refuse to comply with this request!

  • Rhonda

    With Angier’s logic, we should just start letting doors land in the faces of women walking through on the chance that holding it open could offend them. Perhaps we shouldn’t help a woman to her feet who has fallen, or offer to help her carry a heavy load.

    Does she think “sir” is disrespectful as well?

    I teach my children to use “sir” and “ma’am” unless the person they are addressing lets them, or us, know otherwise.

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