No Ma’am?

1984 Nova Scotia Trip

1984 – My grandmother and her sisters and friends on a trip. Most of them were retired nurses or teachers, and they wanted – EXPECTED – to be addressed as ma’am!

So.  After a lifetime of being told to respect my elders, authority, be polite to everyone, I had a … things that make me go hmmmm moment recently.  Before I explain, I should also note that I pride myself on having spent most of my adult life promoting diversity in one way or another.  I try to be culturally sensitive and aware.

Now, imagine the big lightbulb that went off when another League leader, someone I’d say is basically in my peer group even though she’s a Sustainer (life member) and I’ve yet to move into that member class, pointed out that one reason she doesn’t feel so comfortable at “Active Member” events is the ma’am factor.

Here’s the thing.  There’s nothing like a well-intentioned, good-manners “ma’am” to put up a wall where there shouldn’t be one.  I know this; I’ve been gently laughing off “ma’ams” sent *MY* way by rookies in the fire service for several years now.  I don’t care about being one of the boys, but I also don’t want to be the (now former) chief’s wife in her ivory tower either.  My standard approach is to sweetly interrupt the speaker who ma’am’d me with something like, “Oh, that’s not necessary!  You get brownie points for good manners this time, but it’s just Chan in the future, please?” 

But somehow, I wasn’t able to transfer my own discomfort to those situations in the League where a “ma’am” was innocently tossed out and see that it’s impossible to claim we’re all one League, one big ol’ peer group, when we’re ma’amming and such. 

Keep in mind this isn’t church.  This isn’t a professional setting.  This is a civic group, where the President is roughly 20 years older than the youngest member, and we won’t talk about how much older the oldest member might be than said President. 

Help me.  How do we convey the message that ma’am is divisive within the confines of our League?  And I should clarify… virtually every woman within ear shot of said conversation chimed in and agreed that a well-meant “ma’am” had made her feel… old at some point or another.  Even the young, 30-something in the group had already had a few years’ worth of such experiences, because she works at UVA, and let’s face it, some college students think anyone over 25 is ANCIENT.  Plus, UVA is a good ol’ Southern school, so I’d like to think manners abound and anyone of authority gets sir’d or ma’am’d…

14 comments on “No Ma’am?

  1. Susan says:

    BUT, after a lifetime of training, it is part of you and HARD to not ma’am someone!! That from someone one who doesn’t like to “be ma’am’d”, but can’t seem to overcome the training with others!!!

  2. kathy boyer says:

    I cannot relate to this at all Channon. Im so sorry. We don’t do Ma’am here except for the military. Whenever a military family is in ISCU they refer to us as Ma’am and I LOVE IT. But its not the norm at all in Chicago. I prefer ma’am to the “NURSE NURSE!” shouted across the room at me.
    It is interesting that this stirs feelings in you: I suggest you go with that feeling and do what you can to lead to CHANGE. 🙂 :O 🙂

  3. Mary says:

    Living just south of the Mason Dixon line (and being a military brat with now adult children in the military), I am use to hearing ma’am, especially directed a my silver-haired self. Still, I am not thrilled with it. A weekend in NC just about did me in.

    How about a response of, “Let’s make a deal. I won’t ma’am you, if you won’t ma’am me.” Or for the slow learners in the group, “Sugar, If you don’t stop ma’aming me, I will be forced to maim you.” Of course, it must be said with a smile and a deeply southern accent. Won’t be the first time anyone in the south doled out a less-than-charming message with a touch of sweet and sour. 🙂

  4. Katherine says:

    Well Chan…a subject that some may say points to my advanced age, but I say it is simply a matter of good manners! I drummed into the heads of my boys and girls alike the message my mother passed on to me, “whatever the situation or circumstance there is never an excuse to exhibit anything other than perfect manners, and that includes yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am to anyone older, in a position of authority or a role of service–including those your same age.” That’s a mouth full but each of my children could quote it verbatim!

    My belief that this is the way it should be was strengthened when at a recent hospital function one of the younger doctors asked, “Are you Mrs. Myers? I have wanted to tell you for some time that your son is the most respectful and mannerly person I know. Because of my age I don’t usually get that kind of respect from my peers. Thank you for your contribution!” Note: my son is 48 and older than the doctor. I think it just comes down to good manners!!

  5. km says:

    I think people in California are allergic to manners. I’m almost 40 and I’ve only been ma’am’d once at the grocery store. And that’s it EVER. My kids are are first name basis with most adults in our life too. It’s weird for me, having been raised by a southern/military dad, but my kids don’t know any different.

  6. Sue says:

    It’s a Southern thing I guess. I remember when I was about 24 years old I answered the door one day. The teenage paper boy was there to collect and he called me maam. I was shocked and furious. I also don’t like being called dear, honey or sweetie by strangers. Those are very common around here.

  7. Marjie says:

    I spent most of last week in Florida (for the last time ever – hooray – but that’s another story), and spent plenty of time being ma’am-ed. But the ma’am-ee has to tell the ma’am-er that it makes her unhappy, maybe by making a jovial announcement to her group in general that we are all equals here or whatnot. In a familiar setting like JL, I shouldn’t think that would continue to occur, but I guess that’s the deeply inbred Southern respect culture.

  8. Not much to add to this conversation…I tend to play follow the leader in these situations…aka…do what everyone else is doing. That okay with you, ma’am? 🙂

  9. Kathy says:

    This sounds like a question for Miss Manners!

    I don’t know how to address your situation. I don’t get ma’am-ed a lot. It seems weird when I do. Recently I was in a safety training class sitting next to a summer intern. I think he was an undergrad. He called me ma’am more than once. Was he polite or did he think I was old? Or both? I don’t know.

  10. AlisonH says:

    It’s very much a Southern cultural thing. Having grown up south of the Mason-Dixon line and having lived in four each-very-different states since then, sir and ma’am are almost unheard of in those other places (especially California!) and are thought of as ways of telling people that they’re old, as compared to my niece who came home from her first day of kindergarten in Florida exhausted and moaned, Mommy, I can’t remember: are you a yes sir or a yes ma’am?

    I once very nearly got decked by a guy who’d hit my car: turns out he’d done time for assault, and here I was taking a picture of his license plate. What really topped it off for him was my saying, trying to defuse the situation, that I simply wanted documentation because you hit my car, sir.


    I apologized and told him I was sorry, I was a Southerner and that’s just how I was raised. (Maryland may not be all that South, but sir and ma’am-wise, yes it is, and my husband is from there too and he sirs and ma’ams a fair bit still too.)

    I also tend to say honey a lot. I’m less apologetic about that, though I have occasionally explained it. It’s simply too much a part of me. It’s a familiar without being rightinyourfacetoofamiliar from my point of view.

  11. Nancy says:

    I’ve heard a lot of “ma’ams” in Wyoming, mostly from cowboys, who also tip their hats to older ladies as they murmur, “Ma’am.” I consider it good manners, but I can see how it might have a negative impact.

  12. I like Mary’s response to this question Channon. “Let’s make a deal. I won’t ma’am you, if you won’t ma’am me.” Or for the slow learners in the group, “Sugar, If you don’t stop ma’aming me, I will be forced to maim you.” Perfect!

    P.S. The Picnic Game is posted. Come grab your letter! And, invite your “madame” friends, lol…

  13. Jessica says:

    I’ve been getting “ma’am’d” since I was about 23…the year i got married and became an Army wife. Hubby is a “sir”, so it’s natural for me to be a “ma’am”. If it is someone I am familiar with, i will tell them to call me by my first name. Overall, i do not even notice it anymore. Army families (no matter what part of country they are from) raise their kids to put a “miss” in front of the adults first name…i find it charming and respectful. I really have no problem with being called ma’am, and i think it is a nice custom. We seem to be losing so much respect for each other and for strangers on the street these days, it is nice to let certain customs just “be”. And in the Army…the custom is not going to go away, so why fight it?

  14. Bubblesknits says:

    In Alabama, it’s just part of conversation. Maybe it’s because we’re in the Deep South, but *not* saying it comes across as short or abrupt. It’s said to children (probably to set a good example), peers, strangers, and especially those older than us. I’ve been getting “yeah” as a response from my two lately, and every time, it gets them the “stink eye”. They hastily follow it up with a “m’am”. lol

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