I can accept many things about getting older: stiff joints, wrinkles, varicose veins. At least those are things I expect to happen as I age. But something I haven’t quite gotten used to, and nobody warned me about, is people calling me “Ma’am.”
I don’t recall when it first occurred or when I noticed it bothered me, but I received a concentrated dose this past December when I flew from Cleveland to San Diego via Chicago. Without fail, whether I was interacting with flight attendants, retail clerks or the luggage guys, and regardless of their city or gender, almost everyone I encountered addressed me with the “M” word. Most were younger than me, but some were not. And though I didn’t think they were being disrespectful, I just don’t like it.
It all came to a head several weeks later when I was back home at my local Home Depot purchasing shelving for a bookshelf. A male employee, easily close to my age, was assisting me, and kept addressing me as “ma’am.” As we finished up, he uttered it one final time.
“Ma’am, if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.”
Although he had done an amazing job helping me, I had reached my limit. I felt my body temperature rise as he spoke. Directly, but respectfully, I responded:
“I really appreciate your help, but can you please not call me “ma’am.’”
Unfortunately, other than suggesting that he call me Ms., I was at a loss for options. But that was just the beginning. Now I was interested in how others felt.
I googled the word ma’am: “Does anyone like the word ma’am?’” and “The’ M’- word.” Along with some definitions, I found a slew of online articles and information from Cosmopolitan Magazine, The New York Times, NPR, The Huffington Post, several blogs, and YouTube.
The definitions were informative but didn’t explain why anyone would be offended. I proceeded to the articles.
In The 4 Letter Word Most Women Do Not Like to Hear, Ann Brenoff, clearly not a fan, surveyed 50 women and found the majority didn’t like it.
“An unflattering reference to age that made them feel old or at least older than the person saying it.” However, some women didn’t mind. “A sincere attempt at courtesy and goodness knows our country needs more of that.”
In Please Don’t Call me ‘Ma’am’, Jessi Klein states that “being called the ‘M’ word can be as shocking as finding your first gray hair,” and it first happened when she was 30.
One blog described “ma’am” as sexist and noted that “sir” or “mister,” comparable terms for men, contained no age reference and could be used to address a man throughout his life. “Ma’am,” on the other hand, denotes a certain age.
Kristen Brakemen Hansen describes her experience in her article, Dude, Don’t Call Me ‘Ma’am.’
“One day I’m allowed to stand in the group with the other young and fertile maidens…then next you belong with the old and the barren.”
In a blog response, one woman wished we could eliminate distinctions between young and old women and didn’t like that our culture makes this separation with language.
Another said she’d rather be called “shit head” because then “she could legitimately complain, because technically, there isn’t a real issue with the word ‘ma’am.’”
And several women expressed that it made them feel dismissed, brushed off, and irrelevant.
There were responses from women who didn’t object as well.
“An intelligent person realizes that it’s a form of respect and if you take it otherwise, then get some psychiatric counseling and get over yourself.”
“What I hate and find totally insulting is when a man calls me ‘young lady’ when we both know it’s a lie.”
Others suggested eliminating the word altogether, and one woman shared that when sales associates and restaurant servers call her “ma’am,” she simply corrects them.
“It’s not ‘ma’am,’ it’s ‘goddess.’”
There are certainly more pressing issues — poverty, gun violence, drug addiction to name a few and definitely more offensive words. And while it’s difficult to find names and titles we can all agree on, for many women, “ma’am” is one of those words we’d rather not be called.
Not only can the “M”- word be off putting, it’s probably not the most conducive for building personal and professional relationships. And when you consider that women make up over 50 percent of the U.S. population and 47 percent of the current work force, and that according to Forbes magazine, women control over 60 percent of the wealth in this country, are the most powerful consumers and are expected to control 2/3’s of the wealth in the next decade, it might just be time for a change.