Do you remember the first time you were ma'am-ed?
I do. I was standing in line to use a bank machine at a rest stop on the Florida Turnpike. I was in my late 30s and a cute, college-age guy walked up and dropped the m-bomb on me.
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"Excuse me, ma'am, are you in line?"
I was stunned. In ma'am shock. Here I was thinking about how well he filled out those jeans and all he was thinking about was how long he had to wait while the old dame fumbled with her ATM card. Suddenly, I was thrust into the same category as my grandmother and her big-bunned church friends, with their soft, flabby arms and Chanel No. 5-dusted bosoms.
"Ma'am?" Isn't that the title reserved for Queen Elizabeth and female suspects on Dragnet?
Actually, what I've discovered is that – with the irritating exception of the occasional young, perky sales clerk – I don't mind the title so much; it's the tone that sometimes goes with it. I grew up in a "yes sir/yes ma'am" house, so I get the etiquette part. But it seems that most of the "ma'ams" I hear today from an adult's lips are more about patronization in the guise of good manners, not social decorum. "Ma'am" is the new substitute for "sweetie," "honey," "dear" or any other number of loaded, sarcastic words designed to put women in their place. As in, "I'll try to put this in simpler terms, MA'AM, so your little brain can understand it."
It's the same disingenuous tone I use when I yell, "Get in here, YOUNG LADY," at my daughter when I walk into her messy room. In a certain tone of voice – or under the breath – seemingly innocent titles are not always meant to be terms of endearment.
This summer, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) admonished a brigadier general for calling her "ma'am" instead of "senator," I totally understood. "Do me a favor," she asked. "Can you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?' It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it."
Boxer's request set off an explosion in the blogosphere, where she was called other, less polite titles. Critics complained she was out of line because "ma'am" is an honorable, traditional address for a woman in the military. Then someone pointed out that a 2001 Department of Army Guide to Protocol dictates that a senator should be addressed as "senator," specifically adding that "when the senator is a woman, use 'Senator.' "
So was the brigadier general using the ma'am title to honor Boxer (who happens to chair the committee holding the hearing)? Or was he using it to emphasize the fact that, despite her position of power, she is still, after all, just a woman? It's interesting to note that this exchange occurred while Boxer was pressing the general, an Army Corps of Engineers division leader, on why the levees in New Orleans are still not repaired nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina. Hmmmmm, most of you ma'ams know what's going on here.
Unfortunately, I can't demand that people call me Senator. So, to all you confused fellas out there: Go ahead and call me ma'am. Just watch your tone and don't hide behind a courtesy title when you really don't mean it. I'm on to you, sirs. And don't be surprised by what I call you in response ... cupcake.