Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

The Term is “Ma’am”

March 17th, 2013

Occasionally I hear women complaining about being called “Ma’am.” It makes them feel old. Or something. Personally, I like it. If you don’t know who I am, if you don’t know my name, “ma’am” is a perfectly respectful way of addressing me. There are far worse alternatives.

This afternoon I was flying from Honolulu back to Maui. I had an aisle seat and got up to allow the window-seat passenger to sit down. He changed his mind at the last second, and went forward to trade seats with someone else. I was left standing in the aisle. Hawaiian Airlines takes their “on time” reputation very seriously and a flight attendant immediately appeared behind me, asking if something was wrong.

“I don’t know,” I said, waving my hand to indicate the young man. “He was going to sit here.”

“If you’re going to switch seats,” the flight attendant called to him, “you need to do so right now.”

The group sent someone back to take the window seat, and the flight attendant told me, “There you go, sweetie.”

There you go, sweetie? Seriously?

The term is “Ma’am.”

“Sweetie” is an infantilizing term. You can probably safely use it with young children, or with your sweetheart (if this isn’t safe, you’ll hear about it), but do not use this form of address with strangers. I don’t mind “sweetie” quite so much if an older woman uses the term in a very general way, but when a younger person uses it, the implication is they are addressing someone in their “dotage”–childlike and infantilized. Sorry, sweetie, I’m not quite there yet, and even if I was, you should still address me respectfully, and save the intimacies for intimate relationships.

The term is “Ma’am.”

Posted on: Sunday, March 17th, 2013 at 9:37 pm
Categories: Meanderings.

3 Responses to “The Term is “Ma’am””

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) Says:

    I have been criticized by people who don’t want the freight of age of the word ma’am. But I have no idea what I’d use instead.

  2. Glen Kilpatrick Says:

    I see a possible foray into non-fiction, Linda: _LIFE: The Owner’s Manual_ :). Alas, cultures aren’t quite that easy to crack, they’re mobile & evolving things (otherwise we’d be stuck a long, long time ago, a rigid place no one of _us_ would like).

    And I’m with you, Paul, I don’t know what the right word is sometimes either. However, I’ve found a winner. I used to hold the doors open for women, decided that was sexist (and yes it is, “viva la difference”, all of my best friends have been women, except those who were cats), and now-a-days I hold the doors open for everyone, equal-opportunity-courtesy. It’s clearly a winner, and I don’t have to figure out the right greeting.

    Sometimes it’s not so important to say the right thing as to _do_ the right thing.

  3. Linda Says:

    Paul, I’m always amazed when women object to “ma’am.” I personally don’t see it as implying advanced age, but simply adulthood. Then again, a lot of people don’t want to admit to being adults. 😉

    Anyway, I’d rather people use no form of address at all then stuff like “sweetie.” I wouldn’t have thought twice about it if the flight attendant had simply said, “There you go.” It’s the diminutive that really rankles.

    Glen, the equal-opportunity-courtesy sounds like a great solution. I hold the door for men, at need, but I do appreciate old-fashioned manners. That’s one thing that never ceases to impress me at the gym I attend. If I get to the door at the same time as a man, 95% of the time he will hold the door for me. I appreciate that. To me, sexist would be harassment on the gym floor, which has never been an issue for me.