I came across this article recently: The Politics of Polite (NYT, August 28, 2010) where Nathalie Angier examines the usage of “Ma’am” and what it means and does as a social expression. Recommended reading.

The main question is – how to address a woman respectfully but neutrally? The problem with “ma’am” is that carries with it several connotations about a woman’s age and to some extent her civil status. Not unlike the “Mrs.” versus “Miss” debate (In 2012, France for example deleted “Mademoiselle” from official paper work and made all women the same).

I haven’t encountered the phrase personally, except my former boss who used to say “Yes Ma’am!” when I told him what to do. But I didn’t really care, as long as he followed my suggestions. And I dismissed the hunch that this was not entirely used in good spirits as “He’s American adn I am so not and that’s why I don’t know how to react to the phrase.”

I guess the main issue here is really that this is a debate concerning women. There is not a parallel debate regarding “Sir” and really not a cultural construct similar to the Miss/Mrs/Ma’am issues. Which of course should alert us to the undercurrent of chauvinism producing the social labels. An undercurrent that also has something to do with authority.

Consider this incident (from 2009), also highlighted by the NYT article: Senator Barbara Boxer of California was questioning Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And he called her Ma’am:

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): “Well, why has it been delayed?” Brigadier General MICHAEL WALSH (U.S. Army): “Ma’am, at the LACPR… ” Sen. BOXER: “You know, do me a favor. Could you say senator instead of ma’am?” Brig. Gen. WALSH: “Yes.” Sen. BOXER: “It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title. So I’d appreciate it. Yes, thank you.”  Brig. Gen. WALSH: “Yes, Senator”

First of all – how great to see Senator Boxer ask the General to address her appropriately. And how great to see that he takes note, and immediately just deos what she asks.

That’s not what happened in the fictional version paraphrased by Angier: In the premier episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway informed a young male ensign that “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain,” and when, a few moments later, the ensign called her ma’am, the captain retorted, “It’s not crunch time yet — I’ll let you know when.”

Which is mildly amusing if it wasn’t for the fact that she has to have that conversation in the first place (Captain Janeway returns to the Gates of the City apparently. Wonder if she’ll be a thing like Hillary. She’s not getting a tag just yet though).

Actually, this reminds me of a thing that happened this week when I was on a visit to Haifa… A friend and I were setting up tables for a social event and some guys (our age) were pottering around the premises. At some point, they came over to speak to us. And they kept calling my friend “Darling” – to which she simply replied “you can call me doctor, but not darling” (she’s a doctor. and you can call her darling if you know her. but he didn’t) But I am digressing.

Back to the issue at hand: Does it really matter how we address each other? Didn’t Shakespeare say that “what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” (Romeo and Juliet). He did. But he was wrong. It matters how you address a person because if you call a male senator “Senator” and a female senator “Ma’am” you are not treating them with equal respect. The above mentioned friend from Haifa (prompted by the young men darlinging her) that more than once she’s heard a patient call a female doctor “Honey” instead of “Doctor.” And we all ought to consider this when we interact with others: Do we really need to state facts about their gender or could we be polite and professional without referring to gender? I bet we can.

Randomness I had to include in this post:

The second example from the NYT piece is a line from PRIME SUSPECT (the excellent TV-series with Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison)

Tennison tells a male subordinate: “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.” To which came the inevitable answer, “Yes, ma’am, anything you say.”

Guess the fictional projection of society from England in the 1990s to a starship in the 2400’s makes all the difference. Janeway’s ensign wasn’t snarky about calling her Ma’am against her direct instruction. But what’s funny to those of us who’ve watched a lot of European films is that Helen Mirren of course IS the Queen. And as you can see below (0:28 as Elizabeth II and 4:18 as Elizabeth I — because Mirren has played both Elizabeths. Which in and of itself earns her a blog post) she is called “Ma’am” (thank you random minor character for explaining the proper British pronunciation of the appellative) The mash up includes (0:34) the line from Prime Suspect. Ha!