Wednesday, 23 February 2011

On being called ma'am

I hate it. I can tolerate it from those younger than me, but when it comes from those older than me, it's so physically repellent I want to throw up.

In this case, it has to do with a student who's older than me doing it.

Walking home from the bus stop, I remembered why it's so visceral. I used to joke about it making me feel old, but I always knew that wasn't it. Suddenly, today, I had this image of being in Pakistan and being about 9 or so, and having my relatives' servants call me 'baji' - same kind of respect as 'ma'am'...and feeling deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it. Even then I thought, 'This is so wrong. I'm a KID. Just because I was born into a family with more, YOU - YOU, who know more about life than I do, who have had a hard life, who works so hard - YOU have to call me 'baji'? I don't think so.'

The most fun I ever had in Pak, outside of time with my cousins, was with the servants. They read our palms, they babysat us, they gossiped, they loved us when we sat in the kitchen, they told stories, kept our secrets. They were REAL, and often happy in a way other adults weren't. I ADORED them and felt so guilty when they did stuff for me.

More times than I want to remember, one of my aunts or uncles would yell at them for the smallest infraction, because dinner wasn't ready fast enough or because they were taking out their frustrations on them. I might have spoken up, on occasion, saying that it wasn't their fault - and sometimes, if I wasn't dragged off, I'd stay and comfort one of the younger women if she was crying after being yelled at. That made me feel worse about going up to them and asking for something to hear 'Gee, baji?' From an ADULT to a CHILD. So wrong.

People would say it's an appropriate mark of respect. Respect? For a *9* year old? What fucking respect had I earned by being middle class? Exactly NONE. 'Sufi', 'Hajji', titles that are earned for some achievement or mark of character, ok. Otherwise? No.

And I feel the same way about priests. You get the respect of your office when I respect the man you are. Character gets respect. Titles aren't worth the graphite a pencil uses to write them.

This student calling me that? NO. No. He's older than I am, wiser than I am, a better person than I am, has done so much in his life. IF there's inequality here, it goes the other way.

In the end, that's really the crux of it: it creates barriers between people. It gets in the way of talking to you, finding out who you are, genuine meeting.

And taking the time to listen and spend time? Now THAT is real respect.


Anonymous said...

I would agree entirely with you about listening and creating time for someone. In that sense, you have shown your deep respect for many people, and it is a pity that more people do not always recognise it.

And if you think being called Ma'am is not always good, think about the way certain people say 'Father' when they speak to's not just a barrier, but sometimes a way of dismissing the priest at the same I suppose that also happens with Ma'am. I know it can be respectful, but there are times when I wonder...(just think of the short-back-and-sides brigade, when 'father' says or does something of which they manifestly do not approve...!!!)

CEAD said...

Thanks for this - I completely agree. A lot of cashiers call me "ma'am", and many of them are my age or older... it's just so wrong.

If it's earned - "doctor", "professor", "rabbi", what have you - okay, fine. No problem. I mean, I've worked damn hard for my doctorate and if I get it, yeah, I want the title. I earned that one. Same with the age-related ones: I still reflexively call older men "sir", regardless of social class, because they've earned that status and respect.

But the others... yeah, that bothers me too. I'm so glad you wrote this.

Cloister said...

I agree with you too.

The funny thing about teaching is that titles reverse themselves, and what sounds respectful isn't, and what is respectful, sounds as though it certainly is not. When you take on new classes, as I just have, everyone, in the class and in the corridors, calls you "miss", or in some cases 'Ma'am'. But, after months, or years teaching a groups of students, eventually someone will tell you the name they have for you behind your back. You will have known it for years, of course, but hearing it from them means you have won their trust. Thereafter, you will be called by that name, but always with an ear to who is listening, respect is earned, but it is still not cool.

On a personal note, always use the title Fr. for priests in writing, in the confessional and when talking about a member of the clergy to others. Face to face, of confident, I will use a name. I think this is a teaching - authority - friendship dynamic, but I have never explored it fully :)

Good post!