Sunday, August 29, 2010

Manners and the Modern

The NY Times today had an article on the acceptance of using the respectful term ma'am, the female version in the US of the term Sir. If one has been in the military, around the military, in a town south of the Mason Dixon Line, even in parts of New York City, one called a woman Ma'am out of respect. It was "Yes Ma'am", "No Ma'am", "Thank you Ma'am".

The Times recounts some Professor at Penn State, that institution located in the mid section of Pennsylvania, that town of State College PA which roasts at well over 100 F all summer and the heat may stress the brain a bit, and the Times states:

"... a professor of psychology, linguistics and women’s studies, will soon be greeting her undergraduate students with the usual brief spiel. “I get up and say, you can call me Dr. ..., or professor, or .... if you like, but do not call me Mrs.,” she said. “I am not Mrs.... I kept my name when I got married and my husband kept his name.” ... There is one other honorific that Dr. ... dislikes and that she dearly wishes she could bar from the classroom: ma’am. Whenever a student says, “Yes ma’am” or “Is that going to be on the test, ma’am?” Dr. ... says she cringes and feels weird. Yet because ma’am, unlike Mrs., isn’t factually incorrect, Dr. ... resists the urge to scold. “My first take has got to be, this person is just trying to be polite,” she sighed."

It seems clear there is a problem here, a cultural problem perhaps. Many students today have been brought down to the point where they feel on a par, equal footing, with anyone and everyone and I suspect the good professor is one who may have been an advocate of that. In the old days I was called Professor, still am by foreign students, and Doctor when at the hospital, and I call colleagues in an open environment likewise. I know Jon, and David, but I call them Doctor in front of others, as is done likewise. The good professor doth protest a bit too much. I have no problem with Sir, I know the culture and I find it quite respectful.

And yes for the Brits, Ma'am is the Queen, and one should not use the term otherwise, but alas for the Times we are in the US and to my knowledge we have gotten rid of the royalty... I think.

Of all the things to protest... on the other hand I recall a 1965 version of Harrisons' I had for years and then finally dumped, had one of the earlier chapters on how to deal with patients. You call them by Mr. or Mrs., even Sir or Ma'am, but never by their given name, Joseph, Jonathan, Richard, or Terrence. Today we all find that at many physicians offices there is the nearly illiterate receptionist who shout out "Terrence" as if you were at Joe & Pat's Pizza on Staten Island, or the local Chevy service area. You see culturally there are certain people when called by their given formal name may have PTSD flashbacks to mothers who called that out only when dispensing with tons of guilt for some indiscretion, real or otherwise.

So to the good lady Professor, get over this, it reminds me of Senator Boxer and her rant to the General at a Senate Hearing. Freud would most likely find deeper meanings in all this concern.