It's not unusual for stories that appear in the New York Times to find coverage on NPR's All Things Considered, and on our way back to Tallahassee from Central Florida last Wednesday, we listened to a segment, Please Don't Call Me Ma'am, with the author of the NYT article, The Politics of Polite, Natalie Angier, as a guest.
The interesting part was the call-in listener responses, which were unanimously in favor of the use of "Ma'am". Not one listener echoed Ms. Angier's unhappiness with the usage. She dug in her heels, but admitted that her own daughter was embarrassed when she gave a waiter a hard time about it. She ended up sounding like a cranky old feminist. Should we call everyone "citizen" or "comrade"?
Still, it's made me pay attention to my own use of "Ma'am". I use it quite a lot. One perspective that my wife offered, which was left out of the discussion, is the racial one. It means a lot to African-American adults to be called "Sir" and "Ma'am", and she's right. I have noticed it myself.