Don’t call me Madam

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Our title fetish is indicative of the social inequality and resulting patronage that plague Philippine society

Sylvia ClaudioA post on my social media page that two women who have been accused of plunder and bribery are called “Madam,”  received a number of comments. I refer to “Madam Janet Lim Napoles” and “Madam Arlene Angeles Lerma.” I do not know whether the title is solicited by these Madams or it is bestowed by their underlings. It probably cuts both ways. Madam (or Ma’am) Janet for example, is called that by her staff even as they are blowing the whistle on her horrendous thievery. 

The penchant for titles besets other cultures, but Filipinos take it to the extreme. At a recent international conference a Filipino participant put the title “Atty.” before his name. This prompted a Malaysian participant to ask me what that meant. My reply that this was an abbreviation for “Attorney” resulted in a long side explanation – much to the detriment to our appreciation of the attorney’s presentation. Later, my foreign colleagues were even more befuddled by a recitation of  titles like “Engr.” (for engineer),  and “Arch.” (for architect).

Those who use these titles tell me that they are rightfully proud of professional degrees earned through sheer hard work. I understand this especially as we are a people that put a high value on education. We are also a society where an atty., an arch., and an engr. may be the first person to have finished college in their entire family and tribe.

I should point out, however, that other poor countries have no such conventions. So, while I do not question the motivations of those who use Atty., Arch., and Engr., I would argue against this practice. 

Language of patronage

Our title fetish is indicative of the social inequality and resulting patronage that plague Philippine society. In a just society, it would not be difficult for anyone to become a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, a geologist, a ballerina, a soprano, social worker, and whatever else they should desire.  

University of the Philippines professor Tet Maceda believes we should get rid of the culture of “ma’am and sir.” As Maceda notes, people are less likely to resist unethical or illegal demands if these are seen as orders from “Ma’am” or “Sir.” Additionally, asking people we teach or govern to call us “Ma’am” or “Sir” puts them in a lower hierarchical position. This is counter-productive to critical thinking and collective knowledge creation, which are important to a democracy. 

Unfortunately, those who gain the trappings of respect through ill-gotten wealth or abuse of power, are also more likely to mistake titles for worth. Thus we have the cringe-worthy sight of plunderers being called, “the honorable (Chief Justice, Senate President, Majority Leader, Representative, Cabinet Secretary, etc.)”.

In my status update, I add that, in light of the degradation of the title “Madam,” I would like to be called, “Señora.” Of course “Madam” is merely English for “Señora.” That the two terms are used by upper class women to distinguish themselves from their maids hints at the colonial roots of our social stratification. My insistence on being called “Señora” rather than “Madam” was not just an attempt to label Mesdames Janet and Arlene as nouveau riche, but was also a stab at those de buenas familias who prefer the Spanish terms. After all, historians have documented that many of our old rich can trace their wealth to the plunder and pandering of their forebears during the Spanish colonial period. For the new carpetbaggers, the preferred term is the English one.

Others commented that, since I refused the term “Madam,” they would call me “Ate” (older sister). My Señora avatar refused this because indigenous titles are not acceptable. To reach the top in colonial or neo-colonial society means to earn the titles in the colonial language. “Ate” is what the househelp call their middle or lower class employers.

As Maceda observes, she (and I) began our careers in a UP where we called our senior professors and administrators by their first names. Despite our increasing seniority we have not taken to calling ourselves “Ma’am.” There are, after all, many Filipinos who reject these titles. Maceda fondly remembers being answered on the phone with “Emer here” and not “President Emerlinda Roman here.” And there are ways to politely refuse honorifics. I call my househelp  “Ate” in return, so that every woman in my household is an “Ate.”

Proper use

There is a proper use for titles. I will call President Aquino “Mr. President” and not take it against him if he insists on the title. But in a democracy, such honorifics should be reserved for the highest government positions. And, given the misuse of the word “honorable” we should just drop that word. We should say, “Representative P. Barrel”  instead of “the Honorable Representative P. Barrel.”

My suggestion is that we confine the use of titles in general public communications to the following:

1) Mr. – As in, “Mr. Albert Einstein”. In Filipino, “Ginoo or G.”

2) Ms. – A wonderful innovation replacing Miss and Mrs.  This recognizes that a woman’s identity is no longer confined to whether she has a husband or not. There is no equivalent Filipino term, but I have taken to using, “Binibini or Bb.” for all women. On the other hand, in a reach for gender-neutral terms, we could also use “Ginoo” as when it is used in the prayer, “Aba, Ginoong Maria” (Hail Mary).

3) Dr. – For medical doctors, not doctors of philosophy. Call me biased, but I think the only trained technician who should be identified at all times, is a medical doctor. It is good to know this in case somebody suddenly becomes unconscious or fractures a hip.

Simple and democratic. –

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Director of the University of the Philippines Center for Womens Studies and Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health.


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