Miss vs. Ma’am

I stopped for a glass of wine and a snack in the Denver airport last weekend. The server kept referring to me as “Miss” when I am very clearly, at 50, a “Ma’am”. I started thinking about when I noticed the shift from Miss to Ma’am.

I used to travel to Paris a lot for work. I was in my early thirties when I started and everyone in the shops always said,

Bonjour Mademoiselle.

Then, when they turned around to actually look at me,


I am still confused as to how they always knew I was American before I spoke. Sure, in my forties the comfort shoes would have been a red flag, but in my thirties I still thought I looked pretty chic and stylish.

In my early forties this shifted to

Bonjour Madame

The first time it happened I was caught off guard. What did they think they were doing, calling me Madame? I wasn’t a Madame. I was still young and unmarried. Yes, I was unmarried, but in their society, no matter how hip my shoes were or how well versed I was in cutting edge technology, I was not young. As it happened more and more I gradually conceded to the fact that I must look like a Madame rather than a Mademoiselle.

In the U.S. people don’t use such formal terms. It’s rare to hear someone referred to as Miss or Ma’am.

A few months ago my hairdresser went into a tirade complaining about someone in the service industry who called her Ma’am. I asked her to look in the mirror and tell me if she had seen a woman who looked like her when she was twenty if she would call her Miss or Ma’am. She was a little crestfallen when she said she would have called herself Ma’am. “But”, she said,

I still feel like I’m twenty on the inside.

“Your mother,” I said, “still feels like she’s twenty on the inside.” In fact, I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t confessed that she feels much, much younger on the inside than her chronological age.

Most of the time when people use the term Ma’am they’re using it to relay a sign of respect. I’ve started to appreciate this fact when someone uses the phrase anymore. I’ve earned the right to be called “Ma’am”.

Just please; don’t try to false flatter me by calling me “Miss”.

  • You’re one up on me. I still can’t get used to Ma’am. Miss doesn’t seem right. Isn’t there something in the middle? Couldn’t we create it?

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