Señora or señorita? Ma’am or miss? On refusing the boxes handed to women

by | Jun 15, 2014 | Advice, Quirkyalone | 16 comments

Are you really going to ask me if I am a señora or señorita?

Are you really going to ask me if I am a señora or señorita?

Here in Argentina, people kiss when they meet. Even men kiss each other. It’s lovely. I’m a fan of human contact and the kiss is nice in comparison to a distant handshake. I was doing business with a “señor” (a man) who was hiply dressed, about 35 or 40, when we kissed cheeks, and he asked me, “Señora o señorita?” This is the equivalent of asking “Miss or ma’am?”

I gave him a puzzled expression in return.

He asked, “Tenes novio o sos casado?” “Are you married or do you have a boyfriend?” If the answer is yes, that would make me a señora, and if not, then I would be a señorita. Señora and señorita can also refer to age or sexual experience (when you are no longer a virgin you are a señora). Most likely it refers to marital status.

I sputtered out, “Me parece raro” (“That seems strange”).

I felt on the spot. Maybe it was a question to break the ice and get to know me but it wasn’t really that kind of situation. I would be in and out of the office in five minutes. What would I say, I’m a señora, since I’m 40 and not a virgin, but I’m not married, so by his definition I would be a señorita? My brain crashed since I don’t fit into either box and I don’t think he wanted to hear all the details of my dating life. So we got over our awkward moment.

Buenos Aires is a quite sophisticated city. Forty-eight percent of the population is single, without partner. So this is not some traditional place where very few women are single. I was taken aback by the question, though I’m sure he meant no offense. But on a deeper level, the language of polite conversation does not have us ask the same questions of men. We don’t ask that about men, now, do we? Señora o señorita, ma’am or miss? We just say señor. Or sir.

An Argentine female friend Virginia playfully calls me “Señora/Señorita” when I see her in the stairways of the tango school where I study. She has the right idea. Better to use both than to choose one since this question presents another false dichotomy of womanhood, like the virgin/whore, slut/prude, good girl/bad girl. All dichotomies that exclude parts of who we are.

In the United States, women are called ma’am or miss. That dichotomy is usually more about age than relationship status (or in the South, respect). I’ve written about the vexing issue of “ma’am vs. miss” years ago and gotten many comments from women of all ages who don’t like either appellation. I’ve learned a lot from the comments that have poured in on that post. Certainly it’s possible to take “ma’am” as a sign of respect for your experience. But there is something inescapably matronly about the term, and matronly is not how I or most women like to think about themselves. It would be different if “ma’am” meant worshiping the wisdom of an experienced woman. Maybe we should reclaim “ma’am” to mean wise, experienced, radiant, self-possessed woman.

Language shapes how we see the world and ourselves.

I am reminded of a question posed by Andreas from German during our quirky chat on healing single shame. He asked if women feel single shame more acutely than men. Well, of course we do, when we are put on our spot to define ourselves to complete strangers (do you have a boyfriend?) one necessarily feels there is a right answer, even if you are not sure what the right answer is.

Men are not asked whether they are married in a simple business transaction. Marriage is not as baked into a man’s identity. It was an innocent question, but the mere continuation of this señora/señorita distinction in language speaks to a deeper tendency for people to judge women on the basis of their fitting into relational boxes, rather than seeing them as independent entities, as we see men.

We hopped right on to the business at hand. He probably thought I was strange for giving him all those strange looks and telling him his question was “raro.” So be it. Señora, señorita, ma’am, miss, let’s call the whole thing off! Or let’s change their meanings.


  1. Y.L.

    Love this! I always insisted on being called Ms. when I was teaching, but the kids defaulted to Miss as soon as they found out I was unmarried. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine. How did we supposedly reach gender equality but this little Miss/Mrs., ma’am/miss gem is still haunting us?

    • sasha

      Exactly! Out of the way, these words. Since posting this I was reminded that France got rid of “mademoiselle” on official government forms and Germany no longer uses Fraulein. So Western Europe is leading the way.

  2. Paul Strobl

    I recently worked with a client who kept repeating the term “single mother” when she talked about herself. When we went deeper, there was all of this emotion associated with the term, feelings of incompleteness and suffering. She played with some different “healthy substitutes” and now simply says she has kids, which has a very nice, positive feeling when she says it.

    • sasha

      That’s really interesting Paul. I’m convinced that these words that we use to describe ourselves and our world affect our experience so much. That’s a great example of a shift. Why stick with calling yourself something that you find depressing?

  3. Tarnished

    This is why I prefer the term Ms., usually pronounced “miz” in conversation. It has no matronly connotations like “ma’am” and isn’t using a word like “miss” that I’ve always felt is only for women under 20.

    Ms. is great because it has no way to tell the age or marital status of the woman in question, just like Mr. does for men. I sign all professional correspondence with this, and have only had to correct a few people in public. It really helps to gain respect in the business world!

    • sasha

      That’s interesting! Do you find that you can use “Ms.” comfortably in conversation? I usually think of it as written more than verbal, but certainly I always check Ms.–of course!

    • Amanda

      I agree with this completely. As soon as I became an adult I would always tick the “Ms” box and that’s how I would instruct people to address me if they tried to call me a “Miss” or a “Mrs”. It puts one on even footing with men in the sense that it’s a title devoid of marital status. When I was married (I did not take his last name) people would often try to call me Mrs and I would argue “No, I’m Ms. MyLastName and even if I were Amanda HisLastName I would still be a Ms. HisLastName and not a Mrs”. When I have to address someone with a title then I always use “Ms” unless they’ve clearly called themselves a “Mrs” or otherwise correct me.

  4. Paula Whtie

    Hi Sasha,

    I love this article! It was very timely. I am preparing to marry myself on Friday, July 4th, 2014, which will be my 43rd birthday. I have been writing about this experience just for myself for now, but it seems to me like people intuitively know that something is different about me now that I am going forward with my plans.

    For example, people make a lot of assumptions when I wear my ring. I just explain that it is a gift I have given to myself. People are literally confused. Why would I wear a ring on my left hand ring finger that isn’t given to me by my spouse? Oh, wait a minute! I am my own spouse! I take care of myself? I commit to myself? It’s unheard of!

    I actually saw this quote recently:

    “In my parents’ day, just a generation ago, a ‘family’ was seen as a man, his wife, two children and a cat or a dog. I have learned that a family is a person and whatever other being that person chooses to share private space. I know one woman who has outlived all her human and animal companions, who has a lovely collection of crystals. To her, these represent her family. I know a young woman who has never married, who has a greenhouse full of exotic plants. To her, these plants are like family. And I know a man who shares his space with a very large dog. So widen your outlook! If you like yourself, and if you love yourself, you can have a happy family no matter whom, no matter where, no matter what. But you can’t love anything else if you can’t love yourself.”-Star Spider Woman to apprentice from the book, Star-Spider Speaks by Magda Weck Gonzalez and J.A. Gonzalez, page 98.

    In closing, my belief is that contentment in life is really about your own self actualization, not the descriptions and prescriptions that may not fit you. Resist all labels and assumptions and you will find that life actually opens up to you.


    Paula White

    • sasha

      Paula, It is always a delight to read your reflections. Can’t wait to read more about your self-marriage. That’s a process I have been going through too this year and have been letting it percolate internally before sharing, but I really look forward to that. Congratulations!

  5. Carolynne Wilcox

    Just wanted to chime in with another vote for Ms. I like it as a catchall – it’s kinda like “Mr”.

    Wish there were a Spanish equivalent, though… my mother is Uruguayan, and I work with a Latino theatre group here in Seattle, and yes, it’s always senora/senorita…vexing.

    As someone who was a “serial spinster” until finding myself in a long term relationship for four years now, I still find it strange to define myself in terms of my marital/relationship status – since, you know, it’s not like I spent those first 41 years of my life doing ANYTHING ELSE BUT PINING FOR A BOYFRIEND. 🙂 I don’t think I would define myself as a “Mrs” or a “Ma’am” even if I got married – it feels like it implies either being someone’s property or finally being “official and worthy” and I don’t like the idea that those first 41 years of my life weren’t official and/or worthy!

  6. Jill Summerville

    I’m considering getting married to myself after I finish my Phd, because I think I need to make my commitment to myself official. I look forward to reading stories from others!
    Certainly, if you like a title (like Ms.), then you should be addressed by it. To me, the trouble is people who ask if you’re a Miss/Mrs./Ms. aren’t usually asking what you like to be called. They’re asking which box they can most easily place you in, which is very different from consulting your own wishes. That’s what bothers me about it, I think.
    In The Skeptical Feminist, Barbara Walker wrote about the Virgin/Mother/Crone triad. Those terms have to do with a person’s perception. Someone who is naive or encounters the world as though everything is new is a Virgin, regardless of sexual status. I’m not advocating for these terms, but Walker asked when Americans became more concerned about how someone moves through the world than how she sees it. I support resisting that tendency in any way you like!

  7. Emily Miller

    I’ve always been averse to calling anyone by a title like this. I had a coworker at a past library job who would, without fail, call every man “sir” and every woman “ma’am” and it made me think about it for the first time, because I became self-conscious that I didn’t use those forms of address. Maybe for me, though, it is more of a general eschewing of authority figures. As a service professional, when someone approaches me, I simply say “hello” and when I need to get someone’s attention, I say “excuse me.” A person is a person is a person to me. Nobody is deserving of a certain label simply for being older or wiser.

    On the flipside of it, I’d prefer if people simply address me as a person, not “miss” or “ma’am” as well. I think Ms. is ok and if I’m filling out forms and am forced to check something, I will check that. If I’m not forced to check a box, I’ll generally just leave it though.

  8. Margarita Kleinman

    Wow! This is a subject that I (and probably many women) have thought about and dealt with frequently! Why do women have to choose a title/term of address based on their marital (or sexual) status, whereas men don’t? Also, every woman I’ve ever discussed the subject with, thoroughly detests the term “ma’am”. Ew, we hate that word “ma’am”! It’s exactly as you said, it sounds so “matronly” and the total antithesis of sexy or attractive. I think that in the English language, the terms “miss” or “ma’am” are partly connected with age, and partly with marital status. Since it’s often assumed that most women past a certain age are most likely married, women of that age or older are automatically “ma’amed”; likewise, younger women/girls are called “miss”. One difference between the English and Spanish usages, is that in English, the word “ma’am” doesn’t necessarily have to indicate that a woman is married (as “Mrs.” would do), but in Spanish, “senora” means that a woman is married. The problem arises when someone is going to address a woman that he/she doesn’t know the “status” of (as in your experience in Argentina), so they will of course ask, “Senora o senorita?” However, interestingly, in Mexico, many people use the term “seno” (with a tilde over the “n”, which my gringo keyboard doesn’t have!), in addressing a woman when the marital status of the woman isn’t known by the person addressing her. It’s kind of an equivalent of the relatively recent English invention of “Ms.” When filling out forms, I always use “Ms.”, but in my experience, the term isn’t used all that much in spoken English. All in all, this is an interesting and important subject, and I’m so glad you wrote about it!

  9. Barbara West

    I’m not keen on titles for expressly the reasons you state. Titles can often be a requirement when booking things on-line, like some air travel. These days I have a little fun with it. I have been Sister, The Right Honourable, Lady and most recently Professor. Such fun! I used ‘Lady’ a few years ago traveling from England to Denmark and would you believe, was paged at Heathrow airport! I got to the gate lounge quite mystified as all displays assured me that noting untoward had happened to my flight. The lounge was empty except for ground crew. They tried to tell me that there was a window of opportunity for an early departure. This is HEATHROW – that just doesn’t happen! I figure they wanted a gander at Lady Barbara West. Imagine there disappointment – in the colonies we don’t dolly up for titles!

  10. Tanja

    We in Germany have abolished Ma´am or Miss, every woman over about 16 nor so s called “Frau” (Mrs.) “Fräulein” doesn´t exist anymore and it was strange for me to be in France and to be asked:” c´est Madame ou Mademoisselle?” at the age of 47!!

  11. Vale

    I love it! I hate very much the appelation that society (man and woman) gives to such words and for me it would be something related to age or with being mother. If someone who is 40, has not children but active sexual life, I would called her Señorita. Anyway, I think is very rude to talk according to our sexual status or marital status.


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Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

At work on a memoir called Wet, about adventures in healing through sensuality.

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