Ma’am vs. Miss

by | Nov 29, 2008 | Uncategorized | 72 comments

What is the appropriate age for baristas, video store clerks, and waitresses to start calling a woman “ma’am”? Please tell me, because I would like to know. I have become semi-obsessed with this question over the last couple of months. It’s possible that people have been calling me “ma’am” for years and I never really noticed, but all of a sudden, this summer when I was on the East Coast I started to feel middle-aged when every service professional addressed me in this (now) most dreaded way. I decided that this was perhaps an East Coast suburbia thing, that in Rhode Island, at age 34, I am presumed to be a mother when I’m out shopping at the grocery store or running errands, and therefore “matronly.” If there’s anything I don’t want to be, it’s “matronly.”

I haven’t been keeping count exactly of what I’m being called, perhaps a good sign, that this self-conscious obsession is waning. I can say unscientifically that since coming home to San Francisco I’ve been called “miss” a couple times, “young lady” a few, but mostly “ma’am.” My friend Sara tried to convince me that being called “ma’am” is a sign of respect, entirely appropriate for someone of my age. I guess at the core I have some resistance to my age, then. But for some reason it’s not bothering me as much lately. I would like to say that it’s because I’m becoming even more supremely self-confident and not vain. I don’t think so. I think it’s something about SF. That I can be “ma’am” and still a kid here, in a way that is not possible in a place where 34 means settled down and with child. Not that I’m opposed to that state, but that’s not where I am right now.

I just want to be clear, too, that I’m not opposed to all language indicating the adult state of a female human being. In fact, I like the word “woman,” and even prefer it to “girl.” I just really don’t want to be “ma’am.” “Ms.”—that would be weird, it’s not going to work as a form of address. “Lady” sounds a little rude and weird. What else is there? Suggestions, ideas? Am I the only one who feels this “ma’am” revulsion?*

*reposted from


  1. Christina

    It’s definitely a factor of age – I can remember quite clearly the first time anyone called me “ma’am,” a girl younger than myself behind a counter. It was unnerving at first, but like yourself, I’ve gotten used to it over time. And I do believe it’s a term of respect, the girl equivalent of “sir.”

    And speaking of “girl,” it’s actually the only term that DOESN’T offend me, because it’s the only term that isn’t male-derived. I’m not a woman (wombed man), nor am I a female (feminine male), I’m a Gyno-American, damnit, and I want respect! Girl is as close as has ever happened to an us-specific term, and I embrace it. I also refuse to call boys anything but boys, in large part because I haven’t met too many real “men” in my life, just boys who got bigger.

    Until they come up with terms for the two genders that aren’t rude or derivative, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Melanie

      I do NOT like to be called a GUY as in “you guys” I ignore everyone that uses it now and I correct them sometimes too….that’s my bigges pet peeve..I’m 32 and I will always ’till the end of time call myself a girl is ok sometimes too..but I see a lot of old men over the age of 50 calling themselves GUY..guy is for that age range of men between 15 and 40 not for anyone above that age..just my two cents

  2. Rebecca

    I totally relate to this issue, and I am ten years older than you, Sasha. I first was called “ma’am” shortly after getting married at age 32. I gained a lot of weight while married, during which time everyone seemed to call me “ma’am.” Fascinatingly, when my marriage ended, almost instantaneously everyone started calling me “miss” again. I was stunned. There is no way folks were checking out my ring finger before addressing me at the cash register! I lost the gained weight through the divorce, and continued to be called “miss” even though I was now nearly a decade older. Lately, I’ve noticed a trend toward “ma’am” again, and am uncertain whether this is due to inevitable aging (though everyone still says I quite young), or a regaining of some weight. My hunch is that it is due to a combination of these, and that together they affect my energy and the vibe I put out there. All of this experience has been in the Northeast, so I don’t think it’s just a regional thing. Overseas, I’ve always found folks likely to say the more formal (and less age-related) “madam” — which is really the equivalent of “sir” — “Miss” is generally addressed to female minors only.

    My hunch is that either there’s something you’re putting out there that is perceived as more “adult” (maybe related to the “sexual energy crisis”?) – OR — these service workers are getting younger and younger and think anyone who looks over 24 is a fogey!

  3. Cinda

    Someone needed to address this and this is the first time I’ve seen it done! kudos to you miss madam. Keep the Faith.

  4. Onely

    I’ve been getting the ma’am–I think it was when I started wearing my glasses full-time. Sigh. It kind of irks me.

    However, I seem to remember being ma’amed even when I was very young, and looked it. I think that people tend to be afraid of “miss” because they don’t want to sound patronizing, and “ms” sounds very close to “miss.” They therefore go for “Ma’am” because you’re right, there really is no other good alternative.

    When I buy my latte, I’d like them to say “Will that be skim, whole, or two percent, Oh Esteemed Goddess?” but that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe if I take off my glasses.

    Thanks for addressing the topic. –Christina

    • Deborah Hymes

      I love it! “Oh Esteemed Goddess” is the best by far!

      I’ll also take “Oh Brilliant One” and “She Who Walks in Beauty.” 😉

  5. John

    I felt a similar reaction the first time I was called “Sir” though I immediately changed my view of it and dropped the offense. Though I am a male and we may think differently, but a gay male, of course it is about age and we need to be thankful that we are aging as if we stop aging we are dead…so please call me “Sir”…and it’s all about perception anyway…you can make it anything u want it to be…higher consciousness for me.

  6. Lisa

    Being called “ma’am” never bothers me; I interpret it as a term of respect or appreciation for your business. I do get annoyed when called “Mrs”, especially when addressed by someone from a company I’ve done repeated business with. Even if the person doesn’t know there’s no husband on my account, I’d prefer they opt for generic ma’am or Ms. Instead, they figure the most polite choice for a woman of a certain age is Mrs. I quickly correct them with “Miss” because that’s what I am. With so many always-single women in the U.S., Miss cannot be a title reserved for minors.

  7. Tracy

    I get highly offended when I am called “ma’am,” and immediately correct the wrongdoer by responding “It’s miss.” “Ma’am” is a contraction of “madam,” which is a married woman. I am not a madam (of any sort). I still get called “miss,” and LOVE being referred to as a girl. I’m 47, BTW.

    • nolachic

      And u look absolutely stunning for ur age. I wish I had the guts to correct people… I especially hate being called “ma’am” when I’m with my boyfriend who is 27. I’m 32 and yet they make me feel like I’m his mother! Bastards!!!

  8. Rena

    I’m thirty, and I find “ma’am” very unnerving. “Miss” means a cute young thing. “Ma’am” means a stodgy, unattractive, older woman. I actually feel hurt when people say “ma’am”.

    • Odette

      I feel hurt every time– I totally agree. Also love the response just before–just correct the offending mam-er and say “it’s not ma’am it’s miss.” I said that very same thing to a clerk the other day!

      Now Ms. is another thing–that should be if you are addressed as your name like MS. Jones vs. Mrs. Jones or Miss Jones. I prefer MS. — it’s a feminist thing. We shouldn’t have to have our marital status identified if a man doesn’t have to as they are all MR.

  9. Lili

    I don’t understand why everyone thinks “ma’am” is meant to mean older women. In the customer service business, we are required to address all female customers as ma’am and male customers as sir. Also, in the south, everyone calls everyone else ma’am and sir. I was shocked when my friend called her mom and dad ma’am and sir, but when I found out it was a cultural thing, I understood it, though it was still weird. I’ve never addressed my mom as anything but mom (unless I was really angry at her when I was a teenager, I called her by her first name). I found this article because I received a call from a customer yesterday who went off on me when I answered her question with “yes ma’am” which is how I have answered every woman in the 5+ years I have been with my company. She verbally eviscerated me! I am here to tell you that is not okay. In the customer service profession, we are trained to address every customer in this way, regardless of age. I have spoken with girls that sounded 5 years old translating for their mothers who couldn’t speak English, and I still called them ma’am. It has nothing to do with age, it is the customary way to address a female. My husband is a manager of a restaurant, and ever since he started as a server at that restaurant, he has been required to use the same forms of address. By the way, ma’am is a contraction for madam, which is a derivative of the French “madame” therefore it is the formal way to address a woman in the US. Not to mention that the military requires women to be addressed as ma’am, and men to be addressed as sir. Any of you on here whining about being called ma’am are as crazy as Senator Boxer. And any of you who would make a customer service professional cry because she addressed you as ma’am should be institutionalized.

    • Deborah Hymes

      You make some great points, I think.

      I grew up in the south, and ma’am was always a term of respect, even to very young females. When I was in high school, I learned in French class that all women are addressed as “madame” once they’re no longer young girls. I felt “ma’am” was something to aspire to, an acknowledgment that I was deserving of more respect than is typically granted to a child.

      Interesting . . .

    • Melissa

      Hi Lili,
      I’m sorry you got emotionally hurt because you said something you are used to saying in your customer service field..I do think you overreacted though..99 percent of females I know hate the word Ma’am and yes, it does imply and old married person, regardless of it’s overusage in the south and indiscriminatory usage in the rest of the world..Next time just say Miss…see who complains, if no one, then I’d stick with that..No offence, I would gently tell you to call me Miss as well.

      • Katie

        I disagree that 99% of females hate the word ma’am! I personally *hate* being called miss — *especially* by a teenage boy that could be my son! I find it patronizing and demeaning. Personally, I think in face-to-face interactions, using either miss or ma’am is unnecessary — merely make eye contact, smile, and answer the question politely — no ma’am or miss necessary, and no risk of offense. I live in the Boston area and thankfully, most service people avoid either term — but when an 18 year old boy calls me “miss” with a bored tone to his voice I want to slap him.

  10. Erika

    I get unnerved by ma’am too. But when I think about it, what other polite options does one have to refer to me? I too have been told I look quite young.

  11. Deborah Hymes

    I remember the first time I got “ma’am-ed” — I must have been about 4 years old, and I was delighted. I actually thought, “Well finally I’m getting some respect around here!”

    It’s actually never bothered me. I also remember, as a teenager, finding it a little unnerving when older women referred to themselves and each other as “girls.” I couldn’t wait to stop being an apprentice-woman and become a full-fledged one! Couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stay a “girl.”

    Writing this, I’m realizing that I guess I’ve always just regarded the ma’am thing as being about having power over my own destiny in the world. I guess it’s never felt age-related to me, and still doesn’t.

    I admit that this is a little weird . . . 😉

    • emily

      Deborah, that is the smartest and most wonderful response I have heard from this popular question. It really embraces the values of womanhood and adds dignity to be strong and not debase ourselves with crazy expectations of eternal youth that people seem to be obsessed with these days. Womanhood and respect is are things we must embrace and not fear will make us appear “less attractive”. Well written Deborah*

      • Francesca

        Great post Emily and Deborah! Why are we all so afraid to be called women, ma’am, and not girls, miss. Trust me, I have been there too but isn’t it just us reacting to what society, men, unrealistically expect and want? The obsession with youth is ridiculous and probably the worst in the states. What is sexier than a confident, experienced woman who has all of that to offer and only becomes more beautiful each year because she learns and grows. Far sexier than a young girl who is still finding her way. Embrace it ladies! We are strong beautiful ma’ams !

  12. Sue

    Thank you Lili! Anyone in customer service should absolutely address female customers as “Ma’am” unless they look 12 or younger. In fact, many 5-star restaurants’ employees call women “Madam”. I am 46 and often have my daughter in tow, and, over the past two years or so in southern California many salespeople have called me “Miss”. I take it as extremely disrespectful and correct them immediately. Many a shoe salesman has lost a commission as a result. I hear them calling male customers ‘Sir”; why can’t they call me “Ma’am”?

    BTW, according to 2009 Webster, ma’am is “used without a name as a form of respectful and polite address to a woman.” It does not even specify married woman.

  13. theauthorityonstufflikethis

    There is no age, but rather a time in life when one becomes ma’am and that’s adulthood. Unless someone is clearly a teenager they are a ma’am.
    If they are clearly old enough to support themselves as in grown women they are ma’am. Any other uses of these honorifics are incorrect. Miss has always meant young girl and ma’am adult woman of any age. ALWAYS.

    In o


  14. Dan

    Very fine remarks by all.
    Especially the first or second one.
    Why must women play second banana
    to men.
    I’m sorry for this.
    It runs deeper than we know.
    Why no name for women???
    She said ‘woman’ comes from ‘man with a womb’!!!
    Can you believe that ???

  15. Sue

    I’m most likely to be addressed as Ma’am by men who are twice my age. During this past week I was addressed twice by men in their sixties as ma’am. I find it to be sexist for one principle reason. We don’t differentiate men by age – it would be rude if I called them “Old Sir” or “Old Man” even though I’m half their age, yet we distinguish women by age.

    • Melissa

      Actually, the term for a young male, equivalent to ‘miss’ is ‘master’ as in “Master Tiny Tim”.

      Women are ma’am, girls are miss.

      What I don’t like is when I’m over ma’am’d by servers at restaurants haha — it’s as annoying as when a server calls me ‘hun’.

      I’ve noticed as I weigh more and appear ‘dowdy’ is when I am ma’am’d frequently.

      Like a previous person said, I refuse to use the title Mrs regarding anyone – adult women are Ms and minor girls are Miss – regardless of marital status. What an antiquated notion, using Mrs at all!

  16. Carol J Sheehan

    So after reading all the above comments what would be the correct way to call another female person if you don’t know their name or don’t know their status of either being married or single? Simply put there is no correct way to address a younger or older or married or single woman unfortunately. So I think whether we like it or don’t like it there is no answer except to use the term Ma’am. If someone can come up with another answer I would love to know what it is.

    • Claire

      In lieu of ma’am, why does it have to be so complicated to make eye contact with responses similar to – excuse me, hello, thank you, yes please, your welcome or have a nice day! I will never impose the irreverent and often catty Tone of Ma’am onto anyones ears, regardless of perceived chronological age or marital status. This is how I keep it simple, sincere & respectful. There is no rule preventing you from asking for their name either.

  17. Armand

    I would love to have an ageless and genderless form of honorific to address everyone respectfully. If anyone preferred to be called Mr. or Miss or Ms, or Ma’am, or even by their name, I hope that they would correct me if I said something wrong. The purpose for these things are after all, to make people feel comfortable, not the opposite.

    The Senator is catching a lot of trouble for correcting the man in the interview, but anyone should be able to ask to be addressed however they prefer. She should not have had to explain at all, though I am sure the man meant no disrespect and this is proved by his answer, “Yes, Senator.”

    It bothers me a bit that the only remaining thing is simply to not use any honorific at all, ever, since it seems like courtesy in general is something that’s falling quickly out of fashion. Even please and thank you are words being lost from common use. But out of concern of offending someone, I think I must consider it now.

    For a time, the way I understood it, Ma’am was universally respectful, and I have always used it to offer respect to a woman I didn’t know, and Sir to a man, both regardless of age. Now it seems to cause more trouble than it causes happiness.

    The trouble I have had with sir and ma’am is not so much one of age, though I am sure it probably has something to do with it, but with being mistaken over the phone.

    I have a somewhat feminine voice, I suppose, since It happens consistently, even when my accounts are right in front of them with the prefix “Mr.”. I have yet to find a way to correct people politely, since no matter how simply and delicately I put it, they are almost always mortified by their mistake… Or worse, continue to make the mistake even after being corrected. It is for this reason I almost always let it slide.

    If there was a genderless term, this would not be a problem, but maybe the only answer really is to drop the use of honorifics. Certain honorifics have fallen out of use for obvious reasons before. The youthful male term was “Master” for instance. Can you imagine anyone calling someone ‘master’ now and not having it questioned? Aside from the Jedi, it’s now associated with slavery. So the idea that they should ALL be dropped isn’t so very strange. When something outlives its use for its intent, it should change.

    I once had a man at a drive through intercom insist that he used ma’am to show respect to me. When he was informed of my gender, he did stop calling me ma’am, but not once did he ever say ‘sir’ to me. What do you think of that?

    It makes me think that maybe he doesn’t respect men, only women. Or maybe, he doesn’t respect any man that he can mistake for a woman.

    In any case, I am reluctantly inclined to agree with you. There is nothing else for it but to stop the whole thing altogether. Despite the best intention, something can not be polite if it offends people.

  18. Lynn ann

    I live in Southern California and I always dress sexy, wear my hair sexy but I do get called “ma’am” some times and it really bothers me. I also get called “Miss” or they don’t say anything but the ma’am does get on my nerves. I do not look like a ma’am

  19. E.S.

    Hate the term. It’s not a polite term. It’s just a lazy generic way of addressing an adult woman, usually by some undertrained service industry personnel or by someone immersed in country music and old western movies. The customer service industry should know that customer service isn’t about calling people “sir” or “ma’am.” It’s about being courteous and helpful to people in general and not making judgments about their age or status based on their appearance. A lot of people can’t help looking older than they are, and a lot of people look younger than their age, so you can’t really tell. Most women are insulted by the term and feel that someone’s telling them they look like they’re past their prime or that they’re little housewives who are not very bright. Even senior women hate the term because it’s not very flattering to be told that you look old enough to deserve “respect.” The term “ma’am” really gets on a lot of people’s nerves and I would love to see it eliminated from customer service, period. Also, when customer service workers use it, often it’s because they’re telling you off and putting you in your place, so in that sense, it’s not very polite at all, but actually quite rude.

  20. E.S.

    I also want to say that it’s just a rude and lazy business fad to call all men “sir” and all women “ma’am.” It’s not polite. It’s just impersonal, a quick way of processing people without caring who or what they are. All men are sir, all women ma’am. Maybe some accountant thinks it’s polite, but it’s aggravating to those of us on the receiving end to be treated like cattle.

  21. Claire

    Thank you Armand, yes perhaps we should consider “ma’am” an antiquated term. In response to your drive-thru comment…. I frequently observe women being repeatedly addressed as ma’am while their male counterpart is not addressed as sir from the same customer service individual. I perceive this disparity as a lack of respect for the female gender which brings me to ES comment about rudeness. In my personal experience the repetition of ma’am inevitably escalates whenever there is an altercation or miscommunication, whether it be by phone or in person. As the conversation continues I request to be addressed by my name but ma’am will be further imposed incessantly (as often as 5 times) within each sentence, at this point it crosses the line to Verbal Abuse! Just because ppl are trained to say it doesn’t make it right or respectful & when you consider the repetition it may be unconscious for the most part, many people appear to be on automatic pilot (maybe they are the cattle). Your comments are spot on E.S…. Ma’am is often a catchall to deceptively express expletives or sarcasm & it can be very demeaning in a public setting. Drop the e on madame to also define a woman who runs a brothel. Does “sir” share this negative connotation?

  22. Nicole

    It annoys me–and I think it annoys anyone–so I don’t understand the point of using the term “ma’am.” Actually, I think people use the term when they WANT to annoy you…they pick out women who are maybe at a sensitive age..around 30…and use it to imply she’s old. Sort of a subversive passive-aggressive way that a service worker has to assert the little bit of power they have to insult you–and you can’t really say anything back or complain because they’re just being “polite”

    Make no mistake about it..unless someone was raised in the south or a trailer park, it’s a veiled insult.

    It’s weird, because even when I was a service worker I never addressed people as anything like ma’am, miss, sir. It would sound so ridiculous for me to call someone ma’am.

  23. Marissa Dennis

    The difference between a “miss” and a “ma’am” has nothing to do with age and everything to do with a woman’s sexual status. “Miss” is used to refer to a virginal or sexually immature woman. An unmarried woman is presumed to be a virgin, thus any unmarried woman, regardless of age, is “Miss.”

    • Msthang

      I don’t care what it’s referring to. It’s antiquated to have four different honorifics for a woman and one for a male. Women are always named and categorized as if we’re cattle, and it’s bullsh*t. If every man is a sir every woman regardless of age or marital status should be a madam. That it isn’t so demonstrates the extent to which women are steel under the thumb of the patriarchy. We are judged by our youth and our looks, and the language reinforces that, creates an unsavory reality. I say stop using ma’am. If you don’t like to be called it, by heavens, don’t call other women ma’am. If you meet me, Ms. (Miz) will do just fine.

  24. Manda S.

    Maybe it’s just because I live in the south, but I’ve never once hear *anyone* called Miss. The first time I was addressed as ‘ma’am’ I was seven, and it was by one of the servers at a buffet. remember being so excited that it took me a moment to remember to reply, and right afterward I rushed off to tell my grandmother, who was with me at the time. I was so happy, because I was finally starting to be shown the respect normally reserved for adults.

    I definitely find nothing sexist about the term, ma’am, lol. Nor do I take it as an indicator of age. I was called it as a child, and now as a sixteen year old I still am. I’d be more upset if someone *didn’t* address me as ma’am, because to be, that would be a lack of respect.

    I tell my mother ‘yes ma’am’. And my grandmother, my aunts, my teachers. For me it’s a form of respect that we’re loosing all too fast and I’d hate to see go.

  25. Edyta

    In my country both males and females are titled “pan” and “pani” respectively after they turn 12-14 and continue to be titled this way until they die. It is a promotion from the childhood to the adulthood and it happens early in life when women are not age-conscious yet. It seems more complicated here in US where becoming “ma’am” is seen as degradation from “young woman” to “not so young woman” or “older than you woman”. I think the problem lays not in the word “ma’am” but “miss”. This is the moment when you stop being called “miss” which is so painful for some women. The “miss” title should be dropped and that is what some businesses are trying to do right now. As long as the title “miss” is in use EVERY woman sooner or later is going to experience that unpleasant moment. But before that change will come… be realistic and do not blame service stuff for what you look like because they are not assaulting you. Yes, they do asses your age, like everybody else automatically does in the first seconds of contact. It does not matter if they express it or not.
    I am 40 and petite and being called “miss” or “ma’am” alternately and although flattering to me “miss” feels awkward.

    • Chris

      This is similar to the situation pertaining in French and German-speaking countries: any adult woman is ‘Madame’ / ‘Frau’. The diminutive forms ‘Mlle’ and ‘Fräulein’ are only used these days (in theory) for children. German has it worse in theory as titles like ‘Doctor’ don’t override the Herr/Frau title: Ms Smith becomes Dr Smith in an English speaking country, but in Germany Frau Schmidt becomes Frau Doktor Schmidt.

  26. Sb

    I’m 18 and Im being called ma’am now. I clearly still look like a teenager, I don’t dress fancy – I’m usually casual, jeans and a t-shirt. Ma’am just means adult female I guess!

    • StrawberryGurl

      When I was 19, it happened once to me only. And when i was 21, it started happening to me almost every single time that i go out. Now, I am 24. To be honest, now, I am skinnier and I dress younger than how I did when I was in high school, but ppl still call me maam no matter what.

  27. Mags

    I am 32 years old and have been married for 4 years now. I remember distinctly being called ma’am for the first time at age 28 right after getting married but was sure that the clerk in the sneaker store didn’t spy my wedding ring, which is big and chunky and doesn’t look like a wedding ring at all. I had the feeling that he called me that because he was 10 years younger than me and I looked old to him. This made me feel so insecure that I stopped in at a make-up store to buy anti aging face cream immediately afterwards.
    The problem with the miss/ ma’am distinctions for women is that it involves a public assessment of a strangers age and sexual status, which feels intrusive and judgmental. To boot men are spared from this depressing experience because no distinction is made which totally unfair.
    Soon thereafter I was called ma’am again by a counter person in the local bakery and bristled initially. But since he has a southern accent I didn’t take offense because I figured that he wasn’t making an age distinction as much as just showing respect to all his female customers, as they do down south.
    I find it very interesting that the miss/maam distinction is much more often used up here in the North.
    Uggh, I wish I could get the money back that I spent on that stupid face cream.

  28. haley

    I’m 19 and I look younger, and I get called ma’am more often than miss by customer service people. It doesn’t bother me either way, but maybe it would if I were about 10 years older and at a more sensitive age, like someone said above.

    When I’m around my father’s clients/employees/ business partners, they almost always call me miss. Maybe ma’am is more generic and miss is considered more respectful for younger females? Or maybe they’re just sucking up to my dad and trying to make him feel younger lol.

    Once when I was about 13 someone called me ‘little miss.’ That made me stop and think for a moment.

    • StrawberryGurl

      i totally agree. now, i am 24. it bother me a lot when ppl called me ma’am when i was 21~23. when i was 19, i was only called a maam once. i don’t like being called a maam cause it makes me feel like they might think i am in my late 20s or early 30s. now, even women in their 30s or 40s hate that maybe cause they don’t want ppl to think they’re in their 50s. i guess.

  29. claire

    Our world is in turmoil & this topic trivial in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, I attended an event last week & not one person, male or female addressed me as ma’am. It was liberating to be perceived as simply human again, without judgement.

  30. Melanie

    I have read all of the comments above, and it is clear to me that ‘ma’am’ should simply be done away with. It has certainly offended a LOT of women and it has lost any meaning of respect for which it was intended.

    I first became hurt and bothered by the term when I was in line at a restaurant (like Subway or something) and the girl in front of me, who was clearly 19 or 20, was addressed as ‘miss’ by the server at the counter. When I approached the counter, the same server addressed me as ‘ma’am’. This hit me like a punch in the stomache, to be quite honest. I was about 28 or so at the time and had just had a baby but I was still dressed youthful with a pony-tail, and in my mind there was no way for her to know because my baby was not with me and I had no sign of any wrinkles yet. So, yeah, she made a judgement call that I was older that the girl in front of me, and that hurt…a lot. Now it always bothers me….every single time.

    There is no need for this. The term ‘ma’am’ is just a lazy way of saying madame and there is simply no need for it. Even my mother who is now in her 60s is disgusted by it. Bottom line: down with ‘ma’am’.

  31. Anonymous

    I feel it is sexist and ageist that all men are called sir regardless of age and women have to be labeled as miss or ma’am depending on their perceived age. It is unfair treatment like this that makes women more prone to depression than men. Since ma’am is ageist, sexist and offends many women, I feel the customer service industry should get rid of it all together or at least get rid of the term miss and use ma’am to address all women just like sir is used to address all men.

  32. someone

    I feel really sad that women have to be so insecure about being called Miss or Ma’am. Sure, if someone calls you “old bag”, take offense. However, as a woman, my worth is NOT dependent upon what you choose to title me.

  33. Jen from the pre diabetes site

    Shouldn’t we perhaps accept “Ma’am or Sir” as being a polite and respectful form of address – so long as that is how it is intended.

  34. Katie

    I’m in my mid-thirties but look young, and I *hate* being called miss by men that are 10-20 years younger than I am. My first choice would be to be called nothing at all, and just treated politely and considerately — but if the stranger addressing me *needed* to call me something, I’d prefer ma’am. How can I politely correct the stranger? Do I ask him to call me ma’am instead, even though (1) it’s not my ideal choice and (2) I am not currently married (I’m divorced, will probably remarry this year… but I feel my marital status is my personal business, and not relevant to simple business transactions). Do I ask him just to leave the word miss out entirely? How do you ask that concisely and politely? I don’t want to start a confrontation — I just feel disrespected by the term miss, and would like a simple response. Any ideas?

  35. Lynne

    Ma’am. totally offensive. In fact if you are a latina and called Senora, that implies a husband or sexual knowledge so people usually stick to senorita. I think they definitely need to do the same in English.

  36. CJ

    Oh gosh, where to begin?

    As a male-to-female transsexual I can state unequivocally that there is nothing more confusing than being ma’am-sirred.

    “Yes ma’am would you like fries with that? Can I get you anything else tonight sir? Ma’am? Thank you sir, please come this way around the side and watch your step ma’am. Good night sir! Ma’am?”


    Talk about exhilaration, imagine what it feels like the first time someone gets the gender of the pronoun correct. Are we going to harp about getting the marital status correct too? Anyway, what is the proper way to address a divorced male-to-female?

    If you want quirky alone just imagine not even being sure what your own gender is and knowing for sure it does not resemble anything most people experience. Basically there is no choice but to be quirky and mostly alone. By design!

  37. jane

    I’ve always wondered why people feel the need to use “ma’am” –especially when they don’t use “sir” with the guys. It’s almost like they’re doing it as a passive-aggressive insult to their female customers, calling them old. I’ve never felt the need to use “ma’am” when I’ve addressed my customers. If you feel the need to use a term of address, why not just “miss”?

  38. Lilly

    Sometimes I get called miss, sometimes mam. It’s obvious some people think it’s more respectful to call an adult woman mam. I think when you
    conduct yourself in a way commanding of respect you get referred to as mam more often. As you can see by these posts even teenagers get called mam from time to time.

  39. Nicole R.

    I’m 23, and have noticed people, mostly men in passing calling me ma’am. I can’t stand it! I’m way too young for that. I’m still in my twenties for God’s sake, call me Miss, or don’t bother trying to be polite. I’m probably going to go off on somebody one of these days.

  40. Cher

    I’m in college and HATE being called ma’am. Ma’ams are old and I’m not old -_-

  41. Cher

    I should probably add that I’m from New York, and age is DEFINITELY a factor. I also find it unfair that guys and men are sir no matter what, but with girls/women it’s related to age… and there’s a stigma towards being old that makes me not want to be called ma’am because it makes me feel old. I feel it should be universal as sir is.

  42. onely

    i think the bottom line here is that we don’t want to be defined before someone actually KNOWS how we prefer to be addressed. so i’d just say what i prefer to be addressed as. and if they don’t like that, a gut feeling that it might be a problem is now realized as true. and that is why it has been wondered about as a problem to begin with! why not say what needs to be said? what is the problem with clarifying what we really want in any so-called “customer service” situation? keeping silent out of fear of not getting it is the problem and that is what is hypocritical.

  43. WiOl

    I hate being called ma’am. It makes me feel ancient and I’m only 25! It’s weird because I get carded everywhere I go and yet OLDER MEN are the ONLY ones that call me ma’am. I’m convinced it IS sexist even if they don’t realize what they’re saying. I agree that it’s total bull*** how women are put into categories and men aren’t. Ma’am is like “hey old, married woman” so how would men like it if we started calling them “hey old, married man”. I think I’ll make up a term for them that sounds ugly and degrading and use it when they call me ma’am. Lmao. It’s infuriating.

    • Violet

      If an older man calls you “ma,am” then call him “young man” right back. ; )

  44. Diane

    It’s funny how random this whole issue is, because lately I’ve been irritated to be called “miss” several (many) times in a row. I don’t know if any of the theories proposed here are true, because they seem contradictory. Because I am 46 and overweight, so by some theories I should be “ma’amed” all the time. Oddly, like many here, I used to be ma’amed when I was much younger (in my teens and twenties), and it bothered me then but eventually I just ignored it.

    I am not married (never married), and don’t have children, but I don’t think people can figure that out instantly and know I really am a “miss.” I was getting irritated by the “miss,” I guess because it seemed to indicate a lack of observation on the part of the server (like, do I look like a teenager–don’t you know you should only call young girls “miss”?). Having read all this, I think I’ll forget about being bothered by it ever again. Or maybe the next time someone calls me “miss,” I’ll flash my ringless finger at them and compliment them for being so observant.

    • StrawberryGurl

      I got pissed off once when I was 21, a man called me a mamma after calling another woman in her 20s a miss. i guess they thought i was older. at that moment i was next by my lil sis who was 10. do u think that happened cause he thought i was the mother of my lil sis?

  45. nolachic


  46. Remy

    Lmfao, seems like a bunch of feminists on this site.

  47. Yage

    Ma’am simply doesn’t mean old.

    And there’s nothing wrong with old, anyway.

    Cursing aging is just cursing yourself for later.

  48. joseph

    Wow… this is a really sensitive group. You guys need to relax a little bit.

  49. maria

    Even though Im not from the states Im from puerto rico I think they use that term because they know it would bother people ..
    So what I do when a person calls me ma am I say ma am back to them,so they can know how it feels
    And if they don’t like it they would stop it,I never adress nobody as ma am I just say excuse me or thank you and that’s it,it really gets on my nerves to the point I want to punch them,but instead I give the same back to them

  50. DMac

    I am from the south or mid-west, but it would appear the term to dispose of would be Miss. Ma’am is a contraction of Madame – an honorific or term of respect for a female who has come of age. Miss is an honorific for a child or young woman of minority. I am amazed by the number of women on here that take offense to being shown the respect for their status as women. This feeds directly into a cultural value system in which youth and immaturity are valued in women while age and maturity are valued in men. Men are blamed for perpetuating this paternalistic view due to the implied interest in younger fertile women while they become older and more powerful, while women lose value as they pass beyond child-bearing years. However, look who is fighting on here not to be recognized for their maturity. Rather, the paradigm is inverted such that offense is taken for assigning a woman the attribute of age which is being defined herein as a disability. This is sad and dangerous as it feeds into the over-glamorization of youth. This connects to the focus on youthfulness and the issues with body image – body dismorphic disorder, eating disorders, etc. Age provides experience which allows for intellectual development and the ability to control one’s own destiny and contribute to that of the community. Youth indicates a need to be cared for due to an inherent incapacity. Mature, intelligent, insightful women are and have been the leaders of the world, but they are sublimating this reality to that of pretty girl.

    If you choose not to worry your pretty young little heads about the inherent disrespect and inequity being promoted by the majority of women on here, you can’t blame men any longer. Yes ma’am, I said it, but dawn confrontational due to my need for us to have this fixed soon, please. My beautiful God-daughter is five, but we try to make sure her self-worth is not tied to being a pretty little girl. Rather, she can engage in adult conversations respectfully, she has begun to display an appreciation of learning for learning’s sake, she play right alongside boys her age and we constantly challenge the notion here in the South that activities are gender-appropriate, and she is as adept at Lincoln Logs as she is at Barbie. She knows the women who report to me as my colleagues, partners, and teammates and she is well-aware of those women who have their doctorates and teach and provide leadership and the few to whom I report when she spends time with my wife and I (as her mother completes her dissertation en route to attaining Ph.D.). If she gets hung up on being seen as a mature, competent woman due to a culture expressing the insecurities of women who still wish they could pass for adolescents or the oppression of males who made them feel so little of themselves, and finds by definition that women are subordinate to their male peers, everyone has failed. Whether we have fallen prey to a media which Dr. Jeane Kilbourne (“Killing Us Softly”?) shows is destroying the potential, if not the lives of women in America, or there is more to it, I don’t know, but I need it to stop now, please, so she can achieve her potential, happiness, and the self-worth manifest in both.

  51. Katie

    If it makes you feel any better, people in bodegas and stores have been calling me ma’am since I was fifteen. I don’t look particularly old (in fact, I’ve always thought that being overweight made me look like I had baby fat and was younger.) But, there you have it. Maybe it has something to do with some of the people who work behind the counter are from different countries, or maybe it’s a NYC thing. Or maybe I actually look 35 at 21. :p

  52. Alexie

    I’ve been called Ma’am twice now by 2 different male clerk at Lowes. One much older than me and a younger guy today. I am 32 but look like I’m in my 20’s. For some reasons it does bother me, it makes me feel old or feel like they think I look old or something which I know I don’t. Hopefully it is just out of respect that they call me Ma’am.

  53. Alexie

    Oh and I’m from Minnesota.

  54. LORI

    I’m 49 and I feel uncomfortable when someone calls me Miss. Ma’am seems much more appropriate to me.

  55. Jill

    There’s a regional angle, definitely. “Ma’am” is very common in the South and has no ill intent. (Altho I’m older, I still wince a bit at it.) As a child, we still asked a live telephone operator for a connection. We (I) said “, please, ma’am.” I’m back in the South, and I’ll say “Miss” only to catch the attention of an obviously young woman (sort of like usage of terms in other languages for single or married–often leftover terms, not literal). Otherwise, “Ma’am.” When I lived outside the South my usage of “ma’am” was received poorly at times. Another demographic: I believe that children in military families regularly address everyone as “Ma’am” or “Sir.” Another demographic: often people whose 1st language is not English will say “Lady” as the perceived translation of a term of address. So! There are many sources and customs and not at all black and white in meaning or intent.


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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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