Don’t Call Me Ma’am

Do not call me maamI was having lunch with a friend a few weeks ago at a small cafe. It was a cold late winter day, and when the waiter brought over the big bowl of vegetarian chili I had ordered with a pile of cheese on top, I started to salivate.   The food, the conversation, the ambience- everything was good.  And then our waiter, who looked like he had just started to shave, came over to clear my empty bowl.

“Are you done, Ma’am?  Can I take your bowl, Ma’am?”

I knew he was just being polite, but I had to suppress the urge to say, “Don’t call me that, you twit.  I’m not a ‘Ma’am.’  What makes you think I’m a ‘Ma’am?’”

But I just said “thank you,” made a joke about how I wasn’t going to eat the empty plate, and I looked at my friend.  She knew what I was thinking.

“Don’t you hate that?” my friend whispered,   “Couldn’t he have just said, ‘can I take your bowl?’  Did he have to stick the ‘Ma’am’ on there?  Do you think there is an age where it is OK if someone calls you ‘Ma’am’?”

I gave this a few seconds’ thought.  “It’s not ‘Never,’” I said.  But when is it?

Would I be ok being “Ma’am” at 90?  Sure, that will be ok.  80?  Probably.  70? Possible.  60?  Unlikely.  50-something?  What was it about being called “Ma’am” that made me want to punch the waiter in the face?

“Unless I become the Queen of England,” I told my friend, “I don’t want to be called ‘Ma’am’ again until I am 70.”

A brief survey of my 50-something friends (at least the ones in the northeast region of the country) all agreed.  They hated to be called ‘”Ma’am.” They thought it was synonymous with “old,” or “married.”  Many were offended.

In 2009, Senator Barbara Boxer lashed out at General Michael Walsh for addressing her as “Ma’am” and not “Senator,” (you can watch the video here) and the Ma’am debate went wild. General Walsh was accused of being a misogynist, a sexist, a plain old pig of the worst sort.  Did Boxer over-react?  Was the General simply being respectful?    If you can call the queen “Ma’am” can’t you call a senator “Ma’am?”  And would it be wrong to address a male senator as “sir?”

I asked my 23-year-old son if he ever called anyone “Ma’am.”  He has never lived anywhere other than the northeast.  “Of course,” he said,   “All the time.  It is polite.”

“Do you only use it with people you think are old?”

“Of course not.”

“Would you call a thirty-year-old woman ‘Ma’am?’”

“Of course, especially if she were in a position of respect.  Or my boss.”

“Does it matter if she is married?”

“How would I know if she were married?  No it wouldn’t matter.  Does the term ‘sir’ mean old to you, Mom?  Does it?  What’s the matter with you? It’s the same thing.”

“Huh,” I thought sarcastically,  “My son is hardly ever wrong.”  But it turns out his position is backed up by a number of sources.  According to, ‘’ma’am” is simply short for madam, a polite term of address to a woman, originally used only to a woman of rank or authority.

Wiki (yeah I know, but I quote other sources too) says:  “Madam, or madame, is a polite form of address for women, often contracted to “ma’am”…The term was borrowed from the French madame, which means “my lady.”

According to Merriam Webster, Ma’am is used to “politely speak to a woman who you do not know.”     Even Urban Dictionary says, “Ma’am is a shortened version of the word Madame, which was formally used when addressing women in the days when etiquette and common courtesy were commonplace.”  I miss those days.

So I feel like a fool now to have been offended by being addressed as “Ma’am.”  I’ve changed my mind and my attitude.  It’s just plain old dumb to be offended by a word that is meant to be nothing more than a polite gesture or a term of respect.   We may all need an attitude adjustment.   “Ma’am” does not mean “old” or “has-been.”   It does not mean “married lady.”  It is the only universally accepted polite address for an adult female.  We have just got to get over ourselves when we are “Ma’amed” –for the sake of civility and common courtesy.

Yes siree, we do.







Don’t miss out on any BA50 stories!
Click here to subscribe.

Don’t Call Me Ma’am was last modified: by

Ronna Benjamin

Ronna Benjamin

After 28 years of practicing real estate law, Ronna Benjamin realized how much she loved writing and how much she hated lawyering. She jumped into the world of writing at Better After 50 and never looked back! She is loving her “second act” as Partner and Managing Editor at Better After 50. Ronna writes humorously about the things BA50s are concerned about – personal experiences with adult children, the quirks of aging parents and in-laws, and her own emotional and physical health issues (i.e., insomnia, anxiety, and bulging waist lines). A native Bostonian who loves to spend time with her husband and three adult children, Ronna also enjoys sailing, cooking, running, and biking–and she tolerates skiing so she is not left home during family vacations. Check out her new book “We Are Better After 50 Because…” co-written by Ronna and her BA50 Partner Felice Shapiro, a perfect gift for the birthday girl in her 50’s! 

  34 comments for “Don’t Call Me Ma’am

  1. April 9, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Ronna, take it from me, a Texan at heart, m’am is the equivalent of sir and (some) kids are brought up to say “Yes, Sir” or “No, M’am” as a sign of respect to any adult. Pretty sure it is a regional, southern practice, and, actually, kind of sweet, once you get used to it if you did not grow up with that tradition.

    • Alexis
      April 9, 2013 at 9:39 am

      I, too, grew up in Texas. We moved there when I was 7 years old and my parents immediately taught me that I needed to start saying “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing adults. INow that I live far from Texas, it makes me smile to hear it.

    • Vicki
      April 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

      In Texas, if you DON’T say ma’am or sir, you are just plain rude. I am 54, and I say it to 19 year old waitresses. It is a term of respect to anyone, no matter their age. A firm handshake and a friendly greeting will get you far.

  2. April 9, 2013 at 8:09 am

    I’m 66 and I hate being called maam…..however, you mentioned Sen. Boxer taking a military person to task….the military is trained to call civilian women “maam” and men “sir”….my son was in the Army for 22 years – that’s how I know that! Also, in the South, kids are brought up to say maam and sir…

    It doesn’t make me crazy but I don’t care for it. Maybe when I’m 70. or 80!

  3. Brett Cook
    April 9, 2013 at 8:58 am

    M’am I can deal with, but “Dear” puts me over the roof. It is all I can do to keep from baring my teeth and going for the wretched perpetrator’s jugular, or breaking into sobs because REALLY, do I look THAT old, infirm,dotty,or feeble? Just wait – M’am will sound like music to your ears after some twit addresses you as ” Dear. ” And women are as bad, if not worse, then men when it comes to using that particular 4 letter word. Especially in doctor’s offices. Oddly, ” Honey ” doesn’t bother me half as much. A woman of any age can be ” Honey,” – ” Dear ” is clearly reserved for those who are over the hill.

    • Ronna Benjamin
      April 9, 2013 at 10:04 am

      I’m hearing you! It is so condescending!

      • Robin Zorn
        April 9, 2013 at 10:30 am

        For me it’s definitely “hon” that makes me see stars. Whether its the waitress, the checkout person or anyone — don’t call me hon. Years ago I left GOod Mornong America pretty much over this exact issue!

    • jacob Eagleshield
      February 13, 2015 at 6:20 pm

      I agree. I don’t like being called ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ or ‘sugar’ by women I don’t know. Maybe it’s a man thing if you don’t mind ‘honey’ but I find it at best disturbing. It is how a guy might be approached by a street walker. No thank you

  4. Deborah
    April 9, 2013 at 9:31 am

    When I teach down in the Florida Keys the kids always call me Miss..not with my name attached…or ma’am..Not one kid..every kid. So does the principal. It is out of respect. I am 54. I always thought the “Miss” was cute!

  5. April 9, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I have lived most of my life in the South, and Ma’am never bothered me until I hit 50 years-old. Now I think it’s because the politeness isolates me — puts me in the category of “no longer in the game but wise and appreciated.” I know it’s all in my head, because I heard a young man called a woman his age ma’am the other day. But, I’m with you. It still bugs me.

  6. Marlene Clayton
    April 9, 2013 at 10:57 am

    It use to bug me too but if you live long enough you grow in to it. Your son as usual is right.

  7. Sandy Presser
    April 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Ronna…Never did and Never will like to be called Ma’am. I guess it’s a polite way of addressing a lady, but when I’m called Ma’am I just say “the name’s Sandy” . I also don’t like to be called “Hon” especially when it’s from a younger person (and everyone seems to be younger than me these days). Oh well what else is new?????

    April 10, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Ronna, thank you for the great article!
    I felt the same and didn’t know what to do with that 🙂
    From now on I will make a “switch” and will accept is as a polite gesture.
    Thank you!

    Evita H. Dodel

  9. Jan
    April 22, 2013 at 10:40 am

    “Hun” puts me right over the edge!!!!!

  10. April 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I didn’t realize it wasn’t common knowledge that using ma’am and sir was totally expected in the South.

    My mother never made us use the terms, unless she was angry with us, so it has negative connotations for me. When my kids want to get a rise of out me, they start ma’am-ing me.


  11. Datdamwuf
    April 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    The reason we get pissed off at being called ma’am is that it doesn’t happen until we reach a “certain age”. Only kids called me ma’am until I was over 50, so it’ no wonder I equate the sudden appearance of ma’am with looking old. Sort of like how we become invisible at some point and wonder WTH is going on…

  12. Virginia
    August 19, 2013 at 1:46 am

    Have lived most of my life in the South, so was raised on that “polite” phrase. Even though I find myself saying “Yes,Ma’am” to other women, I HATE it when I am called that. Actually, I only hate it when someone who appears to be of college age or older does! The older they are, the older I feel.

  13. SallyB
    January 26, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Being called ma’am can ruin my day. I grew up in the Northeast and now live in the South, so it happens constantly. I’m 40, and it made me just about apoplectic until I turned 40. Now I just feel resigned. I can take it when a server or someone in a store calls me ma’am because I figure they’re being polite to the customer. But when a peer does it, I find it totally offensive. This woman who looked about my age called me ma’am in yoga class the other day and I might have glared at her and I spent the rest of the class fuming (oh, the irony!)

  14. emmy
    February 1, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    I despise the word “ma’am”. It should be banished from the english language. I’m in my 20’s and would much rather be called miss. Being called “ma’am” just makes me see red. I’m from seattle not the south.

    • Yes Ma'am
      June 17, 2015 at 1:06 pm

      And once you’re married? Maybe we should ban Emmy from the dictionary too because it offends me (it doesn’t really, but just as logical).

    • grace
      July 18, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      I absolutely hear you, I’m EIGHTEEN and I’ve been called “ma’am” twice now, I’ve lived in the Midwest/Western states for a few years, and there’ absolutely nothing endearing or complimentary about it. Thirty or forty I can understand the mistake, although that makes it no less insulting. But a teenager?? It’s not like I look a couple decades older than my age, but it leaves me wondering the rest of the day if I in fact do. Sticking with “miss” or nothing at all is best.

  15. voiceofreason
    March 2, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Ma’am originally was age neutral but that has changed in modern usage for some people. Some people do see it as a term for women not in their twenties or thirties. It’s hard to know for certain kid the person using it on you sees it as neutral or age-based. I think it’s primarily an age based term, and that’s kind of offensive because you’re deeming a woman less than in a society that assigns greater social value to younger females.

  16. Mari
    July 28, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Being called ma’am makes me feel old and I am offended every time I here it. I don’t think I should have to force myself to accept it. Why don’t we just stop the nonsense?

  17. Fillmore
    August 24, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    You wrote: “…Senator Barbara Boxer lashed out at General Michael Walsh for addressing her as “Ma’am” and not “Senator…”

    Ironic that you described having a vitriolic gut reaction to being called “ma’am” but in the same breath you snidely remarked and threw Senator Boxer right under the bus by exaggerating that she “LASHED OUT” at General Walsh??

    Senator Boxer professionally and curtly only requested that Mr Walsh addressed her by her proper job title.

    If she was a man, you won’t have described him “lashing out” would you? Of course you wouldn’t -instead you would’ve used a more respectful verb, right?

    Why do women constantly still consciously like to cut/undermine/ their own gender??

    It’s bad enough that men through out the century had and still continue to be bitchy towards women and affix all these crazy labels on to us women (i.e. bitch, shrew, psycho, bunny-boiler, high-maintenance, moody, PMsing, etc) in order to control and undermine our position of power, abilities, intelligence, etc.

    • Kevin
      October 19, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      We are all very smart people(yes, even women more then men at times) Women know the DEFINITION of the word. Women know the MEANING AND INTENT, when being used… Just because the SOUND maid yourself feel old, should not be blamed on the male gender when all he was trying to do was be a gentlemen and show respect…

  18. jacob Eagleshield
    February 13, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Women of all ages.If your ego and self image are so fragile that being called ma’am threatens you,perhaps you could use a few sessions with Dr. Phil; I call all women I do not know,regardless of age,ma’am,especially if I do not know their surname. So,GET OVER YOURSELVES it’s just not that important.
    Consider this. A man bumps into you by accident. What would you rather hear/ ‘Pardon me ma’am,my fault.” Or,as is all too common with younger men these days,’Yo,get the F out of my way,B….”
    You think you have it tough? Try being called ‘dude’ by some twelve year old bogger producer.

    • Ronna Benjamin
      February 13, 2015 at 6:04 pm

      Something tells me there is a happy medium between “Pardon me, Ma’am…” and “Yo, get the F out of my way…”

      • IBikeNYC
        March 20, 2015 at 2:44 pm

        I wish you were right, but in this neck of the woods, it ain’t necessarily so!

        (At least the ones cursing aren’t simply standing behind/next to you, snorting, sighing, and working themselves into a snit because you’re not guessing that they actually mean “Excuse me” and leaping our of their way.)

      • Hey YOU!
        June 17, 2015 at 1:11 pm

        Yeah, from now on it’s “you” if I don’t know your name – don’t care how old you are or if you’re wearing a wedding ring.

        Talk about princess syndrome mixed with resentment for being treated with respect lol

        Someone called me Sir today and it ruined my day. I feel so violated lol

  19. IBikeNYC
    March 20, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    (I miss those days, too!)

    I always got indignant about it, too, until I lived in the South for a number of years where then-twenty-nine-year-old me got called “ma’am!”

    Now that I’m back home, I tell myself that it’s still just out of politeness and not because they all think I look old enough to be their (grand?)mother!

  20. Kate
    May 5, 2015 at 3:53 am

    I think the term “ma’am” is usually used when someone is annoyed with a customer. I hate being called ma’am. It just sounds trashy and annoying. I’m in my early 30’s and used to tell anyone that called me that not to when I was in my 20’s. I sometimes will still, depending on my mood. Haha…Glad I’m not the only one annoyed with it!

  21. May 23, 2015 at 11:11 am

    I’ve called women M’aam all my life but at 67, I’ve changed to “Young Lady’ regardless of the womans age, apparent or otherwise. “Miss” doesn’t sound right to me as it implies a non-marital status.

  22. Ellie
    July 3, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    It’s fine in Texas where even teenagers are called ma’am. Otherwise I cannot even describe how much I hate it. There is absolutely no need to tell a female she doesn’t look young anymore. If you call everyone ma’am including 16 year old girls then continue. If it is reserved for anyone over a certain age (even if you would consider that age young such as 21) don’t! It’s just unnecessary to let someone know you are evaluating their face and body and passing a judgment of their age. Nothing feels worse than the teenager in front of you being called miss and then being say 28 and called ma’am. (A post I just saw on another talk about this topic) I want to do my errands without someone telling me how old they think I look! Even if I’m having a bad skin day.

    • Andrea Ottenstein
      July 18, 2016 at 12:47 pm

      I detest being called maam.What I find to be especially upsetting is when I’m at store and the person behind the cash register can’t stop calling me maam there are times when in a matter of minutes I get maamed maybe five or six times.I really do accept my age,I’m in my late fifties and I never lie about it,but why do I have to always have to be reminded of what I look like.My husband who is two years older than me told me that he is very seldom called sir.I have come to the conclusion that many people just are a little uncomfortable with mature women and dont know how to relate to them in a friendly and natural way.I would really like it if store clerks would simply say have a nice day instead saying maam.Many people say that in the south saying maam is a sign of respect ,but from what I understand every woman is called maam whether she is twenty years old or eighty years old.As long as she is an adult she is called maam.That is a very respectful thing to do and I like that very much,but I live in the north east and where I live only women over a certain age are called maam.I know that women are individuals each having unique feelings but I suspect that there other women who hate being called maam do to in part vanity.Women tend to be a little vain about their appearance and even when they know they are older looking they dont want to be reminded of it,and thats one of the reasons some women lie about their age.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *