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I use to call ma'am to women showing respect, but as there is some people that find annoying the "Mrs", I don't know if my respectful tone using ma'am they do aside and find it rude.

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  • 1
    FWIW, some younger women object to being called "ma'am" because it makes them feel old. "Miss" is typically used for younger women and "ma'am" for more mature women. Good luck finding the cut-over line. :-) Jun 23, 2016 at 20:52
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    Unless you use the term with a sarcastic tone, most women will not object to being called "ma'am", as a sign of respect (from, say, a salesperson to a customer, or simply from a younger person to an older one). You should avoid the term in situations where you would be regarded as peers, however, and your "respect" might be sensed as condescension.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 23, 2016 at 23:43
  • Personally I would never use either term, but that's just me. We live in such politically correct times, there's no need to risk someone being offended.
    – user180089
    Jun 24, 2016 at 3:09
  • @V0ight So how would you address a female adult if you didn't know her name?
    – TrevorD
    Jun 26, 2016 at 18:51

5 Answers 5

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It certainly is not rude to address a woman as ma'am in England!

From Debrett's How to Address the Queen:

In conversation, address The Queen as 'Your Majesty', and subsequently 'Ma'am' (to rhyme with Pam).

From Wikipedia, how to address the Duchess of Cambridge:

Your Royal Highness, and thereafter as Ma'am

As for the United States, where youth rules, as Kristina Lopez said in her comment, young women may feel old if addressed as ma'am, particularly by a man who is younger than they. The first time this happens to a young woman can be traumatic, as I witnessed with a young woman colleague.

Even so, said respectfully, ma'am is never rude. (Practice a look of admiration to go along with the ma'am, to take the sting out.)

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Personally, I have found that in Midwestern states (Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota), women tend to prefer not to be called Ma'am. It does tend to be more acceptable in southern states (North Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina).

However, I have also experienced a more favorable acceptance of the term when in uniform working for the military or UPS in both northern and southern states.

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  • I certainly hear the term from time to time here in Tropical Southern Minnesota, and I don't see anyone taking offense from it. It's no doubt used less that in the US Southeast simply because speech here tends to be less formal and less class-conscious.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 24, 2016 at 12:38
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    I'm in Texas, and it's pretty common for young people to use it as well as "Sir" here. I don't mind, though the "Yes, sirs" make me feel like a drill sergeant sometimes, but my wife, who is from New England, has never gotten used to it.
    – Brian
    Jun 26, 2016 at 20:43
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When I was at school in the 1960s in the UK, we called our male teachers "Sir", and most of our female teachers "Miss", but one married female teacher disliked being referred to as "Miss" — and "Mrs" is not generally acceptable as a polite form of address — so she insisted on being called "Ma'am".

I would say that, in the UK, "Ma'am" is still a polite form of address to a lady, equivalent to calling a gentleman "Sir"; although both are rare in much modern society.

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As this article from the New York Times points out, expressions like "Yes, ma'am" are associated with the American South. The article also discusses the very tricky question you raise, which is whether such efforts at "politeness" really mask something condescending or troubling beneath the surface. This depends on context, intent, and inflection, and it's not always easy to know, especially in the South, where such expressions are often taught and expected. When a younger person calls an adult "ma'am," it's seen as a "sign of respect," but the young person could also be saying it as a way to call attention to the woman's age (as a way of being, ironically, disrespectful).

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Oh, cut it out already. Today,"ma'am" is not a genteel term. It has a cultural connotation akin to "soccer mom" or "hey, you." People will argue (!) to your face that they have to use the term "ma'am" to "be polite," but they usually come across as being impolite, rude, curt, and dismissive. They use the form of manners without the intent, which is supposed to be to treat people considerately in instances where strangers have to interact with one another.

I've been addressed as "mam" (which means "mom," not "Madam") and as "mem." But I'll be darned if I answer to "mim," as one woman called me at the cosmetics counter.

I also can't stand it when I'm "respectfully" called "ma'am" by a man or woman my own age.

In most cases, the person calling you "ma'am" sounds rude, not polite. They manage to give the impression that you've become a second-class citizen once you reach the age of "ma'am." Some teenagers also know that if they call you "ma'am," they're getting away with calling you "old."

"Ma'am" isn't supposed to be a title showing respect for an older woman. It's supposed to refer to a married woman. Not all older women are married, and a lot of younger women are. Men don't have titles differentiating them on the basis of marital status. Why should women? Besides, it's never been polite in a genteel society to call a lady "old" to her face.

So what would I like you to call me? Well, what would you like ME to call YOU? You're not required to call me a deferential name, especially if you have to smile to take the "sting" out of the name! If I'm a stranger, you can treat me politely without calling me a name. If you're serious about calling me a name, you can always politely ask me for my name. I promise you I won't be offended. I also promise I won't be offended if you don't call me "ma'am."

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