Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What do you call a lady?

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's request comes from reader Amy (I hope she doesn't mind that I use her name, I feel like there's enough Amies out there that she's practically anonymous). She writes: 
I was wondering about this the other day when I was thinking it's time to start having the toddler call people "sir" and "ma'am". What are your thoughts on calling women "ma'am"? I've always thought it a sign of respect and not any comment on marital status or age, and I personally get privately annoyed when I'm called "miss" instead (Don't I look older than thirteen?). But I've overheard so many women get testy with men who call them "ma'am" that I'm nervous he will get his head bitten off later in life.
 Personally, having grown up in two super-casual environments (Southern California and Tucson), I find that "sir" and "ma'am" always sound really formal to me, but really, there's no polite-but-casual alternatives. "Man" and "lady" sound weird, "dude" and "chick/babe" way too flip and/or 90s surfer-esque. So "sir" and "ma'am" it is. Your toddler may sound a little formal in our increasingly casual age, but I applaud you for teaching him proper manners (I know that this will be part of the lessons that also include "please" and "thank you" and holding the door open for the person behind you).

But... ma'am or miss? I think that a lot of people assume that "ma'am" is specifically for married ladies. There's also this idea that women are always automatically flattered when it's suggested that we couldn't possibly be old enough to be a "ma'am" (speaking as a woman in her early 30s who gets told she doesn't look old enough to be married on a regular basis, believe me, the novelty wears off). There might also be a certain amount of baggage with the word "ma'am." It may sound a little subservient to them, if they have bad memories of having to call a particularly overbearing relative or teacher "ma'am."

That said, you've settled on "ma'am" and there's nothing wrong with that. I think that while your toddler is young, most women are just going to be charmed by seeing such a polite little boy address them respectfully! It's then their option to say "You can call me Miss Anna/Mrs. Jones/Betty" or whatever they think is appropriate.

Once he gets older, you can sit him down and let him know that for reasons that are not at all his fault, sometimes women don't like to be called "ma'am." Tell him that if a woman gets upset with him, he can say something like "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend! My mother raised me to always call women 'ma'am' unless they asked to be addressed differently." Then they can tell him what they'd like to be called. Since he'll already have a lifetime of polite behavior behind him, he should be able to say this with grace and defuse the situation.

The good news for your boy is that when he grows up and gets a job, if he ends up in an industry where he has to refer to customers or clients by those honorifics, it will already be natural for him and he'll make a great impression!

Do you have an awkward situation that you need help with? E-mail me at and I'll do my best to help you find the right words!


  1. There's also guys who get annoyed if called 'sir'. Usually either long-time Enlisted men or younger guys.

    The one problem with this, whilst calling people sir and ma'am (which does tend to be the default for service industry drones) is proper and polite.. here in the US, we're coming in to a much more casual society.. etiquette of that fashion is fading away, partly because people don't want to be made to feel older by being addressed with respectful titles, and partly because the social structure here in the US has taught us that we only use titles on those who are our superiors, so if you call a guy 'sir' you're immediately acknowledging him to have a position of authority over you.

    1. Thank you for weighing in with a man's opinion on sir! I do wish we had some polite titles that didn't carry any baggage.

  2. I believe that being addressed as ma'am is a sign of respect and manners. Manners that are slowly disappearing. I only get upset when someone mistakes this AA female with a short fro as "sir".

    1. Oh yes, therein lies the problem with gender-specific titles! One time when I was working the gem show, I came up behind two slender, long-haired people bent over one of our tables and I said "Good morning! Can I help you ladies find anything?" and when they turned around, one of them was a man! He was amused but I was so embarrassed!