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Ask Louise: Is it OK to call a woman ma'am?

In this column, Louise Fox, founder of the Etiquette Ladies, answers all your social conundrums and questions about modern manners.

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Photo, Masterfile.

Dear Louise.

I am interested to know what you think about calling people ma’am. I have asked many people if they like being called ma’am and not one of them likes it, most just put up with it, some are annoyed by it and some get angry but never does anyone say anything (because that would be rude) or is it? I think some people feel old when called ma’am and perhaps that’s what triggers a jolt when the word is used.

Ma’am is somewhat outdated honourific and a contraction of madame. It is a sign of respect and should never cause offence. It is usually reserved for older or married women and today may not be in common usage, depending on where you live. I expect you are correct in thinking it makes a person feel old.

Ms. is a correct honourific in social and business situations but this too is sometimes misinterpreted, usually by older women who believe it is a term coined by the women’s liberation movement, which it is not. You might call a person miss, which is usually fine with a younger person and flatters an older person. Either honourific is a sign of respect. When in doubt, ask the person “What would you like me to call you?”

To express offence at some well-intentioned person calling you ma’am is actually rude. In all situations it is best to keep a sense of humour and give people the benefit of the doubt or we would all suffer from some type of rage every day, all day.

Have a question for Louise? Email askaneditor@chatelaine.com.

Louise Fox, recognized as Canada’s Etiquette Expert, is the owner of The Etiquette Ladies and MannersTV.ca. She has over 20 years experience in hospitality and special-event-planning industries, and is Director of Eastern Operations of Civility Experts Worldwide and Certification Panelist and Master Trainer for the International Civility Trainers’ Consortium. She is a frequent guest on Breakfast TelevisionEntertainment TonightMTVBusiness News NetworkGlobal News and many others.