Ms. Plume,

Manners such as opening doors for a female are built in for southern old timers. It is also common to offer an open door to folks either preceding or following you.

Gets funny sometimes at the Frogmore (St. Helena) Post Office when holding the door gets a little competitive.
    But a question arises about saying “ma'am.” I use it all the time even for younger gals working at a food store. It appears that some females may object. But even law enforcement and the military use ma'am routinely.
     As a manners consultant, what would you suggest?

                                                                                   Sonny Bishop

Dear Mr. Bishop,

Thank you for your interest and question! Aside from being a gentleman, you must also be a bit of a mind reader because I have been pondering this appellation for some time now. Therefore, as a result of your query, I have polled several women (because they are the ones being called “Ma'am”) in a wide geographical and age range regarding your question, and here are their answers:

Well Ma'am: so it would be Ma'am vs. Miss? I'd rather be referred to as Miss….Ma'am seems to be for a mature elder woman. Madame is a bit more sophisticated. – Joanne

Personally, I like it, especially if it's accompanied by a (preferably young) hunk picking up my tab or my bags, holding the door or umbrella, toting my purchases to my car, or better yet, jogging off in the rain/sleet/snow to get my car. On the other hand, I wouldn't care to be called Ma'am if I were horizontal, unless the situation was looking especially profitable. In any case, if you hear Ma'am in the north, you are probably listening to a southern transplant. In Maine, if you hear Madame, it will be followed by an unintelligible stream of Quebecois, which leaves you with no idea whether you are being insulted or complimented.    – Meredith

Don't Ma'am me. Most of the military people address one as Ma'am. Even the woman, Sheila, who sells crabs and knows my name, calls me Ma'am. Somehow I find that offensive. She will call me Mrs. Root, or Ma'am. Odd. It has to do with how high the redneck meter runs.     – Deborah

Generally I don't care for it that much… tends to feel like the person calling you Ma'am sees you as old, but that's in my mind obviously. I think it may also be the old fashioned 'respect' sadly lacking in much of today's society. Nothing wrong with a little respect if that's why you're being addressed that way. Obviously Miss makes me feel really great because you think “Oh, I must look pretty young!”     – Maureen

I think there's quite a bit of research here, as it is far more broadly used in the South than in the North – and I'm a Northerner. For instance,  the men have a deeply ingrained protocol established by their mothers – what is it? I find myself using it regularly to anyone who asks a question, but I think I'm in error. Why am I saying it to a salesman or waiter/ess? I don't think I should, but it's easy and quick.
    In the North, in tonier places, a lady of a certain age was addressed as Madam, her younger counterpart often as Miss. In less tony places, it got all melded into Ma'am and used on any female. Mostly though, I don't think any term was used, just “May I help you?”, etc.     – Sally

Personally, I hate it! It makes me feel like an old lady. I was just saying the other day, when I was out shopping, and someone in one store referred to me as Miss, and the next place I was Ma'am, that it made me feel like I had aged twenty years in ten minutes!     – Bonnie M.

As a New Englander, I think it's rather charming. Way better than Madam. And certainly optimum over a store clerk calling you honey or dear.    – Connie

Hate it! Makes me feel like someone's grandmother! In an intellectual moment I know they are being polite and I appreciate that, but on a vain level I hate being a Ma'am rather than a Miss. Ugh… getting old.    – Ginny

Hmmmm, good question! Honestly at this age (50) am fine with being called Ma'am, and although it feels slightly odd coming out of my mouth (I was raised up north where it is not so common), I say Ma'am when it seems appropriate. It beats being called 'sir' (as I inevitably am!) on the so-called customer cell center help lines!    – Cindy

Not crazy about it – Miss can be wrong – you are divorced, or just not wearing your ring; Ms. annoys me and I never use it. Mrs. can also not be appropriate – again the ring may be on, but for friendship, not marriage. My opinion is that I'm not crazy about it.            – Suzanne

Well, there you have it – but only Part 1! It is an interesting question without a clear answer. Those who were asked all had something to say. Look for part 2 in this next issue. To be continued…

L.A. Plume