Battle of the Sexes: Madame? Or should I say, Mademoiselle?

Article published on April 15, 2014
Article published on April 15, 2014

Madame? Made­moi­selle? Miss? Mrs? Most Eu­ro­pean lan­guages offer nu­mer­ous ways to greet a lady. But these salu­ta­tions are far from neu­tral. They are all preg­nant with im­pli­ca­tions of power re­la­tions, age and mar­i­tal sta­tus. They serve to de­fine the dy­namic of the in­ter­ac­tion. As such, many coun­tries are sim­ply doing away with them.

Dur­ing a busy lunch hour in Paris, I was scarf­ing down my ap­pe­tizer, as if my main dish could ar­rive at any mo­ment, while my girl­friend across the table brought me up to speed on her new mile­stone as an apart­ment owner. As I lis­tened, gen­uinely ex­cited for her, I couldn’t help but in­ter­rupt and ex­press my need for hot sauce.

“I’ll ask,” she said. Not that I can’t speak French, but we all know servers re­spond more read­ily to their fel­low na­tives, than to an Amer­i­can who fre­quently de­mands all kinds of sauces dur­ing one meal sit­ting.

“Voila, madame.”

My friend stopped talk­ing.

“What’s wrong?”

“He called me, madame.”

“So, what’ the mat­ter?”

“Do I look that old?”

“No way. And any­way, I get called madame all the time.”

After this lit­tle in­ci­dent, cu­ri­ous about my girl­friend’s po­si­tion on ti­tles and sta­tuses as a woman, I was sur­prised to find out she is in favour of women and men hav­ing equal salu­ta­tions and ban­ning “made­moi­selle.”

This is rather con­tra­dic­tory to say the least.

“I thought you were just of­fended at not being called miss?”

But I can’t blame her.

Many women don’t want to be cat­e­go­rized as mar­ried or un­mar­ried, but at the same time since the term “miss” ex­ists, so­cial norms have pro­grammed the French to refer to a young lady as “made­moi­selle” and an older (or at least older look­ing) woman “madame”. Though for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Fran­cois Fil­lon banned “made­moi­selle” from gov­ern­ment forms in early 2012, the term is still heav­ily pre­sent in the cul­tural set­ting, and not to for­get, still used in pri­vate do­mains such as in­sur­ance or phone bills and mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions. Now, an old, un­mar­ried woman, “vieille fille,” or spin­ster, can be “madame,” or par­tially in some mea­sures.

In Ger­many, “fraulien” was banned in the 1970s and by the 1980s, the term was taboo in cul­tural set­tings. Where I come from, and in most an­glo­phone coun­tries, women have the op­tion of “Ms” (mar­ried or un­mar­ried) which al­lows us to choose to re­frain from la­bel­ing. There is also “madam” or “ma’m”  which are ei­ther old-fash­ioned ex­pres­sions or in­dica­tive of great re­spect. The Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment banned both Miss and Mrs, cit­ing sex­ism and pushed for the cre­ation of a more “gen­eral neu­tral” lan­guage.

Want­ing to bet­ter un­der­stand how the French feel about the change, I spoke with a hand­ful of women and men. Their opin­ions were di­vided.

Some women be­lieve “made­moi­selle” is a way to charm a pretty young lady and one woman in her late 20s be­lieves it should be con­fined to the realm of se­duc­tion, even though she doesn’t want any­one to know about her age or mar­i­tal sta­tus. My girl­friend, who was miffed about being called “madame” be­lieves many so­cial changes arise from laws and it will take time for “made­moi­selle” to dis­si­pate. Many of the men I spoke to couldn’t fathom the idea of re­fer­ring to a young lady as “madame”. Some wanted to know why they can’t have a title equiv­a­lent to “made­moi­selle” as they don’t feel like they’re ready to be “mon­sieur”. The terms “damoi­seau” and “mon­damoi­seau” are ar­chaic ex­pres­sions for a young, un­mar­ried male which never made it into of­fi­cial sta­tus. Nev­er­the­less, “jeune homme,” mean­ing young man, is used in lieu.

France is not the only coun­try where young women are still re­ferred to with a tra­di­tional title. The Ital­ians use “sig­no­rina” and the Span­ish, “senorita” which, like the French “made­moi­selle”, are used as forms of flat­tery or ac­quain­tance­ship.

This leads me to two con­clu­sions; ei­ther coun­tries like France and Spain are ei­ther very flirty or very tra­di­tional in their ways, or per­haps a hy­brid of both. But maybe that’s soon to change?