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I captured these two shots from Transformers Dark of the Moon.

The lady was pissed when addressed as "Ma'am". However, Colonel Lennox surely meant no disrespect, as military protocol advises that officers may use "sir" or "ma'am" when addressing anybody.

My question is: In real life, if I don't know her name, real age or occupation, how should I address a lady like her in an elegant way without offending her?


This fictional character is sensitive about her appearance. She used to look young. She was either addressed as "Miss", or by her name. (Possibly with "Miss", or "Ms.", or "Mrs.", or another title at the beginning of her name.) Now that she looks older, she is sometimes addressed as "Ma'am", or by her name. She associates the term "Ma'am" with older people, and hears it from people who do not know her well.

'Do I look like a "Ma'am"?' could be friendly, if said face-to-face with a smile.

But in this context (where she is avoiding looking at the person she is talking to), it is quite rude. Granted, she had already said twice to quit calling her "Ma'am", so she was definitely provoked.

If one wanted to be even ruder than this fictional character, one could reply 'No, you look like a bitch. I said "Ma'am" to be polite.' That would be a risky approach -- it could earn her respect, or it could "piss her off", or both.

A politer approach would be to assume that "Ma'am" is a polite title with which to address a woman, but to be prepared to stop saying "Ma'am" if she hints that she does not appreciate being called "Ma'am". 'Stop with the "Ma'am"' is much stronger than most hints.


In almost any case, "ma'am" is a completely appropriate way to address a woman, even in the military.

In this scene, the dialogue is being used as a device to reveal a specific aspect of the woman's character. She is being portrayed as a gritty, tough-as-nails leader who disagrees with the convention of calling female officers "ma'am" (as it may carry connotations that she dislikes). As you can see, the gentleman was calling her ma'am according to convention and was somewhat caught off guard by her outburst.

To quote one of the answers posted here:

Sir is for men. Most women would be offended if you called them sir (with the possible exception of some supreme feminists). Like John M. Landsberg commented, "Ma'am" is what you want to use unless you're asking for trouble.

In real life, please do address a stranger as "ma'am." In most cases you will be regarded as quite the gentleman. Where I am from (Central Valley, California), it is more respectful than "miss", which is how third grader might address their teacher.

  • As a note, "ma'am" is a contraction for "madam"--emphasis on the first syllable. The trick of it is, at least in the US, a woman who runs a brothel is a "madamme"--emphasis on the second syllable, otherwise pronounced the same. And in some regions (keep in mind the US is about twice the area of Europe but only about 60% the population, so there's plenty of diversity), the two terms "madam" and "madamme" are pronounced and even spelled the same way.
    – Nanban Jim
    Oct 8 '15 at 21:42

This is a British / American divide.

In the U.K. "Miss" is apparently used indiscriminately, regardless of age.

In the U.S., at least in my region, young women are addressed as "Miss" and once you pass "a certain age", you become "Ma'am". Additionally, "Ma'am" is used as a mark of respect for authority or age, so even before a woman has reached "a certain age", someone younger or below her in station may address her as "Ma'am". (I was 23 when I was first "Ma'am-ed".)

Generally, it's taken as a mark of respect (altho my first "Ma'am-ing" made me sad), so the character calling her "Ma'am" doesn't really have anywhere else to go from there.

To answer your question, the "elegant" form of address would likely avoid both "Miss" and "Ma'am". Perhaps "Ms. X" instead...?

  • Wow! What part of the USA are you from? I will have to be careful with my ma'ams when I go out :D Generally, I wouldn't think twice about calling a young lady "ma'am". Oct 9 '15 at 1:28
  • The South East, @AdamStarrh. Oct 9 '15 at 12:00
  • 1
    This is true for the Midwest, too (at least the parts where I have lived/spent time, chiefly Great Lakes and Great Plains). There's basically not a form of address that's guaranteed to be received well, and likely won't be while issues related to respect and aging remain so fraught for women.
    – 1006a
    Apr 10 '17 at 20:46

I assume that the character in this movie was offended at being addressed as ma'am because she thought that was how one would address an older individual, or someone who is a stickler for protocol. If you don't know someone's name or occupation, and you are unsure whether they might take offense at being addressed as sir or ma'am, simply omit it. For example, instead of:

May I speak with you, ma'am/sir?

Simply say:

Excuse me, may I speak with you?

The referent should be obvious from the context of the situation.

Another way of doing this is to say:

May I speak with you, Mr./Ms. ...?

If the person volunteers their name without turning down your request, it generally serves as a tacit indication to continue the discussion. Don't forget to get that interrogative intonation right on the end.


I think there's some deep context that is worth knowing.

Elegantly addressing a woman has become old-fashioned in most situations. "Ma'am" is still conventional for the military. It is still conventional in some customer-service jobs, but this is fading out. It isn't really used in day-to-day life -- doing so is quite old-fashioned, or considered overly supplicating, or may even cause offense.

For a rule of thumb, just avoid elegantly addressing a woman unless you've been told to by an employer, and when you do it will usually be "ma'am".

The soldier did the conventional thing for his job, but the reason the woman is not considered to have gone totally out of line is because (A) she is his superior, and (B) as stated above, elegantly addressing a woman is considered archaic by most. Some of the audience will see her as tough, humorous and defiant of outdated conventions, though some of the audience will see her as quick to anger, rude and insecure.

The "deep context" I want to get to here is that gender relations have become quite strained in the western world. Addressing or referring to a woman in any matter has the potential to raise problems. For example, all of the following have raised issues for me or people I know:

  • "girl" -- can be taken as saying that she is immature, or inferior to men
  • "woman" -- can be taken as saying she is old, or that you are trying to score points by not saying girl
  • "female" -- has overly clinical connotations, can be taken as creepy or objectifying
  • "lady" -- usually considered old fashioned, or sucking up too much, sometimes to the point of being considered creepy
  • "ma'am" -- as above
  • "miss" -- in some cases disrespectful because it implies youth or inferiority, and in some cases old-fashioned/awkward because it's what a child calls their teacher
  • "she"/"her" -- disrespectful compared to her name
  • "chicks" -- taken as disrespectful, implies objectification or inferiority, avoid this
  • "love"/"doll"/"babe"/"sweetie"/"honey" -- extremely old fashioned, taken as disrespectful, implies objectification or inferiority, absolutely avoid (unless she is your partner, then it's usually okay, though again a few will be offended)

At the same time, you could use any of these words and never run into any trouble (except the last set).

It's a potential minefield even for native English speakers. There is a lot of nuance and context to understand, and something that pleases one person will upset another. Fortunately, most people are quite forgiving, especially if English is not your first language. Just be aware that someone may get offended no matter what word you choose to use -- if this does happen, it's better just to apologize and move on than dive into such a sensitive issue.

  • Just as a note, it's not unusual in the U.S. Southeast to hear an older black woman address... anyone as "baby". As in "What you eatin', baby?" I've never taken offense; I think it's intended - and generally taken - as a warm, general form of address. Oct 14 '15 at 12:34


The only place where ma’am is used to address any woman is in the US. Outside of the US it's chiefly used to address royalty.


Also, there is a difference in pronunciation between UK and US see: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/12113/what-is-the-correct-pronunciation-of-the-word-ma-am


The term madam can be used anywhere ‘to address or refer to a woman in a polite or respectful way’.


  • There are contexts where "madam" is appropriate, especially as a title. Unfortunately, it is very easy to accidentally use the word "madam" in a way that means "woman who runs a whore-house" or "woman who runs an escort service".
    – Jasper
    Oct 8 '15 at 19:19
  • It's not easy to use it in the wrong context. It's polite if you use it as a form of address. It implies brothel owner if you use it as a job title. There is no confusion. "How are you, madam?" is polite. "Are you a madam?" implies a brothel owner. My main point was if you use ma'am outside of the US you'll sound strange. Oct 9 '15 at 2:15

This has happened when I have called a lady no old than I "ma'am". She said the exact same thing. I just reacted by saying, "Well you definitely do not look old if that's what you're thinking. I just don't know what other polite term to say." She smiled and sorta got flirty.


I am 34 from the Pacific Northwest. I absolutely detest being called ma'am. I always have. It sounds old, boring, generic, cold, ugly, lazy, boo boo boo! I much prefer Miss or Ms or hey lady or you or anything to ma'am. I get almost giddy when addressed as miss or ms instead. I always make it a point to think the adresser for the choice in term.

I do understand and appreciate the gentlemanly sentiment behind ma'am. However, I just suggest perhaps coming up with one other option to throw in the mix or instead entirely because I don't think I have spoken to one woman who thinks fondly of ma'am. Ms. is a great option, I think.


Just avoid using gender words at all please. If someone's back is turned to you and you need to get their attention because they forgot something, call out, "Hey you in the red shirt." Or "Hey, you forgot your sunglasses!" Getting called Ma'am, as a civilian, is super annoying. More often I get called sir and then they bother to look at my face and then they feel badly. So easy to avoid all mistakes and awkwardness and risk of offending anyone by avoiding any gender words. Remember to use "sibling" when referring to someone's "brother/sister" and use "they" or better yet, use their name to avoid confusion in conversation when talking about more than one person.

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