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Madame versus Mademoiselle

These days, when is she a Madame and not a Mademoiselle? Since this comes up many times a day (every time the traveler has an conversation with a French woman), I thought I'd ask what others do.

In a greeting situation (e.g., "Bonjour madame" or "bonjour mademoiselle"), if a woman's age doesn't make the correct word obvious, what is the proper linguistic etiquette? If there is doubt, does one err on the side of using "mademoiselle" or "madame"?

Last time I was in Paris, which was a few years ago, I think I got it right most of the time because most times it was obvious. But I do remember getting a couple of strange looks after I said "Bonjour Madame", only to realize she wasn't use to being addressed as "Madame".

My understanding (confirmed by several visits) is that French etiquette is distinctly different from American etiquette, as to these issues; and I want to be a polite visitor, as their culture defines politeness.
And the language tapes I've been using don't address this subject.

Posted by
9883 posts

My RS guide for the Heart of Paris tour last September said you always use Madame. I got the impression, perhaps wrongly, that Mademoiselle is passe and is not used any more.

She also told us that the du rien response we learned in French I (it is nothing) is out and that it is much more polite to say Avec plaisir (With pleasure).

Posted by
252 posts

Nothing wrong with a simple Bonjour with a big smile. Works great usually.
Do you say Hi, Sir ...Hi, Madam to everyone in the USA? I would not worry about adding that word.
If you must...use Madame...Mademoiselle is rarely used I would say.

A lot of women may feel ''old'' if you address them with Madame...or perhaps that's just my opinion...:)

Oh and about ''du rien''; it is actually ''de rien'' if you'd like to use it.

Bon voyage!

Posted by
9883 posts

Sorry about the misspelling on the du/de rien! Thanks for the correction.

Posted by
8491 posts

It has now legally become madame for all women in France. You'll no longer see Mademoiselle on any legal documents for a grown woman.

Posted by
2920 posts

She is always a Madame unless she is obviously a teenager.

Posted by
10344 posts

Bets,
Do you know whether the change in legal usage changed the spoken language etiquette in this regard?

Posted by
1821 posts

Ray, I was raised like you but I'm of an age that I don't need to call anyone sir or ma'am. Bonjour is all I need.

Posted by
10344 posts

Thank you to each of you for your replies on this.

"The French begin every interaction with Bonjour, Monsieur (to a man) or Bonjour, Madame (to a woman). It's impossible to overstate the importance of this courtesy. Taking the time to say a polite hello marks you as a conscientious visitor and guarantees a warmer welcome." (French Phrase Book & Dictionary, Rick Steves, page 9)

As recently as about five years ago, I recall getting a startled look from a young woman in Paris, who appeared to be in her early 20's (a store clerk) when I gave the usual French greeting to a store clerk but said "Bonjour, Madame." It was evident she wasn't used to being called "Madame." It was no huge deal, just a momentary thing--but it was on my mind with my upcoming Paris trip and is why I was curious if anyone had any thoughts on this.

Posted by
5669 posts

I'm with you Kent. It really doesn't matter what you want to do in the US. If you want to be correct in France, you say, "Bonjour Madame" or whatever. If you just say Bonjour, it's being an American. And, that's okay, but you are not allowed to then complain that the French are rude, because you started it. LOL. When you enter a store in a mall in the US, you often don't say anything. And in fact, we'll look annoyed if a clerk bothers us--until we need them. So, it's a different culture and isn't learning about different cultures part of what travel is about. How hard is it to add the Madame or Monsieur?

I wonder if not saying Madame or Monsieur grates on the French the way it grates on me when clerks talk into their phones while ringing up my order?

Pam

Posted by
10344 posts

Pam,
I agree, when it's a matter of etiquette in France, it's virtually irrelevant what you would do in the US.

"The French feel that informality is rude and formality is polite, while Americans feel that informality is friendly and formality is cold. So, ironically, as the Americans and French are both doing their best to be nice, they accidentally offend one another. Remember you're the outsider, so watch the locals and try to incorporate some French-style politeness into your routine. Walk into any shop in France and you will hear a cheery, "Bonjour Monsieur / Madame." As you leave, you'll hear a lilting, "Au revoir, Monsieur / Madame." Always address a man as Monsieur, a woman as Madame, and an unmarried young woman or a girl as Mademoiselle (leaving this out is like addressing a French person as "Hey, you!")."
(French Phrase Book & Dictionary, Rick Steves, from the Introduction)

Posted by
31506 posts

Kent,

THIS article from the NY Times may shed some light on this topic. Apparently the French have decided to eliminate the term "Mademoiselle". I don't recall how I dealt with this when I was last in Paris?

Posted by
7687 posts

Another vote for the fact that including the "Monsieur" or "Madame" after the Bonjour is an absolutely critical part of the greeting here. "Bonjour" on its own just doesn't cut it (unless you're greeting a colleague in the hallway).

As for when I would choose to use Mademoiselle -- not very often. The guide that someone mentions above about really only if the person appears to be a teenager is about right. I basically always say Madame and every once in a while feel like I should have said Mademoiselle. But it is a bit difficult to judge, they have to be very young for it to be appropriate.

I don't think the change in the law about the usage of Mademoiselle on official documents has had much impact on this sort of thing, but that's just my very unprofessional opinion based on not much!!!

Posted by
10344 posts

Kim and Ken,
Thanks to each of you for your comments. It's very helpful to have the thoughts of a Paris resident, and Ken's NY Times article was right on point.
I think the original question I had is now resolved: as a tourist I would be conversing with workers in the tourist service industry, who would be old enough (if they are women) to be called madame. It's unlikely there would be any occasion during my visit where I would be conversing with a woman young enough to be addressed as mademoiselle.

Thank you to each of you who contributed your thoughts on this.

Posted by
2002 posts

I lived in Paris & Fontainebleau, for a year recently, and have visited Paris many other times. I don't recall that I was ever addressed with "bonjour madam" when I entered a store. It was always "bonjour", (or au revoir when leaving) and I said it in return. I was addressed as madam by waiters taking my order or asking a question, or by someone on the street asking for directions, or some other instance when I was specifically being addressed. I think if you feel comfortable using "madam" in certain situations that may be more formal, fine, but it's not necessary.

Posted by
28069 posts

I guess that nobody told the folk in the Cote d'Azur that "de rien" is gone. It was a regular part of my conversations with various people last month - on the train, in a shop, at the market....

Posted by
11450 posts

I do tend to add the " madame" to my bonjours. Sometimes I skip it.. if just popping in a store I may just do the perfunctionary "bonjour" .. but it would depend.. if store clerk does her sing out "bonjour madame" then I reply in same.

I personally would only use mademoiselle if addressing a child or very young teen,, anyone over 16 would be madame to me.

Posted by
5788 posts

Interesting discussion. It sounds like the cultural correctness discussion of feminine titles has evolved for the last half century.

Here in the States, the Miss vs Mrs went to Ms regardless of marital status.

The Germans, who can be very formal, seemed to evolve from Fräulein or Frau to Fräulein regardless of marital status. No more "little miss" for the Germans.

And the Chinese (Mandarins) have drifted away from XiaoJie, translated as "young woman", with it becoming pejorative.

And of course their are the unisex versions: Salesman/Saleswoman/Salesperson etc.

Posted by
8390 posts

My experience living in Paris, and many visits, I never heard anyone say just Bonjour... only ever heard Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur. Which is what I always say and I think it makes a difference.

Posted by
1870 posts

An interesting topic and appreciated as we are returning to France and don't want to offend our hosts. A couple of years ago, we were trying to buy metro tickets at the height of rush hour. I summoned my best 5th grade French and asked for " une carnet s.v.p." Stoney silence. Uh oh, I think, "un carnet s.v.p." Stoney silence accompanied by blank stare. . The crowd is becoming palatably hostile and we are now being literally squashed against the ticket window. Then I remember my RS... "Bon jour Madame, un carnet s.v.p". She beamed a smile that could melt your heart and handed over the tickets along with a cheery "merci, Monsieur." Today at my Montreal born dentist I asked him his opinion. He thought for a moment and replied, " Well, I'd say mademoiselle only if she's obviously under six years old and wearing a frilly dress."

For what it's worth, last year we asked the 30-something Germans we were chatting with in a Munich cafe how to adress the 20-something waitress. Their reply was unequivocal and adamant: "Frau. To use fräulein is equivalent to calling her a slut."....their words.

Best to err on the side of formality was our takeaway in both France and Germany.

Posted by
10344 posts

Denny,
I had exactly your experience in a ticket line, on a prior trip to Paris, buying tickets for a Ste. Chapelle concert. After remembering my Bonjours Monsieur / Madame for days, and having pleasant interactions with locals in the tourist industry, I forgot once and just said "Deux billets s.v.p." to the woman selling the tickets: noticeably, no pleasant response. (Those Parisians are so rude!) Then I remembered and said something like, "Desole, bonjour madame, deux billets, s.v.p." A smile and the tickets were immediately forthcoming.

Posted by
6772 posts

Thanks for the topic Kent.

so... if the salesperson or whomever fails to include the "monsieur" or "madame" when addressing you, they are being impolite or disrespectful. Good to know.
I've noted similar experiences in parts of the deep South here in the US. Failure to properly greet is taken as disrespect.
Wise teacher once told me that you can never go wrong erring on the side of formality.

Posted by
141 posts

Very interesting question! It sounds like something that is being grappled with in many parts of the world as women are recognized for more than their marital status... Here in the U.S., I am dealing with my own personal resentment of being addressed mrs.my-husbands-name, or being grilled on why I didn't change my last name after getting married.

During my trip, I made a point of saying bonjour Monsieur/Madame since that was what I heard/read in several sources. I never used mademoiselle and no one said anything, but I did not have any interactions with children/teenagers.

However, I think I still don't understand the meaning of Madame versus Mademoiselle. I had thought it was like the difference between Ms. And Miss., not Mrs. And Miss.

Posted by
10344 posts

riverain,
Re the question in your last paragraph, the link to the NY Times article, given in Ken's post, sheds some light on the mysterious differences in connotation, in French, between madame and mademoiselle.

Posted by
7687 posts

That is just a priceless quote from the article that Ken posted: ". . . there were concerns among some that, given the French state’s penchant for bureaucratic paperwork, its current provision of forms might last some time."

that was probably the understatement of the year!

Posted by
920 posts

We are currently in France for a few weeks. I found that the "best" thing to use is a friendly "Bonjour", followed intermediately by a huge smile and a "Comment ca"va?"., or "ca"va?" or a "ca'va bien?. I don't care whether it is a man or woman, everyone wants to know that they are appreciated, and the best way to do that is to ask them how they are. This works really well for over worked waiters, etc. But you must be sincere, and really mean it. To heck with formal phrases............treat people like you would like to be treated and show them genuine courtesy, and they will do the same.

Posted by
1126 posts

Let's not get too carried away. A simple "Bonjour _______" will do. Don't venture in to the "How are you doing" territory as this is a very American greeting and may be regarded as rude.

Madame will be just fine when dealing with a woman at a store or in a restaurant. Mademoiselle generally is used for a young, unmarried woman but at a certain unknown moment a woman becomes a "Madame." As a traveler, don't worry about incorporating "mademoiselle" into your greetings.

If you're stuck on "mademoiselle", for a nice example of French greetings being used, I suggest the TV series "French In Action." In episode 2 you'll see a few exchanges where Mademoiselle is used. It's used because the people are familiar with the main girl, Mireille, who is under 20 years old. My students LOVE this little miniseries, even if it's outdated.

Posted by
10344 posts

After all the education you've all given me on this thread, I agree with Alexander (post immediately above): "Bonjour, how's it going?" is an Americanism that is fine here but too informal in France in typical tourist situations where you don't know the person with whom you're interacting.

Americans think informality is friendly, French think informality is rude. "Bonjour monsieur" or "Bonjour madame" is good. But not just "Bonjour" (to them that would be like you addressing them as "hey you"). And not "Bonjour, ca va", not when interacting with persons in the tourist service industry that you don't personally know.

Posted by
8390 posts

"Americans think informality is friendly, French think informality is rude. Bonjour monsieur or Bonjour madame is good. Not just Bonjour (to them would be like you saying "hey you"). And not "Bonjour, how's it going."

Kent, I agree with you 1000%. You nailed it.

Posted by
8491 posts

"Notes: The French expression ça va is one of the most common in the entire language. It can be both question and answer, but it is informal, so you should try to avoid it when speaking with people you vouvoie."
http://french.about.com/od/vocabulary/a/cava.htm

In agreement with Alexander, Kent, Susan.

Posted by
7687 posts

In agreement with Alexander, Kent, Susan, and Bets!!

Posted by
15 posts

Why don’t you guys bring some Californian sunshine into their dull Parisian day, and greet them with a hearty “Good Morning” or “Hello” in your best American accent? Traveling is also about sharing!

Posted by
1126 posts

Like sharing a slice of American white wonder bread for a hunk of French baguette? :-D

Posted by
11975 posts

I was taught that marriage confers greater status on a woman in European culture. It's better to err on the polite side, so always use Madame unless it's obvious. If you're wrong, they can correct you (but probably won't).

Posted by
1821 posts

I have learned yet another travel tip from this forum. I'll embrace this cultural difference on my next visit.

Posted by
3649 posts

A big "AMEN" to Alexander's last comment about sharing. Velvetta vs Camembert, anyone?

Posted by
8491 posts

Fifty percent of parents in France have never bothered getting married. Most are not even paxed, which is a civil status less rigorous than marriage laws. They just don't get all excited about saying yes to the dress and all that stuff, but this 50% of families just goes along living together.Therefore, the madame title has nothing to do with marriage.

Posted by
10344 posts

Thanks to the latest contributors to the thread. This has been an interesting discussion.

Posted by
711 posts

Hi Kent,
I asked this very question to my Parisien friend (he's approaching 40 years old, for reference to his age) and he said always use Madame, unless she is obviously a kid. He also pointed out that if you get it wrong and she curtly corrects you, she's just picking a fight and would disagree with you on some other point even if you got the madame thing right, anyway!
He also stated that this formality is becoming less and less with each generation so it's less of an issue than it used to be. When I was in Paris in February I was definitely greeted by a few Bonjours (sans "monsieur) when I entered establishments. Of course, I was also greeted with some Bonjours as I approached people walking toward me on the sidewalk. They were 30 somethings like me, so this reinforces that times are changing. Every elderly person that I passed while walking stared at me with a stern look (no smiling!) and not a word.
This is why I love the French...

Posted by
6772 posts

Darren, perhaps those 30-somethings were semi-rude American tourists, unschooled in proper etiquette. I hear the sidewalks are full of 'em.
(no seriousness intended)

Posted by
711 posts

Stan-
They certainly could have been! Their accents were impeccable, though... ;-)

Posted by
1945 posts

“It is a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude. To make enemies by unnecessary and willful incivility, is just as insane a proceeding as to set your house on fire. For politeness is like a counter--an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims

I never had French in school, so it took me until it was way too late to realize that I should have been asking bus drivers Arretez-vous at the X? rather than telling them Vous arrete at the X? Can't begin to count how many times I made that mistake unknowingly. Another tick in the Ugly American column -- sorry, team!

Posted by
10 posts

As a native French-speaker, I never add "Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle" when I greet someone in French, whether I'm in Paris, Lausanne, Brussels or Montréal. It is too formal and old-fashioned. I think that your are just making a fuss for nothing. However, I enjoy the American accent (Bounjooooor Mudumwahzel). Bonjour de Copenhague!!!

Posted by
1549 posts

The Madame vs. Mademoiselle reminds me of a time when I was addressed as Mrs. "last name" for the first time instead of my first name, or even Miss "last name". I was probably only in my late twenties, probably married for 2-3 years, and was mortified that I was address as Mrs. I guess I thought Mrs. meant people my Mom's age back then. (Now I am Moms' age, so it doesn't phase me anymore.) Sounds like the French take on being addressed as Madame is opposite from my take as a twenty something.

Good info for our trip to France next year.