"Ma'am" Shock

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Woman: Excuse me ma'am, are you done with this machine?

Penny: Ma'am? Ma'am?! I'm going to go bawl my eyes out, and then I'll be back to physically fight you.

The single thirty-something woman is addressed as "Ma'am" for the first time, as opposed to "Miss," and freaks out at the cruel reminder that she is now only a teenager emotionally and mentally.

Note: This may be a regional American usage. In the American South, being addressed as ma'am is an ageless sign of respect, merely the feminine form of "sir." In fact, the inverse is sometimes true there: "Miss" is reserved for young girls, and referring to an adult woman as such can be seen as very condescending or just plain rude. The trope itself occasionally plays off this. For example, a young woman from New York may be called Ma'am by a Southerner who doesn't know better.

Of course, sheepishly answering "Yes, ma'am" to a demand order kind request is usually immune to this trope.

Males will occasionally have a similar reaction to "mister," replying "Mister Siht is my father."

Compare Don't Call Me "Sir"!, where a character objects to being called "sir" or "ma'am" due to the unwelcome sense of authority or social distance that the honorific implies.

Also see the related Japanese trope Oba-san.

Examples of "Ma'am" Shock include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Male version: In the first episode of GaoGaiGar, Mamoru keeps calling Guy "Mister", eliciting the response "Don't call me Mister, I'm only 21!"[1]
  • Akira - 'zaclty the same thing. He was 25.
  • Kirihara from Darker than Black gets one when Kiko sees the woman together with her stalking target crush.

Kiko: No way! I didn't know you liked middle-aged women!
Kirihara: M-Middle-aged...?

  • In Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, Eutas insists on being called "bro," rather than "Mister."
  • In Fire Emblem : Hasha no Tsurugi, Cecilia is visibly shocked when Al calls her "pretty auntie" while thanking her for her help. He gets prompty punished by Tiena and Gant for his rudeness.
  • In One Piece you have Doctor Kureha, who at the youthful age of 139 is far too young to be called "grandma".
    • Interestingly played with. Sanji spends his experiences with her trying to find the proper term to call her, (at least in the subs) ranging from "miss" to "ma'am" to "hag" to "girl." Kureha continues to beat him senselessly until Sanji simply calls her a lady.
  • Kotetsu from Tiger and Bunny is none too happy to be called "old man" by the rookie superhero he's been forced to partner up with. His displeasure is only compounded when he discovers that said rookie has decided the pejorative is to be his new name.
  • 5 years before the start of Papa no Iukoto o Kikinasai, during Yuuta's first meeting with Sora, she addresses him as Ojiichan (Uncle), much to Yuuta's chagrin, since the two of them were only 5 years apart and, at that time, Yuuta's still in middle school. After quickly taking a liking to Yuuta, however, she decides to call him "Oniichan" instead. Years later, when they meet again, due to a bad start, Sora begins calling Yuuta Ojiichan again just to rile him up.


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Francine Peters in Strangers in Paradise. "I am 29 years old! I am not a ma'am!"
  • Happens to Sylvia in Minimum Wage (AKA Beg the Question).
  • Variant in Spider-Man. Trying to locate a student's home, Peter asks for directions from a woman nearby, calling her "Ma'am." She proceeds to ignore the question, and lectures him about how "Ma'am" is short for "Madam," and goes on from there. Peter eventually apologizes, restates his question without using "Ma'am," and gets the directions he was looking for. The policeman who wanders up next, however, is clearly about to get the same lecture when he calls her "Ma'am."


Film[edit | hide]

  • Gender flipped, with the Stock Phrase reply: Crush the Turtle of Finding Nemo. Of course, he's "150, dude, and still young!"
  • Kelly, in Lake Placid, having been called "Ma'am" by various officials, finally snaps and tells them if they call her "Ma'am" one more time she'll sue, and in this day and age, she'll probably win. The officials roll their eyes, but do stop calling her "Ma'am".
  • Charlotte Mearing in Transformers: Dark of the Moon hates being called "ma'am". Carly, being British, doesn't understand what is the big deal and simply points out that, since Mearing is a woman, "ma'am" is appropriate. Except, from her time at the British embassy to the US, Carly should know the social faux pas in the States.
  • A variant in Speed: near the beginning of the film Jack repeatedly addresses Annie as "ma'am", until she insists on being called by her first name.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Scrubs did not only this, but a Gender Flip with J.D. being called 'sir'.
    • Played straight by Jordan.
      • To the point where she gets so many Botox injections that she can barely talk.
  • The Single Guy: After the being addressed by the hated word, Janeane gets a tattoo to prove she's still young and cool.
  • Played and kind of parodied in the colombian Soap Opera Las Juanas, when the main heroine, in front of an older woman she hasn't introduced yet, and not knowing what to call her, decides to call her "Doña" (the spanish equivalent of "Ma'am") and the older lady becomes enraged. The heroine thinks that she has offended her in the spirit of this trope, but then the lady shouts something in the vein of "How did you know my name, and why you talk to me with such disrespect?". Turns out that the lady is really named Doña, so the correct way to address her is Doña Doña. And the joke is brought up several times more.
  • Will and Grace: Grace is sent into despair when she buys wrinkle cream at at Bloomingdales.

'Grace: ...and this Jennifer-Love-Sarah-Michelle-Felicity looking thing bumps into me and says, 'Excuse me, ma'am.

  • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Harry Kim, spit-shined, fresh-faced ensign, meets Captain Janeway for the first time:

Janeway: Come in. Gentlemen, welcome aboard Voyager.
Kim: Thank you, sir.
Janeway: Mister Kim, at ease before you sprain something. Ensign, despite Starfleet protocol, I don't like being addressed as 'sir'.
Kim: I'm sorry...ma'am?
Janeway: Ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer 'Captain'.

    • Of course, Tom calls her 'ma'am' at every opportunity for the rest of the seven years.
    • And Q calls her either "Madame Capitaine" or "Kathy" depending on his mood.
    • And then there are the viewers who call her "Captain Crunch".
  • Somewhat subverted on Full House, as Stephanie cites being called "ma'am" by a cashier as proof that she's old enough to have her ears pierced.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show had an episode titled "Today I am a Ma'am" where the thirty year old Mary is despondent over no longer being part of the station's youth demographic.
  • Wings: When Joe dates a nineteen-year-old, Helen and Alex become so insecure about their age that when a delivery boy addresses Helen as "Ma'am," they both berate him, demanding to be called "babe," "kitten," or "cupcake."

Helen: So if you know what's good for you, we're going to walk away and you better look at our butts the whole time.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Giles addresses Ms. Calendar; she breezily replies "Please, call me Jenny - Ms. Calendar's my father." - parodied/subverted/somethinged.
    • Also, mistaking Buffy for Dawn's mother is an easy way to freak Buffy out. Buffy is her Promoted to Parent sister.
  • NCIS has demonstrated on multiple occasions that Ziva dislikes being called ma'am. Even dirtbag is preferable, though it will still get your ass laid out.
  • Veronica Mars is astonished when a young mugger she has just apprehended calls her 'lady.' Although her big dog may have had something to do with it.
    • Oddly enough, series star Kristen Bell seemed to have the opposite problem in Real Life due to her petite, youthful appearance. She relates some of her problems with getting carded during a 2004 appearance on The Late Late Show, which leads to guest host Sara Rue describing the regular version of the trope happening to her.
  • Inverted in the Doctor Who episode "Planet of the Ood", where an Ood addresses the companion Donna as "miss". She immediately snaps back, "why'd you call me miss? Do I look single?"
  • Honey I Shrunk the Kids (yes, there was a TV show, and it was far better than it had any right to be): Diane is sold on a spa treatment when a man (actually working with the saleswoman) knocks into her and addresses her as "miss," until he sees her properly and calls her "ma'am." This causes Diane to become completely obsessed with remaining young and beautiful, becoming the Monster of the Week, which was pretty par the course for that show.
  • Charmed had an episode about Paige being insulted by a student who called her Ma'am.
  • Penny in Happy Endings, as seen in the page quote.
  • In Woody's first episode on Cheers, he addresses Carla as "ma'am" on meeting her:

Carla: "Ma'am"? What's that supposed to mean?
Woody: I believe it's a term of respect.
Carla: No wonder it sounded so weird.


Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In the Phoenix Wright series, Mia Fey gets distressed when called Madam in her first case. The witness takes note of this and uses it to annoy her.

I'm only 24. That's not old!

  • Male example: In Dragon Quest V, two children call you and your companion "Mister", which in party chat is very distressing to Prince Harry who doesn't think he should yet qualify.
  • In Katawa Shoujo, Sae Saionji, the art curator, doesn't like being called "Mrs. Saionji", despite having once been married because it makes her sound old and instead requests to be addressed by her first name.


Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Zeta Vincent of Narbonic once said that she was "much more freaked out by being called 'ma'am'" than by the rogue mad-scientific experiments rampaging through the room at the time.
  • Used in Shortpacked, when Robin is elected to Congress after a sugar rush induced blackout:

Robin: I didn't know I was old enough to be in Congress!
Assistant: You have to be 25, ma'am.
Robin: Please don't call me "ma'am."


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • In a Halloween episode of Kim Possible, Kim argues that she and Ron are too old to go trick-or-treating, as "last year, some kid called [her] ma'am".
  • On Daria, a minor character named Robert has the odd habit of calling girls his own age "ma'am," something that Daria at least does not seem to appreciate.
  • When Mickey Mouse got flustered and nervous, he would sometimes call someone "Ma'am" - Peg Leg Pete didn't take it well.
  • In King of the Hill Miz Liz Strickland comments that waiters call her ma'am now. After trying to remember how long it's been since someone called her miss, she begins openly sobbing.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • A Finnish equivalent of this is to be called täti by a child or a parent talking to their child. (Literally "aunt", but in this context it is used to refer to women a child is not acquainted with). Younger women are usually just called "girl." This affects a much younger age group than "ma'am", however, as täti is usually used to refer to women one does not classify as children. This means a four-year-old might call thirteen-year-olds this, while their parents will usually reserve the term for those who look at least twenty. It's still a bit of a shock to some to be called täti by an adult talking to their child.
    • The same applies to setä (literally "uncle").
  • A version of this is used in Tagalog: A woman only a few years older than you would be called ate (with their name if you know them), which translates to "big sister." Similarly, a slightly-older man would be called kuya (big brother). You in turn would be called anak (gender-neutral for child). Even if the person is considerably older, you would still call them kuya or ate unless they look visibly old enough to be your parent—at which you'd call them nanay or tatay (Mother or Father, respectively.) There seems to be considerably less stigma compared to the American counterparts, though.
  • In China, those a few years older than you will be called "jie" (older sister) or "ge" (older brother) unless names are used. Those considered old enough to be your parents will be called "ah yi" (aunt) or "shu shu" (uncle), and those old enough to be your grandparents are called "nai nai" (grandmother) or "ye ye" (grandfather).
    • Which is more or less where oba-san, obaa-san, and onee-san would fit on this list.
    • It's the same in the Korean language with ahjumma (aunt) and ahjusshi (uncle) being used for older adults.
  • Truth in Television: In June 2009, a Brigadier General speaking before the United States Senate called Senator Barbara Boxer "ma'am", to which Boxer took offense and insisted he call her "Senator." Critics quickly pointed out that "Ma'am" is the correct address for a woman higher up the chain of command, and said that Boxer was needlessly overreacting. This despite the fact that the Military etiquette guidelines clearly state that Senators are to be addressed as such. Indeed, it specifically adds the line, "When the senator is a woman: Use Senator," likely for just such a scenario. Also, never mind the fact that although Congress is responsible for handing out commissions and a candidate for any level of general generally has to get Senate approval before getting his/her star, Senators aren't really in the chain of command: that goes exclusively up through the Executive Branch (from the Departments of the Navy/Army/Air Force and the Unified Combatant Commanders to the Secretary of Defense and then the President).
  • The Russian equivalent is zhenschina (lit. woman) instead of devushka (lit. girl). Though it's polite to call middle-aged women "devushka", when younger, thirty years old women are called "zhenschina" it's twice the shock.
  • This problem wouldn't arise in Scotland (particularly in the West) as women of any age are likely to be addressed as "Hen".
  • In French, the title for married women is "madame" and the one for unmarried women and girls is "mademoiselle." As in English, this distinction can give rise to socially awkward situations. In Québec, official usage now dictates using "madame" for all women except young girls (and, amusingly, "women who insist on being called mademoiselle").
    • Same in German. To be called "Fräulein" would probably be considered sexist or patronizing by most young women.