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Ma'am Shock
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 kind request is usually immune to this trope.

Males will occasionally have a similar reaction to "mister," replying "Mister Siht is my father." However, this often has less to do with age than with a desire to seem less formal (though of course these factors are related). note 

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

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, when Ed and Al first meet Izumi, she is outraged that they call her "aunt" instead of "sister"- the Japanese word for "aunt" is commonly used to address older women whose name is unknown, while "sister" is used for younger women.
  • 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!"note 
  • 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 & 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.
  • In Sangatsu no Lion, Akari receives one when Hinata calls her more practical approach in making a bento "too plain" and "something that an old lady would make." Of course, Akari takes it as an indirect implication that she is one herself, and the two sisters get into a minor spat over it.

    Comic Books 
  • 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."

    Fan Works 

    Film 
  • 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.
  • In Dodsworth, Fran, a middle-aged woman who is trying to hang on to her youth, is happy enough that her daughter has given birth—until her husband calls her a grandmother. She's horrified, and after that she doesn't even want to tell anyone about the baby.

    Literature 
  • Early in Aunt Dimity and the Duke, Emma is addressed as "ma'am" several times by a young man on staff at Bransley Manor, the first stop on her planned garden tour. She's making the trip to Cornwall alone, since her companion of fifteen years has just married a younger woman, leaving her a single and (self-described) frumpy forty-year-old woman.
    It was the constantly reiterated "ma'am" that did it. He might as well call me "Granny," Emma thought.

    Live Action TV 
  • 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.
  • In one episode of Will and Grace, Grace tells a client about how horrible her life is becoming, including an unfortunate incident that day when she buys wrinkle cream at at Bloomingdales. It’s all for show; she’s trying to get the client to sign a better deal out of embarrassment, and it works.
    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.
    • Played straight in the episode "Come Fly With Me," when Stephanie complains about her summer having been boring. When it's pointed out that she went to summer camp, she retorts that it was just day camp; "I was the oldest kid there. The other kids called me 'Ma'am'."
  • 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.
    • The season 8 comics have a different take on it.
    Satsu: I'm not following your orders. Not this time. I'll see you on the battlefield. Ma'am.
    Buffy:...(Beat Panel)...I can't believe I find it sexy when she calls me "ma'am"!
  • 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. Happens a few other times, though not to that extreme.
  • 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.
  • CSI: Miami subverts this in a fun way. Since Florida police are reportedly required to address any female who looks like they could be at least thirteen as "Ma'am," we often get to see Horatio earnesty "Yes, Ma'am"-ing young girls.

    Newspaper Comics 

    Video Games 
  • Ace Attorney's Mia Fey gets distressed when called Madame Fey 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.
  • Palutena is not happy when Phosphora calls her this in Kid Icarus: Uprising. Pit then pipes in and states, while they're at it, that he doesn't mind being called "sir".
  • In Illusion of Gaia, when Will is getting hauled off by the King's soldiers for not giving him the Crystal Ring (which happens regardless of what you choose), he calls out to the queen "Ma'am! Save me!!", prompting the queen to say "Did you say Ma'am??!"

    Web Comics 
  • 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."

    Web Original 
  • Shown in this Not Always Right story. Notably, the woman in question has this reaction to both "ma'am" and "miss".

    Western Animation 
  • 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 (who recently caught her husband cheating with a younger woman) is having lunch with Hank when a waiter calls her "ma'am" as he leaves to get their food. She comments on how long it's been since anyone called her "miss," and eventually breaks down crying, leaving Hank feeling extremely awkward.
    • In another episode Hank's driver's license is misprinted to say that he's "Female." While he's trying to get it fixed the DMV worker calls him "ma'am" as if actually confused about his gender. Hank blows a gasket.

    Real Life 
  • 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) or tito or tita (uncle or aunt). There seems to be considerably less stigma compared to the American counterparts, though. The English terms "sir" and "ma'am" themselves are considered safe and neutral default address in most situations.
  • 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).
    • Newly-minted Marines fresh out of boot camp, having just spent the last three months being conditioned to call every civilian female "ma'am," regardless of age, will invariably invoke this trope on females FAR sooner than they would typically expect, at least until they can shake some of the more ridiculous aspects of recruit life.
  • 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.
  • There is a further Ma'am shock for Americans who come across the British pronunciation of "Ma'am." It sounds almost exactly like the way an American would say, "Mom," whereas Americans would use a flat sounding "Maam." This leads to amusement/merriment/horror when the American girl in question thinks that you think she's even older than the standard Ma'am shock would imply.
  • To avoid this kind of situations, working class in Mexico don't call married women "señora" nor don't call unmarried women and girls "señorita", they use the shortened form "seño" for both.
  • Similarly in English, when addressing a female, "Ms." (pronounced with more of a "z" sound than an "s") has become the neutral middle ground between "Mrs." (Married) and "Miss" (Single). One generally starts with "Ms." and waits for the woman in question to point you in the right direction.
  • In Korean, the equivilant is "ajuma". As with other examples listed here, be careful when using this one.
  • In Texas and other parts of the American south Ma'am is used to address any unknown female over about 13. Sir is used the same way. It is a shame that visitors and people who move to the area take offence at people simply being polite.


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