à partir d’un certain age – after a certain age
difficile à vivre – hard to get through
à chaque fois – every time
une vieille – old lady (derogatory)
une boulangerie – bakery
t’inquiète – don’t worry (short for “ne t’inquiète pas”)
c’est pour ça – that’s why; that’s the reason why
c’est bien – it’s good, that’s good
respectueux – respectful
avoir du mal à s’y faire – to have a hard time getting used to/accepting something
tenez – here, as in, ‘Here you go’ or ‘Here, hold this’ (the imperative form of the verb “tenir”, which means “to hold”)
un colis – a package
s’appeler quelqu’un– to call somebody
exagérer – to exaggerate, to get carried away, to go too far
la séduction – seduction
au fait – in fact, actually
I still remember the first time it happened. It was a chilly Paris evening, my phone was dead and I had forgotten the door code to my friend’s apartment, so I popped into a nearby hotel to ask if I could use their internet. It was an isolated incident at the time—it gave me pause for about two seconds, but ultimately, I didn’t think too much about it.
Then it started happening intermittently. Once, when I was dressed up for a job interview. Another time, on a date at a fancy restaurant. Eventually, it worked its way into at least half of my daily interactions… then most of them… until one day, it just became the norm.
I am talking, of course, about being greeted with that dreaded two-syllable word that is an inevitable rite of passage for any French woman… and, by extension, any young foreign woman living in France.
You see, there comes a time in every French woman’s life when she goes from being a Mademoiselle to a Madame. In theory, this happens when she gets married, as historically, the two words are intended to indicate a woman’s marital status, much like their English equivalents, “Miss” and “Mrs”.
But as my friend Marc once explained to me, most people will default to Mademoiselle when addressing a young woman, if they don’t know her marital status. However, he added, à partir d’un certain age…
Ah yes. It’s those ominous words, followed by that pregnant ellipsis full of unspoken meaning that say it all… and make this rite of passage so difficile à vivre.
“A partir d’un certain age” (“after a certain age”), the automatic default greeting becomes Madame, and Mademoiselle becomes inappropriate, even cheeky. But since the average shopkeeper/bus driver/passerby on the street doesn’t actually know how old you are, the label is just a judgement call based on how old they think you look.
In short, getting a Madame instead of a Mademoiselle means the person you are speaking to has sized you up in one swift glance and decided that you are clearly past a certain age.
With one critical, calculating look, they’ve Ma-damned you.
When this first started happening to me regularly, it was like a tiny little stake through my heart à chaque fois I heard it. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have been saying, “Bonjour, la vieille!” (“Hello, old lady!”)
Of course, similar rites of passage do exist in Anglophone culture, since the modern-day French usage of Mademoiselle and Madame can be likened to how we would use “Miss” and “Ma’am”. But although being addressed as “ma’am” or “lady” can be traumatic for some, it really isn’t the same. In Canada and the US, we don’t employ these terms on a daily basis. In Toronto, at least, you’re far more likely to be greeted with a simple “Can I help you?” than you are a “Can I help you, miss/ma’am?” When I lived in Canada, entire days or weeks might go by before anybody addressed me by either one.
In France, it’s different. Honorifics like Mademoiselle, Madame and Monsieur are an integral part of everyday life, employed in nearly every interaction that happens between strangers, and sometimes, between people who know each other. Using one is considered the polite and appropriate way to address somebody you don’t know. Walk into any boulangerie, store or restaurant and you will be greeted with a “Bonjour Mademoiselle/ Madame/Monsieur” or, for the time-pressed, a simple nod accompanied by a perfunctory “Madame?” which serves the double purpose of being both a greeting and the question, “What can I get for you?” If you ever want to leave the house in France, honorifics are unavoidable.
In short, you’re pretty much Ma-damned if you do and Ma-damned if you don’t.
Interestingly enough, if you walk into an establishment accompanied by a man in France, you will be greeted with “Monsieur-Dame” (as if you were his wife), regardless of age. This becomes a running joke in the 1967 French film classic, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”: the character Simon Dame is greeted by shopkeepers as “Monsieur Dame” and even gets his own musical number lamenting the fact that no woman wants to be called, “Madame Dame”.
When you’re not yet accustomed to it, getting Ma-damned in this way, several times a day, is essentially like having your day punctuated with regular reminders that you look old. For me, it was like being on the receiving end of a thousand tiny little pinpricks all day long.
When it first started happening, I would stare into the mirror at home, trying to figure out what had changed, poking here, pulling at my skin there, in an attempt to decipher what it was that had put me over the edge. Were there suddenly more wrinkles around my eyes? Had I sprouted a multitude of grey hairs overnight? What was it that gave me away?
When my obsessive scrutinizing didn’t turn up any answers, I turned to Google to find out exactly what age à partir d’un certain age was referring to. Just how old were people pegging me at?
I clearly wasn’t the only one who had been tortured by this existential question. Google returned pages and pages of results from twenty-something French girls and expats anxious to know why they had suddenly been promoted to matronly status in the eyes of the public, as well as young married women complaining about being addressed as Mademoiselle (who I grumpily felt like trolling with mature comebacks like, “World’s tiniest violin”). Alas, my Google research returned no conclusive results. Nobody seemed to have any kind of definitive answer. 23-year-olds complained of being called Madame. 37-year-olds gloated about being occasionally addressed as Mademoiselle.
“You know, the French government just passed a new law banning ‘Mademoiselle’ from all official forms,” my friends comforted me. “T’inquiète, c’est juste pour ça.” (“Don’t worry, that’s the only reason they’re calling you Madame.”) Sadly, this argument doesn’t hold much water when the store clerk addresses the university student in line ahead of you as Mademoiselle, only to hit you unequivocally with a stone-faced “Madame?” when it’s your turn at the counter.
Then there was the time a restaurant server greeted me with a sunny, “Bonjour Mademoiselle !” and then, just as I was starting to perk up, took a second look and hastily corrected himself, “Pardon, Madame.” Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.
Ever the cheerleader, my sunny friend Jean-François tried to give my new status a positive spin. “Mais c’est bien, Madame ! C’est plus respectueux !” (“But getting called Madame is good! It’s more respectful!”) he exclaimed, in an attempt to lift my spirits. Oh Jean-François. You have a lot to learn about women.
I asked around to see how my French girlfriends were dealing with the “M” word. “I hate it. I hate it,” my 29-year-old French friend Lisa sighed. “The worst is when I’m at the supermarket and the cashier is barely younger than I am. I feel like saying to her, ‘Hey, don’t call me Madame—we’re practically the same age!’”
You’d think the transition would get easier with age, but from what I can tell, even with time, you can avoir du mal à s’y faire. A 42-year-old American co-worker who’d been living in Paris for 20 years once grumbled out loud at the office, “I don’t know why the super’s wife has to keep Madame-ing me. ‘Bonjour Madame. Tenez Madame. Vous avez un colis, Madame,’” she mimicked, indignantly. “She’s not that much younger than I am!”
“Et comment tu veux qu’elle t’appelle ?” responded our (male) boss, the voice of reason. (“Well, what would you like her to call you?”)
“Well…” and then in a very tiny voice that betrayed the fact she knew she was being a wee bit unreasonable, my co-worker responded petulantly, ‘…Mademoiselle.’”
Our boss barely managed to contain a snicker and gave her a pointed look that clearly said, “I am biting my tongue because I don’t want to be mean but you are definitely not a Mademoiselle.”
But it’s easy for men to laugh when they don’t have to live through the same thing—they’re considered a “Monsieur” from adolescence onward.
Spotted in the Paris métro. Shout out to the nice girl who humoured the weirdo that asked to take pictures of her tote bag (i.e. me).
To be fair, I don’t really have any right to complain about being promoted to Madame. As an Asian, I have always looked younger than my Caucasian counterparts and have probably enjoyed the perks of being a Mademoiselle far longer than I should. But that doesn’t mean the transition stings any less. It’s a bit like having the world at large tell me, “The jig is up, honey. You officially look your age.”
I should probably mention that not all women interpret the Madame designation as a negative thing. While some do grumble, or resign themselves to their change in status with good grace, others actually embrace it wholeheartedly as a sign of respect.
In fact, many see the label as a feminist issue and think Mademoiselle should disappear entirely from the language, since it would be laughable today to call a man Mon Damoiseau, the medieval male equivalent of Ma Demoiselle (both titles originally indicated that a person was unmarried and, by implication, a virgin). This argument was the main impetus behind the aforementioned change to French law, which aims to transform Madame into the equivalent of the English “Ms”—a neutral title that denotes gender but not marital status. That said, I’ve heard many a French person pooh-pooh this reasoning with the same dismissive tone they reserve for vegetarians or people who can’t eat wheat or dairy: “Oh là là ! Il ne faut pas exagérer, non plus !” (“Oh come on! Let’s not get carried away!”) Old traditions die hard in this old-word country.
French feminists campaigned for years to have “Mademoiselle” removed from all official government forms, arguing (quite justifiably) that if men don’t have to indicate their marital status, then women shouldnt have to either. In 2012, they finally won the battle.
On the flip side, some women cling tenaciously to the label Mademoiselle long past its expiry date. Despite the fact that she is in her 70s, French actress Catherine Deneuve still prefers to be addressed as Mademoiselle*.
And of course, in the country that has an international reputation for its skill in la séduction, there are women who can turn being called Madame into an opportunity to flirt:
“Au fait, c’est mademoiselle.” Clin d’oeil.
Read: “Actually, I’m single.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.
Politically correct or no, the truth is that in French culture, the label Mademoiselle continues to carry with it the connotation of someone who is young, beautiful and desirable. Men use it to flirt; a well-placed Mademoiselle with a wink and a smile can sometimes say it all. Mademoiselle also evokes the idea of liberty—a woman who isn’t tied down and is free to roam and do as she chooses. This is part of what can make the transition such a difficult pill to swallow for some. It’s not always just about age—it can also be tied to how attractive or appealing you are to the opposite sex or how much possibility lies in your future.
Every once in a while, I do still get the odd Mademoiselle, mostly on rare occasions when I’ve gotten ten hours of sleep, or I’m speaking to an elderly person with failing eyesight. Feminist or no, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it brightens my day. It’s a bit like getting carded after the age of 30—a little pick-me-up that makes you feel like you’ve still got it.
But as the years go by, I know these instances will get fewer and farther between. The day will come when calling me Mademoiselle will seem so utterly absurd that even servers shamelessly angling for tips won’t dare use it as a tactic. At the moment, the prospect seems depressing, but maybe by that time, I will be over the whole thing and happy to be addressed with the respect and deference befitting my age.
Or maybe, like Catherine Deneuve, I will defiantly remain a Mademoiselle at heart and in spirit, free to go wherever the wind takes me, regardless of how many grey hairs there are atop my head.
Iris Apfel, the 94-year-old style icon, poses outside Le Bon Marché in Paris, where she was the subject of an exhibition and pop-up shop earlier this year. If I can be like Iris when I grow up, life as a Madame won’t be all that bad! (Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov for the New York Times)
Do you have any first-hand experiences to share about when people first started calling you Madame, Ma’am, Lady, Señora or other similar terms? How did you feel about it?
* “Actresses are usually always styled mademoiselle, especially in film or theatre credits, regardless of their age or personal situation.” – Source: Wikipedia
Special thanks to:
Dmitry Kostyukov, who kindly gave me permission to use the photo of Iris Apfel that he took for the New York Times. Check him out on Instagram!
My friend Lucie, who spent part of her day off modelling for my Mademoiselle/Madame photo without asking too many questions about all the costume changes.