The first time it happened, it caught me off guard. I paused for a microsecond, then shook it off as an isolated incident and continued on with my day. A few weeks later, though, it happened again… and then again… until one day, it just became the norm.

I am talking, of course, about that two-syllable word that is an inevitable rite of passage for every young woman living in France.


a woman standing in front of a statue in a museum
Top: photo by Venus Major; Above: photo by Yan Agrit

From Madame to MadameMoiselle: A Rite of Passage

You see, there comes a time in every French woman’s life when she goes from being a Mademoiselle to a Madame. Now, in theory, this happens when she gets married, since the two words have historically been used the way “Miss” and “Missus” are in English.

But as a French friend once explained to me, most people default to Mademoiselle when addressing a young woman they don’t know. However, he added, “à partir d’un certain âge…”

Ah yes. It’s those ominous words, followed by that pregnant ellipsis full of unspoken meaning that say it all. After a certain age, the default greeting goes from Mademoiselle to Madame. But since your average passer-by doesn’t know how old you are, this label is basically just a judgement call based on how old they think you look.

A woman reading a book beside the Seine River in Paris.
photo by Consuelo Borrorni

In short, being called Madame instead of 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. It was like a tiny little stake through my heart every time I heard it. As far as I was concerned, people may as well have been saying, “Bonjour, la vielle!” (“Hello, old lady!”)

I couldn’t even avoid it. In France, Mademoiselle, Madame, and Monsieur are an integral part of everyday life. From bakeries to brasseries, the greeting “Bonjour Mademoiselle/Madame/Monsieur” is de rigueur. If you want to leave the house, it’s unavoidable.

In short, you’re pretty much Ma-damned if you do and Ma-damned if you don’t.

When it first started happening, I would stare into the mirror at home, trying to figure out what had changed. Were there suddenly more wrinkles around my eyes? Had I sprouted a multitude of grey hairs overnight? What was it that gave me away?

Young Women Walking on a Zebra Street Crossing in Paris, France just in near the Louvre museum.
photo by David Kouakou

After a Certain Age….

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 âge was referring to. Alas, my research returned no conclusive results. 23-year-olds fretted about being called Madame. 37-year-olds gloated about being called Mademoiselle.

“Don’t worry,” my friends reassured me. “It’s because the government passed a new law banning ‘Mademoiselle’ from all official documentation.” But this argument is less than convincing when the store clerk addresses the girl in line ahead of you as “Mademoiselle,” only to hit you with an unequivocal “Madame” when your turn is up.

Then there was the time a waiter greeted me with a cheery, “Bonjour Mademoiselle!” and, just as I was starting to perk up, hastily corrected himself, “Pardon, Madame.” I felt like a deflated balloon for the rest of the day.

Tourist on the Promenade in Paris wearing sunglasses, a leopard print shirt, with her long black hair blowing in her face.
Photo by David Kouakou

I suppose I could have resisted, like Catherine Deneuve, who still goes by Mademoiselle despite the fact that she was born in 1943. In the end, though, I decided there was nothing left to do but accept my change in status with good grace.

Every once in a while, I do still get the odd Mademoiselle. It’s a bit like getting carded after 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 absurd that even servers shamelessly angling for tips won’t dare use it. 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.

MaDAME And Mademoiselle – FAQ’s

When to use Madame or Mademoiselle?

Traditionally, Madame was used for married women and Mademoiselle referred to unmarried, younger women. Madame is more formal, and often used to refer to women in positions of authority, like government officials, educators, or medical doctors. Now it is common that madame is used for all women regardless of marital status.

Do French people still use Mademoiselle?

In 2012 the French government, in response to years of campaigning by feminist groups, began phasing out the use of Mademoiselle in official documents, encouraging the private sector to follow its lead. Some people see Mademoiselle as sexist and old-fashioned, although it is still commonly used, especially in informal situations. When in doubt, use Madame.

What is the plural of Madame and Mademoiselle?

Mesdames or Mesdemoiselles.

Is there a gender neutral version of either term?

Mx is an English language neologism sometimes used as a gender neutral title. A widely used gender neutral pronoun is iel which combines il and elle.

Written by Darlene Lim for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out marketplace shop and experiences.


Darlene Lim

Darlene Lim is an award-winning short filmmaker who gave up her post of Communications Specialist at one of Canada’s largest media companies to embark on a one-year working holiday in Paris in 2010. It didn’t take long, however, for her to fall in love with the city and decide that one year in Paris wasn’t nearly long enough… She is now a print and video editorial project manager for a French fashion tech company and enjoys writing about everything from the best baguette in Paris to what it’s like to travel overnight on an unheated chicken bus to Uyuni, Bolivia, in the dead of winter (true story).

One Comment

  1. Don’t give in to the ageists. When they say Madame, be bold, brash, confident, and stick it to them, that it is Mademoiselle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *