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Madame or Mademoiselle ? A Delicate Question

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jan 7, 2021

It’s often hard to decide whether you should use “madame” or “mademoiselle” in French. Of course, you know the basic rule: married: use madame, not married: say mademoiselle. However the reality is much more subtle than that.

1 – Madame or Mademoiselle = no Longer a Relevant Question in Writing

There has been a lot of talks about Mademoiselle versus Madame lately, but mostly on how to address a woman when writing a letter, especially when you have to fill in an official form, or for a subscription or something like that.

If the fact that you are a man or a woman can be relevant to the said subscription, your marital status – married or single – often isn’t: and is seen by some as an invasion of privacy.

Actually, France Prime Minister Mr Fillon banned the use of Mademoiselle in 2012 from legal documents.

Therefore in theory now, administrative forms and official documents do not use Mademoiselle any longer in writing.

By the way, the abbreviation for “Madame” is “Mme”. The abbreviation for “Mademoiselle” is “Mlle”. You don’t have to use the abbreviation: read more about this in my article on how to write French letters.

2 – Madame or Mademoiselle = Very Much a Question When Speaking

It is however considered much more polite in French to follow a “bonjour / bonsoir / merci” by “monsieur, madame or mademoiselle” when you speak.

It’s a bit old school, but still VERY encouraged (although not adding a title is not impolite per se).

So the Madame versus Mademoiselle dilemma remains intact when speaking…

3 – The Correct Pronunciation of Mademoiselle and Madame in French

First, please let me clarify the French pronunciation of both words, since I hear many mistakes on them.

  1. Do not say the first “e” in mademoiselle. It’s “mad moi zel” in French.
  2. For Madame, it’s kind of the same as in English except that the 2 A have the same strength: we don’t make a syllable stronger over the other one, and then we end on a strong M sound. “ma da m”.

By the way, the plural forms are “mesdemoiselles” and “mesdames”.

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4 – Very Young Girl = Always Mademoiselle

In France, no one would dream of calling a twelve years old “madame”. It would just sound really out of place.

It might be a “legal” status on a form, but that is not how you’d address a young girl.

For young ladies, the word to use is still “mademoiselle”.

5 – Married = Madame / Not Married = Mademoiselle

The basic rule is simple. If the woman is married, you should say “madame” (even if she is a widow: once married, always “madame”.)

If she isn’t, you should say “mademoiselle”.

6 – What If You Don’t Know the Woman’s Marital Status?

But what if you don’t know?

Look at her finger and see if she wears a ring…

And if you cannot see, well, then this is what I personally do:

  • If the woman is under, say 25, especially if she looks young, “mademoiselle” is fine.
  • Over 25 or so, I use “madame”.

But don’t worry, half of the time I also wonder whether I got it right.

And, despite all this fuss and this long article, it’s actually no big deal really! Most women would not even think twice about it!

7 – Cultural Tips and Controversy About Madame Versus Mademoiselle

Some younger French women may be surprised, or even offended by the use of “madame” when they don’t expect it…  it makes them feel old. Not unlike the first time you stopped being asked for your ID when ordering a drink in the US…

It’s true that this little word is quite powerful since it’s undoubtedly linked to the perception people have of you: the age they think you are… but it’s not only a question of age…

Although it’s no longer very common, some older spinsters may insist on the use of “mademoiselle”. This is typical for an older school teacher who has devoted her entire life to her students for example…

What are they trying to prove? That they’ve lived a life without man: maybe even that it was their choice! So, Catholic morals mixing with woman rights, in some cases even gay rights. Powerful stuff!

And bottom line, that what’s it is all about: “une demoiselle” has not been with a man. So… that applies to young girls of course, and to woman of age who… well if you follow the Catholic morals, were not married and therefore were never intimate with a man.

Now let’s try to use that filter to the letter. You look at someone of the feminine sexe and ask yourself “could she have been sexually active….”
Yes = madame,
No = mademoiselle.
As I said, some spinster are very proud of being called “Mademoiselle”, whereas for another woman, it can be hurtful. Either way, it’s super sexist. Yet deeply ingrained in the French culture.

The first time I was called “madame”, I was riding the subway and I was fourteen… It came to me as a shock! Granted, the boy who called me “madame” was probably ten himself, and I may have looked like “a woman” to him… So shocked, flattered, embarrassed… All this because of a title of politeness!

Now, if you are a man, and say “bonjour mademoiselle” to a 45 year-old, you could sound flirtatious…

However, there is a silver lining: if you did say “bonjour madame” and  the said 45 year-old woman answered with a big smile: “non, mademoiselle”, then, she is flirting with you!

You will find more tips such as this one in my audio lesson about Politeness and Greetings.

You may also be interested in this article: why French women don’t date – the French dating system explained.

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