Call Me Madame. It Doesn’t Bother Me. It’s My Due

Paris. Photo: Micheline Maynard

When I visited France for the first time at 16, I was called mademoiselle. When I returned at 19, I had become madame. That was just fine.

Being called madame meant that I could take my place with women who mattered in French society. Teachers, shop owners, the directors of city departments.

Most of all, it meant I could keep up with my mother, who the French fell over the moment she majestically entered a restaurant or a boutique.

So, I’m perplexed why Pamela Druckerman, who Wikipedia says is 48, finds anything uncomfortable about her transition from mademoiselle to madame.

According to her essay in The New York Times, entitled, “How To Survive Your 40s,” Druckerman claims she was called mademoiselle into her 30s.

And when she no longer heard that, and was being called madame, she gives the distinct impression that it made her uncomfortable.

Well, stop right there. That perception is a misunderstanding of French culture (perhaps Druckerman did this deliberately for literary license, but still, that’s not how it works).

No woman of any stature is called mademoiselle into her 30s. Strictly speaking, mademoiselle is a term for school girls, and those who have not yet entered the working world.

A poll of my friends shows that “mademoiselle” ends somewhere between 18 and 25, but never beyond someone’s twenties.

While the world technically translates as “miss,” it actually means “girl.” Once you are taken at all seriously, you become “madame.”

This is not at all a sign that you are wilted and overlooked.

You WANT to be called madame. You WANT the French, who size people up like no one else, to nod and give you your automatic due, which can be a little tricky for many Americans to obtain.

As someone with French roots, it’s never been an issue for me. But I’ve seen it happen to other women.

It generally occurs with those who aren’t used to dealing with French disdain and who are too intimidated to speak French in France, despite having studied it throughout high school and college,

I’m declaring here and now that I am happy to be called madame. You are welcome to ma’am me, too, if you like.

You can call me “Mrs. Maynard” if that’s easiest, although that was my mother. It was on the nameplate of her office door, and she preferred to be called that to her last days in hospice.

“Mrs. Maynard” was written on the white board in her room so nurses and doctors knew the proper way to address her.

When I teach at the university level, I ask my students to call me Professor Maynard. I know that fashion now is to call professors by their first names, but since I have rights to the title, I use it.

I love my students, but while I am teaching them, I am not their friend. First name usage can come down the road, after we’ve spent a semester together and I can tell whether they are actually people with whom I want to be friends IRL.

Madame, and ma’am, and Mrs., and professor are delineations. You might think of them as reflecting age. I think of them as reflecting stature.

Druckerman, in her Times piece, goes on to talk about the experiences she has had in her 40s. “When I try to act adorably naïve now, people aren’t charmed — they’re baffled,” she writes.

“Cluelessness no longer goes with my face. I’m expected to wait in the correct line at airports and show up on time for my appointments.”

Well, yes, you are. Unless you’d like to be known as ditzy. And every sales clerk, barista, restaurant server, airline gate agent and mechanic can talk your ear off about the ditzy customers they’ve encountered.

They aren’t charming. They’re a pain.

You won’t gain anyone’s respect and attention by acting girlish. And you never should have, to begin with.

Because my mother gave birth to me at such an advanced age and died at such an old age (she was nearly 102), I knew that my time as a mademoiselle would be limited.

My madame role model taught me how to deal with everyone from the air conditioning repair man to a car salesman. From the housekeeper to a chef.

In all situations, a madame displays authority and kindness. A madame treats everyone she encounters with respect, until they have shown that they do not deserve it.

And, humor is useful, as well.

I remember dining with my mother at La Tour D’Argent, back when it was at the top of the Paris restaurant world.

We had initially been seated at a back table, only to have a captain size us up and re-seat us at a table near the window, with an opulent view of Notre Dame.

We were the only two women dining together on that Saturday night, and we made the most of the experience, ordering champagne to start, and wine with our dinner.

I still can tell you what I ate: paper thin scallops as a first course, a selection of five types of fish, each cooked a different way, for the entree, and gorgeous dark chocolate cake for dessert. This was accompanied by a crisp Sancerre.

As we were drinking coffee, the maitre’d came over to ask whether we enjoyed our meal. My mother touched her heart and declared, “I die happy.”

“Oh, no, Madame!” the maitre’d exclaimed, playing along with the joke. “We want you to come back and dine with us again.” For years after that, we repeated, “Oh, no, Madame!” and fell into gales of laughter.

Honestly, seeing the reaction my five-foot-three inch mother could receive, I wasn’t much interested in maintaining a girlish stance from my much taller vantage point.

I want to be Dolly Levy, with two rows of waiters, one on either side, welcoming me as I graciously descend the stairs.

I want sales women to seek my approval for the choices they presented, rather than grudgingly bestow theirs for mine.

I want men to nod and tip their caps, stand up when I approach their desk or a restaurant table, and hold open doors until I pass through. (And of course, pay me every dime that I am worth when we negotiate salaries.)

Madame is exactly what I want to be. And, I will enjoy being that for what I hope will be a long and happy life, just as my mother had.

My 20s, 30s and 40s may have faded, but if I match her, I’ll have half of another lifetime ahead of me. I can’t wait to see what adventures and accomplishments those years will bring.

So, call me Madame.

Micheline Maynard is an author and journalist who tweets @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on NPR and NYT alum

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