When connecting for the first time with a foreign female English speaker on Facebook, GOOD NIGHT, MADAM! was the momentarily shocking first greeting I received. I soon realized she didn’t speak English very well and thought she was being polite.
After speaking with her for some time, I suggested a better greeting the next time she spoke with a native English speaker would be something like, “Hello, how are you?” I explained that, in English, “good night” actually means “goodbye” and that a “madam” is a woman who runs a house of prostitution. I explained that I understood these were not her meanings, but suggested other greetings, nevertheless.
She was quite surprised at this information. She asked me if “madam” in English is not the same as “madame” in French. Since she’s from a French-speaking country, women one does not know are always addressed the the single word “Madame…” as a form of politeness. She mentioned some very old-fashioned English novels (from mid-1800’s) which also seemed to use this form of address. I explained that those novels were just about the only place you might find that form of address used these days.
She said she’d never heard the other meaning of the word “madam.” I asked if she’s had an instructor who taught them to say that in English. She said no, that it was her own idea of what she might say to be polite.
She asked me if “madam” was not correct if there was a word she should use instead. I explained that we don’t usually use a word to replace madam, except when we actually know the person’s name, in which case we might add “Miss Green” or “Mrs. Green,” for example. She was surprised and thought that every language must use such a word to address anyone as a form of politeness. I did say that in the American South, they sometimes use “ma’am,” which is an abbreviated form of the old-fashioned word “madam,” but that it is mostly a regional usage.
This is a perfect example of how someone from one culture can go out of their way to be polite, yet achieve disastrous results. Someone else might have taken immediate offense and not taken the time to think about the speaker’s intention.