I grew up in Oregon and distinctly remember a senior coming into orchestra class my freshman year and complaining about how the cashier at the grocery store had called her ma'am the night before. She was impossibly offended by it. And then a few weeks ago, one of my friends from high school (who still lives in Oregon) posted on Facebook, "Someone called me ma'am today. I'm really not sure how to react to this." (Or something along those lines.) My senior year boyfriend once also me what I would do if someone called me ma'am. (I'm pretty sure I shrugged and said, "Nothing, I guess?")
Was I absent the day in school when they told us all that it's offensive to call a young woman ma'am? Wiktionary tells me that it often refers to "a female stranger presumed old enough to have children," but given that a) it's not weird in my hometown for women to have kids fairly young, and b) while looking for images I read a blog complaining about it from a woman who was "around 30," clearly that's not a hard rule.
Of course, after high school I moved to DC and now I hear it all the time. I hadn't really thought much about the miss/ma'am age line, but it doesn't seem weird to me to use the term for a woman who looks like she's out of high school, especially after a year in France where "Madame" is very common for women who are my age (21) or even younger. And personally, I'd rather be "ma'am" than "miss", as the latter feels kinds of condescending to me in a lot of situations—if the speaker is older than I am, it implies that they've noticed that I'm younger than they are and that, to some extent, that age difference matters.
So: What's your opinion? How do you feel about people calling you ma'am? Do you call women ma'am? Is there an age-based dividing line between when it's appropriate/inappropriate? And where are you from?
(This was inspired by the post by Dazzle Me just now, but it's not really related so I thought I'd spin it off into its own post.)