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Using the proper address
Nov. 29, 2010
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by Ivan Raconteur

I recently made one of my infrequent pilgrimages to the shrine of the retail gods to engage in some retail therapy, and when I reached the mall entrance, a polite young lady who reached it just ahead of me, flashed me a smile and held the door for me. This led me to three observations.

The first is that some young people are still learning (and practicing) good manners, which I consider a very good sign.

The second is that somewhere along the line, young ladies stopped regarding me as an equal, and now treat me with deference, as if I were an old man.

The third thing I observed, and this is the nub of the situation, was that it is not easy for a guy to know how to address a young woman, or any woman, come to that.

In the situation referenced above, I responded with a return of her warm smile, a brief nod, and a “Thank you ma’am,” as I passed through the door. This seemed to satisfy the requirements, but I was not sure if it was the proper form.

Some might think I am being flippant, but curmudgeons really do think about these things. We offend enough people in the general course of activities, and we would just as soon limit the number of people we offend through unintended breaches of protocol.

As in most things, when it comes to proper forms of address, guys are easy. A simple “Thank you, sir” covers just about any casual encounter that might come up.

With women, it is a bit more complicated.

I think I did OK in the mall encounter, because, according to Merriam-Webster, ma’am, or madame, are simply nouns that mean “lady,” and are “used as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman.”

There are, of course, some secondary meanings which might not be proper at all, but I believe context carries us through that minefield.

“Ma’am” can sound a bit stiff and formal when used to address a very young woman, but it may be the best alternative we have.

When I was growing up, we were taught to address older, especially married women, as ma’am or madame, and younger, single women as “miss.”

It can be risky to try to determine whether to use “ma’am” or “miss” in the more traditional sense.

One would not wish to have to speculate as to whether a woman is married or not, without having more than her appearance to go on.

Another challenge is that young women try to look older, and older women try to look younger, which blurs the lines for those of us guys who aren’t all that observant in the first place.

In 1901, someone introduced the abominable “Ms.” to try to get around that problem by giving us an alternative neutral form of address that we could use when a woman’s marital status was unknown or irrelevant.

Ms. works well enough for written business correspondence, but for those of a dignified nature, it is unpalatable to have to utter a word that sounds like a cross between an angry insect and a speech impediment.

I hate to have to say “Ms.” and, if I was on the receiving end, I would hate to be called that. It is, at best, a half-baked compromise, and that is how it sounds.

It gets worse if one has to use the plural form, which Merriam-Webster gives as “Mss.” or “Mses.” I can say, “Hello, ladies,” with a fair degree of confidence, but if I were to address a group of females by saying, “Hello Mses.” I can’t imagine how they might react, but I suspect they would be justified if they were to retaliate in some unpleasant way.

I became curious about the proper form of address, because naturally one would not wish to commit a faux pas by addressing someone inappropriately.

When I got home, I took out my volume of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” which I keep handy for just such an emergency, and did some research.

Unfortunately, in this instance, the venerable Emily let me down.

There are pages and pages devoted to correct forms of address and proper introductions, but none seemed to cover chance meetings with polite young ladies at mall entrances.

According to Ms. Post, there are all sorts of rules for introductions. These rules take into account factors such as age, social status, and relationship.

As if that weren’t enough to try to remember, one also has to be careful to use the correct inflection when addressing people or making introductions if one wishes to avoid committing a gaffe.

Apparently, the correct procedure is that “the more important name is said with a slightly rising inflection; the secondary as a mere statement of fact.”

Unfortunately, that still leaves the problem of determining which of two acquaintances is more important.

Even if one is able to determine who is more important, one runs the risk of getting the inflection wrong, and offending someone.

I am afraid I was more confused after I completed my research than I was when I started.

I think I will do all my Christmas shopping online this year. Not only will I avoid the crowds, but this is the only way I can be sure to avoid any chance encounters with ladies that could lead to unfortunate gaffes I might regret.


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