Question: Alternatives to “Sir” and “ma’am”

Dezu asks…

I was recently working a position that required me to speak to people over the phone. At one point I addressed someone as “ma’am,” only to realize they were biologically male. After stumbling over myself apologizing, it hit me that it was kind of ludicrous and hypocritical for me to be using “sir” and “ma’am,” with how much I try not to make any assumptions (especially binary) about people’s gender.

That being the context, does anyone in this lovely community have any ideas or experiences relating to circumventing this issue, either with alternatives to these binary/presumptuous terms, or simply a way around having to use terms like that at all?

Please post your response in the comments below.

» Ask Genderfork «

Posted by on April 18th, 2012 at 08:00 am

Category: questions 67 comments »

67 Responses to “Question: Alternatives to “Sir” and “ma’am””

  1. Jaye

    In the scifi books written by Steve Perry (no, not that one) in the early 90s, all characters were addressed as “M” as in “M Perry”, or in my case, “M Schmus”, without regard to the gender of the person addressed. I use that myself sometimes.


  2. Anthallo

    I don’t have a suggestion for when people are addressing you verbally, however when anyone is addressing me in a formal email or letter I have asked them to use M. Lastname instead of Miss or Mr.

    Hope that helps.


    Anonymous replied:

    M. would mean Monsieur in French, though, which is Mister. I’ve seen Mx. used by a few people.


    ThumperDae replied:

    when I’m in customer service situations (as a genderqueer person in a small town) I used to just put in a “m(i)n” (like a cross between man/mam sorta mumbley) where ever I would have used Sir/Mam. I found most people either took it as me saying man, or mam (depending on what they wanted to hear) the only people who ever questioned it were people who wanted it not to be binary.

    I’ve recently started using “Hun” (like the first part to honey) because it has the same sort of “southern hospitality” vibe, without making it sound like I’m mumbling all the time. although I find both of these to be a bit too casual for all situations. and often when apologizing or trying to fix a situation will find myself using Sir/Mam again.


  3. Icarus

    I don’t suppose that this can be used in quite the same context, but a dean a a college I visited a few months ago addressed the audience as “gentle people” (as in “Good evening, gentle people”). I don’t know whether or not he intended to be gender inclusive, but I thought it was nice. However, since this title only really applies to a group, it wouldn’t work for your situation. Gentle person, maybe?


    Myles replied:

    How about Fellow Human, or My Fellow Human.


  4. fluffy

    I’ve always been a fan of “Comrade,” despite (or maybe because of) the communist implication.


    angelo replied:

    Heheh, I was just picturing the reaction of a big capitalist corporation when they find out that their employees are addressing their customers as comrades on the phone :)


  5. Castiel

    I’m rather new to my gender neutrality and have started to use the term Serah in place of Mr or Miss. The word does originate from a game (Dragon Age by Bioware, which pleases the geek in me) and is used regardless of gender.


    Firebolt replied:

    Serah, FTW! It did cross my mind, and Ser, which is how they refer to folks in Dragon Age Origins. But then Ser sounds a lot like Sir so it’s useless in this case.


    Firebolt replied:

    Oh, and Messere!


  6. Medusa Hirself

    My advice, as someone who has worked in a call center before, is to ask them their name, then call them that. I used to keep a notepad handy to write names down on, then crossed them off when I got off the phone with each person.


    Sasha replied:

    that’s a great idea


  7. Brett Blatchley

    This is a really helpful discussion. I hadn’t thought of this angle before.

    In view of the fact that (for the sake of my spouse) I’m not transitioning live as a women, and live instead as a “blended” person, discussions like this will help me in a practical way:

    I was thrilled when a new friend of mine (who had been advised of my TG status by a mutual friend), called me “Ms. Brett!” And, I’m a little disappointed that I keep getting “sir-ed” even though I present myself quite femininely and my body is relatively androgynous. I don’t want to push feminine pronouns and such, but I do with there was something not male and not female that didn’t sound “put on” or dehumanizing (like “it”). SOOOOO, any help here is appreciated!

    Thank You Everyone!


    Brett Blatchley replied:

    Argggg!!! Sorry for all the typos…I really proofed that before I clicked “Send!” (honest!!) :-)


  8. Joss/Ame

    I think about this a lot, and one thing I’ve realized is that the majority of the time, we really only use “Mr.” or “Mrs./Ms/” etc as a kind of respectful space-filling particle in sentences–I don’t think it really matters so much what you put there, so long as you have something to show a deferential hesitation in your speech. I have yet to test my hypothesis, but I’m pretty sure that if instead of using “Yes, Ma’am!” or “Yes, Sir!” in a sentence, you used “Yes, indeed!” or “…very much so!” or something else, depending on the context, you would still come off as being respectful. I also like the idea someone else posted about just asking for people’s names :)


  9. rae

    i’ve seen Mixter used, abbreviated as Mx.


  10. Meike

    I’ve also seen Mixter abbreviated as Mxtr, which is what I use, but probably this is a more “masculine” abbreviation, which suits me fine.


  11. meeta

    i wanted to know how to address a person, irrespective of age, gender especially when i do not want to take first name.
    how about comrade, NO SIR/MAAM,
    it can be used on anyone without being too familiar or close.
    tried brother/brouder; compatriot etc but nothing fits.


    Anonymous replied:

    I have friends who are gender neutral and they like to be referred to as Mx. (it sounds like Meh-zzz). This term is used in two different functions. Firstly, the “x” is a replacement for the “r”/”iss”/”rs”/”s” part of the title and is genderless. Secondly, and less commonly, it is also known as a shortening of the word “mix” for those that feel themselves as a mixture of male and female.
    I have also seen Ind. which is short for Individual used as well.
    ref: (2016) Gender neutral pronouns. [accessed: 16/08/2016] (there are further references within this reference)

    I know this isn’t EXACTLY what you’re looking for but perhaps it will help you anyway.


  12. meeta

    or Genosse” Genossin


    tigr replied:

    the trouble with that would be that “Genosse” is masculine (‘male comrade’) and “Genossin” is feminine (‘female comrade’), so it’s gendered again… (one gender-neutral variant would be “Genoss_in”, with a short stop at the _ … but I’d rather have a fully neutral word from the start)


  13. Sigridh

    The best I’ve been able to find is “Sera”, a formality used in Morrowind. Other forms of it are “Muthsera” for your superiors, or the less formal “Serjo” for close friends.


  14. Sadie

    My suggestion for a gender-neutral replacement term for “sir/madam” would be “respected individual”. Does that work?


    Brettany Renee Blatchley replied:

    I like your thinking here Sadie, but I also think that being short and easy to say is important for an honorific.

    I wonder, could Respected Individual be shorted to “Ri.” ? (It still doesn’t do well on the tongue, but in writing I think it cold work.)


    Jennifer replied:

    I am looking for a term too. When I am referred to as Ma’am or Miss by a employee at a store or a restaurant – I’d like to be able to respond with a suggestion that they drop gendered terms and use _______ instead. I identify as female and it isn’t that they are using a mismatched term toward me – – I just want to point out that as a customer, my gender is not relevant.


  15. Brettany Renee Blatchley

    “Mx” has appeared a lot here, and Wikipedia lists it as the only gender neutral honorific in English.

    It occurred to me that part of our discomfort with various new words is that they sound “strange” to us because we are so used to what is already in use. Soooo, I’m keeping this in mind as I consider (or even think of) new possibilities.

    …BUT thinking about this more, WHY do we use honorifics anyway? Isn’t it to describe the person we are addressing? Many honorifics describe social status, or accomplishments, AND at their most basic: GENDER. Gender is important enough in English that we have honorifics to so identify people. BUT we also use it to personalize and humanize people…

    …What if we disposed of gender specific words altogether? Well, at first blush it would seem “disrespectful,” but our views of what are respectful personal references are and what is not, are changing, *especially* where gender inclusivity is concerned.

    Goodness! it’s difficult & awkward to NOT use a gendered honorific if you’ve been taught to from childhood!

    Oh…okay, THIS just came to mind:

    “Per.” – short for “Person.”

    “Per. Blatchley? May I introduce to you Per. Havallah?”

    Okay, soooo, why say “Per. Havallah” instead of just “Havallah?” I can think of some cases where the noun “Havallah” might not obviously be a proper noun, and so “Per” (indicating the noun is a person) could be useful for understanding (um…maybe, capitalization gives that away?). And I think that “Per.” adequately personalizes or humanizes “Havallah”

    Hmmm…still a little awkward, but it’s easy to say and (in my mind) doesn’t sound any more pretentious than anything else I’ve heard. Of course, *whatever* we end-up using will eventually sound “right” through usage and desensitization.

    Anyway, maybe understanding why we use honorifics can help us to find some better ones?


    Becca replied:

    I like per very much


    Alix replied:

    LOVE IT!! And i like your idea of getting rid of gender rules and words altogether.


  16. Anonymous

    In many situations, the person’s role can be used as a title, as in, “Good morning, officer,” or “No, doctor,” or, in a restaurant, “Thank you, server.” In a letter, I would use, “Dear Electric Company Representative.” In some situations, “Hello, friend” is appropriate. Or “Hello, fellow shopper.” These sorts of sidesteps may not work in every situation, but I find they help a lot.


  17. Chaos

    These comments have so far been examples of what to use when you know the person.

    Example: a human holds the door for you at an establishment. What pronoun/noun do you use? Thank you, human?


    julie replied:

    In those situations, I find that “thank you” and a smile is entirely sufficient without any title. But then again, I live in California. I know the Sir/Ma’am thing is much more culturally expected in other parts of the country.


  18. Evan Alexander James

    I like the idea of using Mx. James (my name) while writing but I am non-binary queer. I still look fairly feminine (talking to my psych today about going on T). I get called “ma’am” at work by nearly every customer. I’m sure it doesn’t help that I live in the south and everyone calls everyone “sir” or ” ma’am.” It’s drilled into our plantains from the moment of birth.

    The best way I’ve found to get people to not call me ” ma’am” was by placing a name tag on my work shortest just says, “Hello, my name is…Evan. Please use they/them pronouns when referring to me.

    Unfortunately, I’m still called “ma’am,” and I know you can’t change everyone’s minds, but maybe I’ll add “Mx. Or Friend” on the tag.


  19. Anonymous

    Uhhh, my biggest concern that brought me here is gaining someone’s attention. Like, if you work in a setting where you don’t know people’s names (e.g., coffee shop, salesperson, customer service), and need to gain his/her/their attention. Do you say, “you” with a gesture, “you there”? This is a legit question.


    Evan Alexander James replied:

    Honestly, when I’m trying to get a member of wait-staff’s attention, I just say, “excuse me,” or “hi, pardon me, but…”

    I simply don’t use gendered words at all.


  20. Will(ow)

    This is very interesting. My concern is with cover letters for job application. In this case you want to use an honorific to imply respect, you don’t want to presume to use their first name, and Mx can be interpreted by the recruiter as a typo. :/ Certainly a gamer term is not appropriate in that situation.


  21. Clw1066

    When writing a letter to someone who you are unsure of their gender I always put “Dear sir/madam,” or “Mr/Mrs Johnson”. That stops you sounding presumptuous. I work in the public sector and what I tend to do is avoid mentioning any terms for gender and once I know their name, just use that. The best way to go about it is to tell them who you are so they can reply with who they are. Most of the time their name will tell you all you need to know.


    tempfile replied:

    I find “associate” can work in many of these situations.


  22. Clw1066

    I don’t understand why we feel the need to label people or put them in a tick box. The government are really bad for putting us in boxes for their reports. This is something that needs to change and the labels be dissolved.


  23. Chogiwa

    If one was to attend a renaissance faire, what would be acceptably old-timey formal pronouns?
    ( Instead of Lord and Lady or Sir and Madam)


    Anonymous replied:

    I hear My Liege is a fairly neutral thing to call them (tho I’m looking for a better word to use that’s not a mashup of those two words since My Liege is kinda… already made?)


    Anonymous replied:

    My Liege indicates that you are in fealty to them which is very much not the same as just addressing them. I would suggest Good Gentle as a neutral form of address.


  24. Beth

    Hello! I am writing a generic fundraising letter to a number of businesses for a high school boosters group. I do not know the names/titles of the individuals who will be receiving these letters. In the past, I have always said, “Dear Sir/Ma’am,” which seems a little friendlier and more respectful than, “To whom it may concern.” However, gender neutrality is important, so I found myself wondering what to say. Reading through the comments, I am wondering if it would be reasonable to say, “Dear Sir/Ma’am/Mx.” What do you think? Thank you!


    dp mantha replied:

    In this case, it could be Dear Patron……… something to contribute ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to your request of fundraising.


    Anonymous replied:

    How about:

    Dear patron
    Dear supporter (of the xyz high school)
    Good day


  25. One

    This has been an interesting thread.
    I came to it looking for inspiration for a term of address for a sci-fi setting.

    I wonder whether “Ji” could work. From Hindi/Punjabi it is usually a suffix. E.g. Mamaji, Papaji, Babaji etc… respectful terms for mother, father and ‘father, uncle, priest’ (I think).

    As Ji I already gender neutral it could be used on its own.

    More info..

    Thank you Ji. Excuse me Ji…


  26. Raye

    I like the idea of Per. Especially if it became a norm.

    Working at a library, honorifics are what I use to speak with patrons. “Hello Sir” “Ma’am, please quiet your phone” “Miss, you forgot your card… MISS?” The last one being an attempt to get someone’s attention from a distance.

    “Hello Per” “Per, please quiet your phone” “Per, you forgot your card… PER?”

    In groups it is much easier to find a gender non specific. And I love the way Comrade is nearly ideal in purpose and use… But would end up being inappropriate in the setting of public service.


  27. Anonymous

    “Honorable Lastname” might sometimes work.


  28. Anonymous

    The students in my high school class have created a word to fill this need in the English language. Please feel free to use it. Perhaps we can get in into the dictionary to officially bring a gender-neutral “sir/ma’am” into existence.

    Gent’am – A respectful way to greet a man or a woman

    This word can be used as a substitute for “sir” or “ma’am,” and is appropriate and honorable for both the young and elderly.


  29. Delia QA SPecialist

    You can say sir or ma’am. If a caller corrects you say “oh my goodness I’m so sorry- you definitely sound like a sir (or Ma’am)”

    I get the whole TG issue- but TG folks should take it easy- the operator can only hear you- they can’t see you and your awesomeness. Correct the agent and cut them a little slack. The agent should then say- “which pronoun or respectful title would you prefer? I want to make you feel comfortable:”

    I agree: try saying their names if you can’t determine respectful title. If they only spell it for you and you don’t know how to pronounce it- try your best to pronounce it. Apologize if you mispronounce it, and say “I like it! or “I’ll practice that!”

    In short try their names, sir or ma’am is a back-up. If you mess up- just apologize and be gracious and a little self-deprecating. The caller will understand.


    Strange replied:

    “You definitely sound like a sir” would be devastating to at least one of my transgender friends.

    The rest of what you’re saying is great, I think, but honestly, just leave off that “you definitely sound like” bit. Most Trans people I know understand that they will be misgendered on occasion and they’ll deal with it, but just a quick, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and then moving on is vastly preferred than a statement that reinforces whether or not they “pass.”

    Of course, then there’s me. I’m non-binary. I’m really not a “Sir” or a “Ma’am.” I personally have no objection to either of them, so nobody has to worry about me, but that’s not universal. I hope a new term comes up organically.


  30. Bill

    One problem is getting someone’s attention that you have no name for.
    ‘Excuse me, but you dropped your credit card’ works sometimes.
    But general getting the attention of someone…
    But ‘Excuse me’ hollered at a retreating person several times does not always get their attention.
    We need a new word!


  31. Nina

    “Ji” pronounced gee (like gee wiz)

    While not common in America and perhaps not good for the workplace since it’s uncommon, in India when you’re referring to someone you don’t know or someone you respect like an elder or someone with authority or someone you’re working for they use the title “ji” regardless of gender. It’s also used after people’s names like sarah-ji or John-ji when you know their name or are closer to the person.

    I hope it picks up here because it’s truly genderless!!


  32. Anonymous

    I haven’t seen anyone but myself use this, but I find that a combination of ma’am and sir, “Mir”, works well for me. More alternatives are Mx. pronounced “mecks” or “mucks”, as well as just not using either in general.


  33. AA

    I work at nonprofit that mostly works with students; I have been there for the last 4 years.

    When I do not know students’ names (or don’t want to try pronouncing them) I try to use respectful forms of address. So far, I’ve mostly stuck to ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ but occasionally I call someone by the wrong gender-specific form of address and it tends to be embarrasing for the student. For example, a student today was wearing a baggy sweatshirt with the hood up, hunched over the table with their head down. I basically said ‘Sir, you need to sit up and join your group,’ to find that, when the student sat up straight and pulled the hood back, they were a rather tall but clearly female (with long braided pigtails that had been in the hood) individual who was not happy to have been addressed with ‘sir.’ There was teasing and pointed commentary throughout the rest of the class. I feel bad, and situations like this are becoming more common. I want to continue to address students respectfully, but don’t want to embarrass them or create opening for bullying/disrespectful behavior that the student will have to deal with both in the immediate aftermath and likely at later times.

    On this thread, ‘mixter’ seems like it might be a good substitute, and I think it’s an obvious gender-neutral form of address (if a little masculine, but if it’s the only one and it’s used for everyone, it should be acceptable). I’m a little wary of ‘ji,’ if only because I don’t want answer questions about cross-cultural gender-neutral forms of address to middle/high schoolers (and I guarantee you someone will ask). ‘Serah’ sounds like it will be too close in pronunciation to the name ‘Sarah’ and ‘ser’ sounds like it will be too close in pronunciation to ‘sir.’ I like ‘gent’am’ – and thank you anon for suggesting it – but does anyone know of others that would be appropriate to use in conversation or in a classroom setting? The other suggestions are good, but they sound like they are more appropriate for written communications like letters/emails.


  34. Anonymous

    I hate ma’am and am looking for alternatives. It is so gender, age based and Britain-derived. It’s got to go! How about “Leaf” or what they use in Norway, “friend”?


  35. Aussie

    [Yes I know I’m chiming in on an old thread, but just in case anyone’s googling around and finds this relevant]

    Here in Australia we tend to fall back on the word Mate. It has no particular gender association (at least where I’m from) and perfect for casual situations where you need to grab someone’s attention fast.

    Mate, you dropped something!
    Hey mate, hold the lift!
    Mate, you have change for a fiver?
    (in thanks for something) Cheers mate!

    “Buddy” or even “cobber” could work in those situations as well – slight male bias though.
    “Friend” doesn’t work for this – in Australia if a stranger on the street calls you “friend”, run. It usually means they’re either about to punch your lights out, or run a scam on you.

    “Mate” is unfortunately NOT suitable for business letters/calls, or other situations requiring formality or respect. Most orgs still stick with the outdated “Sir/Madam” on that one (ugh).

    For my business letters, I always use mail merge to put the person’s actual name if I can – “Dear Sam Green”. Otherwise, I use their title/position – “Dear Applicant”, “Dear Customer”, “Dear Student”, “Dear Shareholder”, etc etc. Or, if I’m really stuck, the highly impersonal “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN” is sometimes an acceptable fallback :P

    No solution yet for business phone calls, aside from getting the person’s name as early as possible and then just using that throughout.

    Good luck! :)


    Anne replied:

    Yes I think we need to introduce Mt. as the abbreviation in Aus! Although perhaps at the end of the name to differentiate from mountain… So Smith Mate, Jones Mate etc becomes Smith Mt. when written. Solved!


    Anonymous replied:

    Love That. Perfect. Mate it is.


  36. Anonymous

    What about “misc” like miscellaneous? It could work as a substitute, it’s definition is a mix and being nonbinary I feel a middle ground meaning that people can understand with a simple explaination is suitable. It can fit in most situations, the only drawback I really see is it does sound a little like miss. Although I put a hard c when I pronounce it to make it more noticeable and not overshadowed by the s.


  37. Anonymous

    I work in customer service with most of my interactions by phone and sometimes in person at the front counter. I try to be gender neutral by asking for their names and using their names to address them. But a few weeks ago I was assisting an individual in person who was upset and frustrated so the customer refused to provide a name. When I attempted to confirm their address by saying “Do you folks still reside at ___?” the customer angrily fired back “ITS MS OR MRS! NOT YOU FOLKS OR Y’ALL!” And she proceeded to demand my supervisor to complain about how I addressed her. So not everyone appreciates gender neutrality.


  38. Ali

    Sorry I know this thread is old- but I work in hospital registration as a trainer. We just started asking SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) questions for patient safety and comfort. We have been told to get away from using Sir/Ma’am/Mr/Mrs. However, when one of my staff has to call someone from the waiting room or address them they are not allowed to use the patient’s first name. Just using the last name sounds so robotic and un personal. However, they still need to sound professional. What can we use? Of course once we ask the SOGI questions we do ask their preferred name and how they identify so at that point we can ask how they would like to be addressed. But before that point we aren’t sure how to address someone


    Douglas Burchard replied:

    Regarding a hospital waiting room setting, or anywhere privacy in public is a concern, I’d much rather you use my first name. Never my last name. There are a *LOT* more Dougs in the world than Burchards.

    Came here looking for a polite way to verbally get someone’s attention from a short distance. I think the best answers have been specific to that person’s position at the moment. In the army we used to call everyone “soldier” unless you knew their rank. The navy uses “sailor”. In scouts we’re just using the word “scout” unless we know the person and what they prefer.

    With respect to Anonymous’ high school class, “Gentle” as part of a title (gentleman, gentle woman) is a derivation of the word “gentile”, which referred to christians, or more specifically “non-jews”, in christian majority countries. So it does carry a religious subtext for some. Not a gender issue, but something I’d consider before using.


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