How to Address a Stranger

By Maeve Maddox

A frequent source of miscommunication is to assume that the people we address attach the same connotation and meaning to words that we do.

A case in point is a recent letter-to-the-editor in my local paper. A young man working in a restaurant expressed his frustration at the lack of tipping from the customers he serves. He explained that he is unfailingly polite and still receives few tips. As an example of his courteous behavior, he described the way he greets the people whom he will be serving by saying, “Hi guys, I’ll be your server tonight.” He made it clear that he never deviates from “Hi guys” because to him it is a friendly, neutral greeting.

Other readers responded to the server’s letter by remarking that he might get more tips if he changed his greeting. The consensus of the responses was that to some people, “Hi guys” comes across as downright rude.

It may be that no neutral greeting for strangers remains in English.

“Dear Sir” as the greeting on a business letter has its opponents:

Starting a Business Letter with “Dear Mr.”

“Ma’am” as a polite form of address for women pleases some, but draws enraged reactions from others:

“Ma’am” and Regional Colonialism

NOTE: Nowadays, “ma’am” as a courteous term of address for women is regarded as a US Southernism. Objections to it come chiefly from women in other parts of the country. However, dialogue in an old movie I watched recently suggests that this has not always been the case. Set in Boston and produced in the 1940s, the film shows an upper-class character address a young woman as “ma’am” in a polite social context.

Baby talk and terms of endearment stir passions in eldercare and the marketplace:

Hypocorisma

Addressing people by their first names because you saw the name on a deposit slip or credit card also has its perils. Most Americans tolerate the practice, but some may resent it enough to take their business elsewhere:

A clerk at a store where I used my credit card called me by my first name. I told him that if he wanted me to come back, he’d better call me “Mr. [surname].”

In the United States, food servers and store clerks frequently wear nametags proclaiming their first names. Here are two comments on a forum discussion of the practice of having to wear such a nametag at work:

It kind of creeps me out when someone calls my by my first name. Especially when I forget I have a nametag on and a random stranger calls me by name.

I would say 95% of the time that a customer ever used my name while I was wearing a name tag, they were using it to demean me and assert their dominance. Even when people are nice about it, it’s still sort of weird and feels like somebody is sort of invading my space.

A reader of the Boston Globe dislikes the telemarketing practice of calling strangers by their first names:

I often get calls from telemarketers who begin, “Is this Alfred?’’ When I respond in the affirmative, they proceed to use my first name. It seems to me that if I were in such urgent need of money that I had to phone total strangers for their help, I would address them as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” I might even say, “Sir.’’ I certainly would not address them as if they were a buddy. Over the years, I’ve found this most annoying.

I haven’t been able to find a US poll on the subject, but a poll reported in the Daily Mail indicates that most British speakers dislike the practice:

Almost two-thirds of us hate cold callers who address customers by their first name and start conversations with ‘hi’, a study found. Nearly a third of the 1,000 polled said it annoyed them when someone they didn’t know called them by their first name.

Not everyone objects to the practice. For example:

I only like to be called by my first name. I don’t like anyone calling me by my last name.

Calling someone by their last name, to me implies some sort of difference in social level. It’s not very friendly.

As for saluting a stranger with hey or hi, plenty of business prospects will react negatively to marketing emails that begin this way:

Hey guys,
Hi!

Opinions will continue to differ as to what constitutes a courteous manner of addressing a stranger. It’s impossible to please everyone, but a reasonable practice in a business context is to err on the side of formality.

Servers and store clerks who cringe when a stranger addresses them by their first names might consider using an alias on their tags.

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13 Responses to “How to Address a Stranger”

  • James

    This is the 21st century. We don’t do the Mister/Missus thing anymore.

    If I’m ever addressed by my last name, I correct the person, and I almost never address anyone by their last name. I received a letter from a government department signed “Mr. ___________” asking me to call him back. Before I called, I used LinkedIn to find his first name and made it a point to use it when I called him.

    If a customer told my employee, “If you want me to come back you better call me Mr. ______” I’d invite that customer to shop elsewhere. That’s just rude. Employers nowadays realize that their employees’ happiness and job satisfaction is, in most cases, the most important indicator of a successful business. Rude customers can’t be tolerated any more than rude employees.

  • Bill

    This is terrific even though much of it doesn’t have to do with writing. I disagree with James. Yes, Americans are less formal than those in other nations, but don’t use first names unless invited to do so. It’s a simple sign of respect. I’ve always been reluctant to use “ma’am” and when I read a woman defining it as meaning “no longer hot,” I stopped using it completely. It’s a little hard to come up with something if, say, a woman you don’t know drops something and you’re trying to get her attention, but usually going “Excuse me!” will do it.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “How to Address a Stranger”
    Just watch some old movies or TV shows about the Old West !

    “Howdy Stranger!”

  • Thebluebird11

    I was just having this discussion today! At a recent job I had, several employees called me Miss Sherry. That was new to me. I am a middle-aged white woman; one employee was a black woman probably about my age or a little older, whom I believe grew up in southern US, the other was her 39-year-old daughter and the third was a 46-year-old woman originally from Colombia, but here in the US since age 13. I assume they meant it to show respect and I was fine with it, but we were all equals and it seemed kind of formal. When they addressed me directly they would say things like “Miss Sherry, can you help this patient?” And when they talked about me to each other, in front of me at least, it was the same, like “Miss Sherry is going to file those papers.”
    When I grew up in NYC, “Miss” was reserved for unmarried women or women whose marital status you didn’t know, so to take Bill’s example above, if I saw a woman drop something, I would say “Miss, you dropped your glove.” The thing about Miss is that it can sound sort of pathetic when used for older women, as if you’re implying that they are spinsters and, by extension, old, washed up, dried up, unwanted, unloved, etc. Maybe it’s just me…
    As far as being a customer, I’m laid back, I’m fine with the “hey guys” etc. But after reading this post, I think if I were a server, for example, I might just greet people with “Good morning” or whatever is appropriate for the time of day. In my current job, I deal with patients all day, providing home health-type services. Most of them are well into their 80s, old enough to be my parents. When I call for the first time to tell someone that I will be coming, I usually say something like “Good morning, this is Sherry from (my company), is this Mr Smith?” If he says “Yes, this is John,” I will call him John from then on. If he says “Yes, this is Mr. Smith,” I will call him Mr. Smith from then on unless he tells me to call him something else. I don’t like being called by my last name, and I like my last name so that’s not the issue. I just prefer a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere where everyone is treated as equal. I strive to be equally respectful to everyone, no matter their job, rank, title, level of education, etc. Of course, I can’t possibly be aware of every cultural nuance and what might offend someone from another country or culture, but live and learn! I say we start taking polls on this subject!

  • James

    I think I agree with Sherry even more than I agree with my original post. So, what she said.

    I also have noticed many African American women from the southern United States and Latina women and a small handful of white women from the Southern US used “Mister James” when addressing me when I was their human resources representative. It always struck me as weird. I’d usually use the line, “Oh, but the way, feel free to just call me James. We’re really casual here.” And if throw in a smiley face emoticon if email was our medium.

  • Maeve

    James,
    “This is the 21st century. We don’t do the Mister/Missus thing anymore.”

    In every century, some speakers observe the conventions of polite discourse and some do not. I think that if you looked further, you would discover that your “We” is not everyone’s “We.”

  • venqax

    I agree, Maeve. I wasn’t sure what James meant when I first read his “statement” but I had to come to the same conclusion you did. What an odd assertion. We don’t use Mr. or Mrs. anymore? Where do we not do that? Nowhere that I’m aware of in most circumstances. I certainly expect to be addressed as Mr. Surname in any context where the person doing the addressing doesn’t know me. I would do the same. It hit me like saying, “It’s the 21st century, we don’t do that shirts and shoes thing anymore.” Yes. We do. Thank god. Likewise I have no idea where or when “ma’am” became a southernism or offensive to any normal woman. I hear it every day and I’m not in the South, nor do I see any of its recipients taking umbrage at it. A very strange entry, this one, and some strange reactions to go with it.

  • AinOakPark

    Thank you, Maeve and venqax! I don’t like to be called by my first name by strangers. I contacted my phone service provider after becoming frustrated and angry only to be called by my first name. I informed the help desk person that, since we had never met and were not friends, she should call me by my last name. I don’t like people who presume familiarity. Should I desire to be called by my first name, I will make short work of letting you know. I work at a school and the whole “Miss Sherry” type thing makes me crazy (although I make allowances for regional differences, I don’t live where people generally use that form). When students ask me what my first name is, I say, “Mrs.” As for James, well, I wonder if he likes to be called Jimmy. After all, James is so “formal” and “we” don’t do formal any more. (Insert eye roll here.)

  • AinOakPark

    Thank you, Maeve and venqax! I don’t like to be called by my first name by strangers. I contacted my phone service provider after becoming frustrated and angry only to be called by my first name. I informed the help desk person that, since we had never met and were not friends, she should call me by my last name. I don’t like people to presume familiarity. Should I desire to be called by my first name, I will make short work of letting you know. I work at a school and the whole “Miss Sherry” type thing makes me crazy (although I make allowances for regional differences, I don’t live where people generally use that form). When students ask me what my first name is, I say, “Mrs.” As for James, well, I wonder if he likes to be called Jimmy. After all, James is so “formal” and “we” don’t do formal any more. (Insert eye roll here.)

  • Anne-Marie

    I find it unnerving to be addressed by my first name by strangers. However, our married name is often mispronounced with a short A rather than a long A. Mostly, I ignore it because I know the individual is trying to be courteous. When I do correct someone, I blame the name by saying “We’re the phonetically incorrect [surname]’s.” That makes people laugh and hopefully remember how it is pronounced.

    One thing that drives me batty, though, is people who address me as “Anne” as if -Marie is optional or non-existent. Sometimes if I correct someone, I will quip, “Well, it’s not my given name anyway, so I guess I can’t complain.” Others are prone to calling me MaryAnn. And one friend has taken to calling me “Miss Marie”.

    I completely disagree with the poster, James. The 21st century is no reason to cast off manners entirely. Names matters. When I worked at a bank, misspelling a person’s name on a letter was cause to retype the entire thing. This was before everything was on computers and could easily be changed and reprinted. The bank taught us that a person’s name is very important to them; misspelling it is extremely disrespectful. So, as much as I laugh off the phonetically correct last name or shrug over people who leave off half my name with addressing me in person, it does gall me to see “Ann-Marie” or some other variant in print. “I just sent you an email with my name and you don’t have the decency to spell it correctly in the reply. Are you serious?” Or even “How much do you want my business?”

    I say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” a lot. It wasn’t how I was raised, but I found that people are more cooperative when they are addressed politely. My children have been taught to address familiar adults as Mr. and Mrs. Last Name or Mr. and Miss First Name.

    Respectful behavior never goes out of style.

    I do have a funny story about manners and a black gentleman friend and his father. They were out golfing when they saw this alligator creeping toward this older woman who was golfing ahead of them. My friend and his father called respectfully to her, “Ma’am…uh…ma’am.” And she ignored them. The alligator kept creeping and resting and they continued trying politely to get her attention. “Ma’am…excuse me, ma’am”. She continued to ignore them. Then the alligator started picking up its pace toward the woman and my friend yelled, “HEY, WHITE LADY!” That got her attention! She turned her indignant snarling face at them and saw them pointing wildly, warningly about the alligator creeping up on her. She high-stepped it out of there but never did thank them.

  • Thebluebird11

    I think that as careful as one might try to be, and as much as one might be trying to do the right and respectful thing, there will always be individuals from one’s own culture or another who will be anomalous and be offended. You can only do the best you can do and hope for the best. I personally don’t care if someone calls me by my first name or last name; both are my names and it’s all the same to me, whether the person is my best friend or someone random. It’s more important to me that they pronounce and spell the names correctly. The pronunciation of my names is easy; it’s the spelling that trips people up. I make the effort to pronounce people’s names as they wish them to be pronounced, and I always ask if I’m pronouncing the name correctly. I don’t think I’ve ever offended anyone by asking that question; they are usually quite happy to clarify. If I’m on the phone and asking someone’s name to write it down, even if it sounds like a usual name (e.g. Rebecca), I will ask how to spell it (maybe it’s Rebekah, or some other variation). If I see the person’s name in print and it is not pronounced the way it looks to me that it should be pronounced, I make a notation next to it to remind myself how to pronounce it. For example, for those familiar with the singer Ke$ha, my first encounter with the name was seeing it in print, and I thought it was pronounced “kee-sha.” Later I found out the correct pronunciation. I have had a neighbor here for almost 10 years, and most of the time we get along (she has her breakdowns), but she still hasn’t been able to spell my name correctly, and every time I get a card or text from her, it’s “Sherri,” in spite of the fact that she has gotten cards from me and I assume I’ve signed my name with the correct spelling. Whatever. I get back at her the same way, and write “Patti.” She has never said a word.

  • Agua Caliente

    I would like to note that “ma’am” is very widely used by customer service reps on the telephone, as is “mister.” Sometimes this is by direction and other times it’s the rep’s own choice. I’m glad the topic came up. I do some phone work and for whatever reason, I sometimes use “ma’am” (never any objections), but rarely “mister.” However, as with “ma’am,” I may also deploy “sir.” It may or may not be significant that, as a boy, I lived in the Deep South for several years, although I am nowhere near native to that region.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Last night I watched part of a movie (in black and white) about the Old West. What caught my eye was that the leading man was played by a very young-looking Sir Roger Moore. This was well before he played James Bond, and it might have been even earlier than “The Saint”.
    Moore walked into a saloon, and the only person there was a woman who turned out to be the co-owner and manager of the saloon. She looked at him, and the first thing she said was “Howdy, Stranger!”
    LOL, she could have said “Howdy, Partner!” instead, because Moore had earlier played a poker game with the other co-owner, and Moore had won the other half-ownership in the game! He had paperwork to prove it. Hence, Moore really was her partner.
    This was in a movie or a show called MAVERICK, but I am familiar with the old TV series MAVERICK in which “Maverick” was played by the great James Garner.
    Could it be that this was a movie that was made even before the TV series?
    Also, it was interesting to see a show about the Old West (American), with the main character played by a British actor.
    Of course, Sir Richard Harris (1930–2002), an Irishman, played an Englishman in the Old West (in 1825) in A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066049/
    An interesting tidbit about Sir Richard is that his knighthood was bestowed by the Queen of Denmark (odd), so Queen Elizabeth II and the British government did not have anything to do with it. In fact, Harris was not born in Northern Ireland, but rather in the Republic of Ireland, and I don’t think that the British Crown grants knighthoods in that country. It is probably illegal. Queen Elizabeth recently visited Dublin, and she was the first British monarch to visit the Republic since back before Elizabeth was born. Needless to say, those two countries have not been on friendly terms for a long time.
    Her visit to Ireland was more earthshaking than President Obama’s recent visits to Cuba and Vietnam, and earlier than that, to Burma. A few years earlier, the Burmese government had refused aid from the U.S. Navy (including an aircraft carrier) after the southern half of that country had been devastated by a typhoon. An aircraft carrier task force, with all of its helicopters, could have saved a lot of lives and rendered much humanitarian aid. Each aircraft carrier also has a large hospital on board, with many naval doctors, nurses, dentists, and hospitalmen.

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