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