“Excuse me, ma’am.” “Nice to meet you, sir.” “Hey, buddy!”
Wait, back up. There are so many ways of addressing people in English. But what’s the right way?
When should you use a formal term and when can you use a relaxed, informal greeting?
Not being sure how to address someone—especially in a new language—can feel intimidating. What if you offend someone by accident? How embarrassing!
Today, I’m going to put those fears to an end.
Addressing people isn’t as complicated as it might seem.
Once you learn some basic greetings, you’ll be able to address everyone in English with confidence!
Essential Etiquette Tips for Addressing People
As you start to practice greetings, make sure you understand some basic etiquette tips. These apply for any setting where you need to address people.
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Now, let’s get into some etiquette tips!
- When in doubt, use formal language. If you’re unsure whether to use a formal or informal greeting, it’s best to stick to the formal. This is polite and will be less offensive than using an informal greeting to address someone older than you or an authority figure.
- Learn cultural differences. The standards for addressing people change depending on where you are. Spend some time learning what’s appropriate in the area you live or are visiting. For example, the American South uses formal terms even when addressing friends and family if they’re older. Southern people also incorporate “sir” and “ma’am” into greetings more often than in other parts of the country.
- Eye contact and handshakes. When you first meet someone, it’s polite to make eye contact, offer a handshake (especially if it’s two men) and address the person with a formal greeting.
Keep these tips in the back of your mind when you need to address someone. With these etiquette tips and the correct greetings, you’ll soon be able to politely address everyone.
Madam, Mrs. or Miss? Your Guide to Addressing People in English
Overall, formal greetings are used as a sign of respect while informal greetings show that you’re familiar and comfortable with the person.
But don’t be too hard on yourself if you get these confused every once in a while!
You’re learning these different phrases. Fluency is a process and addressing someone in English, even if you choose the wrong term, shows that you’re making an effort to learn the language.
Learning these phrases might seem challenging at first but don’t give up. Using the correct greeting will help you make a great first impression and teach you a lot about the culture!
Plus, as you practice these terms, you’ll add more words to your English vocabulary. This is a great way to boost your confidence in your fluency journey!
Finally, once you understand the different ways to address people, you’ll feel a lot calmer when you meet another English speaker.
Let’s take a look at five different ways to address different types of people!
Addressing People in the Office
When you’re in a professional situation, it’s best to use formal greetings.
Keep in mind that certain professions have their own titles. When addressing a doctor or professor, for example, you should use these terms even if they’re your colleagues.
As you get to know your coworkers, you might start to use informal terms or even a nickname if you become close friends. However, you should always use formal phrases with your superiors and clients as a sign of respect.
Important Greetings to Know
- Mr. + Last Name — Use this formal greeting for males.
For example: “Good morning, Mr. Clark!”
- Mrs. + Last Name — Traditionally, this is the formal greeting for married or widowed women.
For example: “How are you, Mrs. Smith?”
- Miss + Last Name/First Name — A formal greeting used for an unmarried female. Depending on the situation, you can either follow “miss” with the person’s first name or last name. Typically, if the situation is very formal (like in business or the person is an authority figure), you’d use “miss” and their last name.
For example: “Hello, Miss Young!” or “Hello, Miss Nancy!”
- Doctor + Last Name — Use this greeting if you’re addressing a medical doctor or someone who holds a Ph.D. (the highest level of education).
For example: “See you tomorrow, Dr. Jones!”
- Professor + Last Name — In a university setting, most professors are greeting with this term instead of Mrs., Miss or Mr.
For example: “I have a class with Professor Williams today.”
Addressing Friends and Family Members
When speaking with your friends or family members, you can typically use informal greetings.
Nicknames and terms of endearment are often used as a sign of affection. Of course, the terms you use will depend on the relationship you have with the person.
There are certain situations where formal terms are still used with family members.
For example, “sir” and “ma’am” are often used by young children when they address their parents, especially in the American South.
Also, if you’re introduced to your friend’s parents, you should use formal greetings until they specially mention that informal greetings are fine.
In both of these situations, formal greetings are used in informal settings as a sign of respect.
Greetings to Know
- Honey — An informal greeting used by adults to address children or as a pet name used in a romantic relationship.
- Sweetie — Another informal greeting used by adults to address children or as a pet name used in a romantic relationship.
- Baby — This informal greeting is most commonly used in romantic relationships, but it can also be used by adults to address children.
- Buddy — Typically used to refer to a male friend, child or even a pet.
- Hun — Typically used to refer to a female friend or child. However, it can also be used to refer to your romantic partner.
- Sir — A formal term for an adult male that often follows “yes” or “no.”
For example: “Would you like a glass of water?”
“Yes sir, thank you!”
- Ma’am — A formal term for an adult female that often follows “yes” or “no.”
For example: “Did you have a good day?”
“Yes ma’am, how about you?”
Addressing People of Authority
If you’re addressing an authority figure, you should always use a formal greeting.
There are different ways to address people of authority, depending on their status or job title. Politicians, community leaders and religious figures all have specific titles that should be used.
Typically, you should continue to use the formal greeting as a sign of respect even if you develop a relationship with the authority figure.
However, if the authority figure is someone you see on a very regular basis, such as a doctor or your child’s teacher, they might allow you to address them with an informal greeting.
To be safe, you should only switch to an informal address if the authority figure specifically asks you to.
Greetings to Know
- President + Last Name — Formal greeting for the leader of an organization or the President of the United States.
For example: President Trump
- Senator + Last Name — Formal greeting for a male or female member of the US Senate.
For example: Senator Alexander
- Representative + Last Name — Formal greeting for a male or female member of the US House of Representatives.
For example: Representative Pelosi
- Councilman + Last Name — Formal greeting for a male member of a city council.
For example: Councilman Davis
- Councilwoman + Last Name — Formal greeting for a female member of a city council.
For example: Councilman Brown
- Officer + Last Name — Formal title for a male or female police officer.
For example: Officer Jones
- Father + Last Name/First Name — Formal title for a Catholic priest. In many cases, this person can be referred to by their last name or their first name.
For example: Father Smith
- Pastor + Last Name/First Name — Formal title for a Christian minister. Like the priest, pastors can be referred to by their last name or first name.
For example: Pastor Matthew
- Rabbi + Full Name — Formal title for a Jewish spiritual leader
For example: Rabbi Williams
Addressing Strangers in Public
Addressing a stranger in public might seem confusing, but it doesn’t have to be.
Since you likely won’t know if the stranger has an official title, you can simply use the formal greetings of “sir” or “ma’am.”
If you need to get the stranger’s attention, add “excuse me” or “sorry” before the greeting to be polite.
While we’re discussing strangers, let’s briefly discuss how to greet pets. If you’re speaking to a stranger at a dog park, for example, you might also want to address their puppy.
Signs of affection are generally appropriate when speaking to animals.
Greetings to Know
- Excuse me, Sir — A polite way to get a male stranger’s attention.
- Excuse me, Ma’am — A polite way to get a female stranger’s attention.
- Sorry, Sir — A polite way to get a male stranger’s attention.
- Sorry, Ma’am — A polite way to get a female stranger’s attention.
- Bud — An appropriate greeting for a dog.
- Buddy — An appropriate greeting for a dog.
Addressing People in Writing
When you need to address someone in writing, think about your relationship with the individual. Is this a professional or personal interaction?
Also, consider the method of writing you’re using. Handwritten letters are very different from business emails or social media interactions.
In general, you should use the same greeting you would use in person.
Professional situations—even in writing—call for formal greetings. However, social media and written letters to a loved one can be addressed with informal signs of affection.
Most letters or emails start with the expression, “Dear + Mr./Mrs./Miss/First Name/etc.”
Dear Dr. Brown,
Dear Mrs. Jones,
Nowadays, it’s also typically considered appropriate to start your email with the words “hi” or “hello” instead of “dear.”
Be patient with yourself as you start to practice these greetings. It takes time to learn how to address people, but be proud that you’re working on your fluency journey.
Just remember you can always use a formal greeting. This is a safe and polite option. The individual will be impressed and will let you know if you should switch to an informal title in the future.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based freelance writer. You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.