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Miss Conduct

What’s right: Ma’am or miss?

Two readers struggle with the most proper forms of address.

Lucy Truman

Waiters, teachers, even supervisors have addressed groups of which I have been a part as collective “guys.” (I am a woman.) Am I alone in feeling that this is off-putting, if not offensive? Perhaps it was once hip, but it just seems lazy to me. But when I think of the alternatives, I am left with ladies and/or gentlemen.

Anonymous / Cambridge

I am a 59-year-old man and work behind the deli counter at a grocery store. I always address female customers as “ma’am” unless they look 20 or younger, then I use “miss.” In most transactions, I try to avoid either and just say “May I help you?” The majority of my co-workers, all younger than I, always use “miss.” This never sounds right to me. Which is more acceptable?

P.M. / Brighton

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There isn’t any universally acceptable way to address individuals or groups of people anymore. “Ma’am” and “sir” are often objected to by people who say it makes them feel old. “Miss” strikes some women as trivializing and sexist — and the husbands of honorary “Miss”es aren’t too thrilled about it, either. (“She’s wearing a wedding ring and I’m right there,” they write indignantly to Miss Conduct.) The first letter writer objects to “you guys” but finds “ladies and gentlemen” unacceptable as well — too stuffy? Too gender-binary?

This is not a problem with other people’s etiquette or your own. It is a problem with the English language. If you don’t like how you are being addressed, but the address is clearly intended to be friendly and respectful, take it as such. What sounds right — or least wrong, anyway — to any given person is a complex matter of geographical background, age, profession, gender ideology, and how naturally formal that person tends to be. If other people take umbrage at your “ma’am” or “folks,” say that you didn’t intend it as an insult and carry on. (Anyone who believes that being addressed respectfully means that one is old, and that to be old is somehow shameful, should take these notions up with some sort of professional, but perhaps not a restaurant server.)

How a language with such an overstuffed lexicon as English could wind up with such a ridiculous lacuna is something of a mystery. Will we ever develop a term of address that is gender-inclusive, respectful yet non-hierarchal, regionally neutral, easily pluralized? Until we do, perhaps we could all take a tip from grocery clerks who, opening a new checkout lane, will announce, “I can help Whoever’s Next,” and start using that term as a generic honorific, like “Your Excellency.” “May I help Whoever’s Next?” “Would Whoever’s Next care to order a drink?” “Happy to be of service, Whoever’s Next.”

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

IS SOME ASPECT OF MODERN LIFE GIVING YOU PAUSE? Write to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.

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