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In a situation where I need to quickly address someone I don't know, how can I do so without using gendered language? For example, as a retail worker, if a customer was to leave their credit card behind I'd naturally say "Excuse me! Sir! You left your card behind." Or if I were a steward on a train I'd naturally say "Ma'am, Please move your bag from the aisle."

If I need to get someone's attention, don't know that person's name, want to be polite, and want to avoid "Sir" or "Ma'am" because maybe the person isn't either, what do I say?

This question was prompted by a Facebook post from a non-binary friend who got agitated about being addressed as ma'am while on a train. This got me thinking about what possible non-binary/gender-neutral alternatives there are out there. I'm specifically talking about respectfully referring to people whose names you don't know.

My friend and I are both based in the UK but answers for other cultures would also be appreciated.

  • <comments removed> If you are not asking for clarification about this post, question are not a prelude to start a discussion in comments. See the Stack Exchange Tour. Thank you. – Robert Cartaino Aug 7 '17 at 17:25
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Your concern is definitely something that is changing in society right now - this movement with regards to respecting non-binary members. It's certainly commendable for you to wish to address people respectfully using terms that don't gender them unnecessarily. While there definitely is a group of people recommending terms like Xe or Mx, they aren't particularly used and - with someone who isn't aware of them at all, you'd likely get a quizzical blank stare. At this point in time, until these terms enter mainstream usage, I think your best option is to avoid these gendered terms entirely.

So, rather than saying "excuse me, ma'am" you say, simply "excuse me". If you are an employee talking to a customer and want to be formal, do so by adding more deferential wording to the statement that isn't gendered:

Pardon me, would you be so kind as to stow your bag so the aisle is clear?

If the person you're addressing feels slighted by not being addressed as "sir" or "ma'am", they'll likely tell you all about it and then you'll know what to call them. You can then apologize, thank them for letting you know their preferred method of address and use it for them henceforth.

Particularly in the US I argue that "sir" and "ma'am" are somewhat outdated and definitely unnecessary, even without the consideration of gender-agnostic terminology - particularly with people under 40. I personally don't like being called "ma'am"... and I'm a binary female and I really don't like being called "sir"... which happens on Stack Exchange all the time. So, the simple solution is to just not use the terms.


If you are going to be interacting with someone in a more-than-passing manner, you should definitely inquire of them their preferred pronouns.

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If Sir or Madam are deemed to be inappropriate, then the only realistic alternative when it comes to personal pronouns is to ask the person what they prefer to be referred to as.

Transport for London (TfL) opted recently to change the announcement on the Tube from "ladies and gentlemen" to "hello everyone". Usefully, collective nouns can refer to people without referring to gender.

Otherwise, without knowing a person's preference, it's rather difficult to know which words to use. An option to be would be to avoid using pronouns and use a simple greeting, like hello or good evening.

  • You can certainly edit that to make it more clear, which is what I've said in my answer. As written, I don't know that your answer addresses the specific case as mentioned in the question, though. – Catija Jul 31 '17 at 20:30
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    The problem is that the poster has no idea whether that person deems "Sir" or "Madam" to be inappropriate, so they would have to ask everyone how they want to be addressed. So I left my credit card behind with the cashier and start walking away. And they cashier doesn't say "Please come back, Sir, you left your credit card" but shouts after me "How would you prefer to be addressed"??? – gnasher729 Apr 29 '18 at 21:17
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Honorifics and/or pronouns will vary depending on the individual, and guessing and getting it wrong is often hurtful. It's better to just ask if you don't know.

Asking can seem a little awkward if you're not used to it, but in my experience people often appreciate that you're trying to be respectful. If it's just a quick encounter with a stranger, you really don't need to use gendered words at all, just introduce yourself.

Hi I'm SoAndSo, and you are?

Or if you just need to get someone's attention you can try the antiquated:

Excuse me.

If you're likely to interact with the person regularly, ask.

Hi I'm Mr. SoAndSo, my pronouns are he him, and you are?

Asking an awkward question is a lot less awkward than the awkwardness of getting it wrong...

Entertaining side note:

I've had friends that used the they/them convention, although this can lead to some interesting misunderstandings... One time I was visiting a friend and showed up a little early, when I knocked on the door a roommate answered and told me that "they are in the shower" which led me to wonder who they were in the shower with.

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    I think this is a great answer to a different question. This question seems to have been brought about by someone saying something along the lines of "excuse me, ma'am" and then moving along in the train. I don't know that there's time to ascertain this if someone's just asking to be let out of their seat or to get by. – Catija Jul 31 '17 at 16:09
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    @Catija "Or if you just need to get someone's attention you can try the antiquated: Excuse me." – apaul Jul 31 '17 at 16:11
  • This answer avoids answering the question because you are not trying to specify an individual. If in a crowd of people and you say, "Excuse me" to a person walking away, they are unlikely to know you meant them and will not turn around and you will not get their attention. OP wishes to use a qualifier so it alerts the person they may be speaking to them, rather than someone else. Sir and madam are a weak qualifier, but people still respond to hearing that they are in that qualification. – user2921 Aug 28 '17 at 17:35
  • I worry a little when strangers ask my name. Otherwise good advice. – user Oct 3 '17 at 21:08
9

In your practical examples, attention-grabbing is a central component. In theory, a gendered honorific targets the message to about half the population. But instead, use "you" early on, and return to an attention-grabbing phrase quickly, indicating to anyone who hasn't responded that you may be hailing them.

  • Potential rule 1: Use "you" as the main reference to the other person, and express respect through other polite phrases. (Very similar to Catija's answer.)
  • E.g., "Excuse me, you left your card. Pardon me! One moment please, you left behind..."
  • E.g., "I'm sorry to bother you, but is this your bag? Respectfully, may I ask you to please move this bag if it is yours?..."

The honorific part of the question remains a challenge. Systematically using an honorific for some people but omitting it for others implies a lack of respect. It is rarely intended as an insult, but it emphasizes a disparity in power or respect in the underlying culture that there is no appropriate term. (One reason for omitting an honorific is that guessing wrong in either direction about a person's gender, age, or marital status, if the honorific implies these, may be insulting or aggravating, as in your friend's case. This would lead to systematic omissions of an honorific for people who are not clearly presenting as men or elderly women (the only people for whom I would consider using "Ma'am").)

  • For instance, I have heard a lot of "sir" in Silicon Valley start-up culture, without a female or gender-neutral equivalent. As a female graduate student, I attended a talk at my university by a tech executive. He called on each man who had a question by saying, "Sir," but he called on me with merely, "Yes." While I did not stay after the talk to ask him about this, it did not reflect well on the speaker that he either lacked the experience with non-male bosses and colleagues to have run into this before (he had about 20 years in industry and seemed very polished overall) or was not reflective enough to notice this disparity in his own behavior. None of the friends I asked afterward could think of a non-gendered honorific or a parallel honorific he could have used for a woman ("ma'am" can sound condescending because rarely used outside of the U.S. South or the military, and it implies age and marital status).

  • Potential rule 2: Plan ahead, and don't use a gendered honorific for anyone. Pick a vocabulary where you can address everyone on a similar basis.

  • Potential rule 3: Assume a higher status non-gendered honorific if unsure. In a university, you could possibly default to "Professor" or "Doctor" with a stranger if caught in a bind. If you are in a hospital, default to "Doctor"; in an airplane, "Captain"; in a church, "Reverend"; in a courthouse, "Judge." There is a danger someone will think you are mocking them if the actual status difference is too great, but in that case you can explain, "I'm sorry, you seemed to work here and I didn't know what to assume." (It is also less insulting than the reverse situation; Judge Waite was mistaken for a janitor at the courthouse, not to mention for a burglar when entering his own house.)

  • Also acceptable in the western U.S.: The same start-up culture where executives refer to younger (potential) colleagues as "sir" also sometimes has people over-use or mis-use the term "boss." At least "boss" is gender-neutral.

  • In non-work situations, I might call someone "friend" (someone of any generation). I believe it conveys respect and goodwill, and I suppose its Quaker overtones ground it in a currently well-regarded tradition.

  • Depending on the situation, I might be able to pull off "kind stranger." (Especially if used in the third person: "Who was that?" "Oh, that kind stranger picked up my umbrella.").
  • Less formally, I might even use "dude" (to any generation of a male-presenting person who looks somewhat laid-back, or otherwise to people my age or younger). "Cousin" or "cuz" may work in limited circumstances, but conveys a familiarity that's unlikely to work outside a family or school reunion where you have forgotten people's names.
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Short answer ... there just isn't any gender-neutral honorific in the English dialect I speak (roughly US).

I use Sir and Ma'am as I was taught as a sprout, and have never had anyone get upset about it, except for a young lady barista who was aghast that I thought she was old enough to be called Ma'am. Shades of "Mister Turtle is my father"...

Honestly, you'll get pretty far with a mutual assumption of polite respect. If you "Sir" someone who prefers not to be Sirred, he can let you know how he'd like to be addressed.

Side note: Though impractical, I thought @robbg suggestion of calling everyone "comrade" was hilarious. It would not work in my community. Even if you tried to sneak it in as "tovarisch".

5

After spending some time googling I found the following options:

  • Mx (pronounced Meh-zzz) - sort for Mix or where the x acted as a replacement for the r/iss/s/rs part of the title, could be perceived as a typo in written communications though
  • Ser - from Morrowind where all people are referred to as Serah
  • Per - short for person
  • Ri - respected individual
  • context relative words/phrases e.g. "fellow traveler" of on a train or bus, the bristolian "drive" when addressing a bus or taxi driver (cheers drive), usual titles like doctor, nurse, officer, potentially extending to server if you're in a restaurant etc.
  • Comrade - gender neutral, respectful . Might not go down to well in heavily capitalist areas (my personal favorite)
  • Citizen - more capitalist focused alternative to comrade.
  • Ji - from Hindi, usually used as a suffix (e.g. Mamaji, Papaji are respectful terms for mother and father) but could be repurposed here
  • Patron - for addressing a customer as a company representative
  • My Liege - if you happen to be in the middle of a middle ages reenactment

I tend to just use variations of mate/buddy things like that but I'm not a particularly formal person.

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    If a stranger called me any of these I'd think they were loopy. – Muzer Jul 31 '17 at 15:44
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    If I use your suggestions, how can I be sure that they will make my situation better? In order for answers to be helpful to readers, it's important that answers be more than just suggestions. Try to explain why the suggestion would be beneficial to the reader - in other words, discuss where you got the idea for the answer (experience, perhaps). – user288 Jul 31 '17 at 17:12
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    "Ser" sounds like "sir", "comrade" would get you branded a communist around here, and most of the rest wouldn't even be recognized as attempts at honorifics. – Mark Jul 31 '17 at 18:04
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    I can't tell if this is a joke. From the standpoint of a non-binary individual, I would feel downright insulted if you used any of these to refer to me, with the exception of Mx iff it were done in good faith. – Aza Jul 31 '17 at 18:48
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    @Ooker If someone is using pronouns like those, it means they've recognized that I'm nonbinary, have thought about what to do, and picked something that's intentionally outlandish. "My Liege" and "patron" sound like I'm being mocked, using a pronoun from fantasy feels like it's dismissing my identity as a joke, etc. It's on par with using "it," a pronoun reserved solely for objects, not people. – Aza Jul 31 '17 at 20:49
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"Excuse me! Sir! You left your card behind." Or if I were a steward on a train I'd naturally say "Ma'am, Please move your bag from the aisle."

In both of these circumstances, replacing Sir/Ma'am with "Hello" works great.

Another term that may work is "friend".

"Hello, m' friend..."

(I find that to quickly catch somebody's attention, a bit of informality can be desirable. I might even say "me friend", trying to keep the word "me" short to reduce chances of people focusing much on that word. However, if you don't like that, you could speak more properly and say, "Hello, my friend.")

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