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A question that has been bugging me for quite a while was raised by some communication between my employer and a partner organisation based in Dubai. It turned out that more than once, it's been noticed that this other party tend to use a particular tone of address in letters and emails. Whereas they will address male members of staff as 'Mr Bloggs' - which is quite acceptable and polite, even somewhat deferential given that it's quite uncommon and most other third parties tend to address you by first name after it's been quoted at least once in the exchange - they rigorously insist on referring to female colleagues as Miss Helen, and so on. That is, declining to use the individual's (known) surname, and presuming unless corrected that she is unmarried.

Is this due to some antiquated perception of propriety in English correspondence, or is it a custom originating from the culture of the people involved? I would lean toward guessing the latter; since in parts of the Middle East having women in the workplace is less common and perhaps one might presume that a female employee is unmarried, unless it is determined otherwise. Is it thought by the demographic that we are talking to that using the maiden name of a woman known in a professional capacity is in some way vulgar?

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FWIW, I grew up in North America and in my school they still taught to default to Miss unless there was reason to use a different title. I assumed that since some default was necessary, Miss was chosen. Maybe it was considered more polite than defaulting to Mrs. or Ms. ? For some reason I think this might be a British style, originally, but I don't know for sure (and don't have time to do the research). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Sep 21 '11 at 20:32
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I'd likewise be curious to know the reason for that. I would guess simply that it's i) correct and therefore no grounds for objection when true and ii) potentially flattering for the lady (presumed to be older by the prevailing culture when the custom was originally formed) otherwise. –  Tom W Sep 21 '11 at 20:35
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As a vaguely interesting aside: origin of Mrs and Miss –  Matt Эллен Sep 21 '11 at 20:48

2 Answers 2

I think the issue here is referring to the woman by her first name and not her last name (surname). "Miss" in this case doesn't seem offensive to me, but to not use her last name does. I feel it is a Middle Eastern cultural thing. Though I live in the Middle East, I am not too familiar with Arab etiquette, but your perception seems to be correct to me.

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The term Ms. was invented to put woman on an "equal" footing with men.

Depending on the situation, a woman could have two surnames, her maiden name, Miss Smith, or her married name, Mrs. Jones. By replacing both Miss and Mrs. with Ms., the woman could be either Ms. Smith or Ms. Jones, and no one could guess from that alone whether she was single or married. This represented "equality," because the same was true with a man. (In either case, you might look for the presence or absence of a wedding ring, or pictures of the children.)

Miss Helen seems familiar, not formal, in this context, and many women would dislike it, both for the informality, and the presumption of not being married.

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