Is it common to address a female sales clerk as Miss in the US? What about ma'am?
If neither is proper, what would you suggest?
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Wikipedia offers the following:
The usage of "Miss" as a title in the United States is most frequently seen when referring to girls under eighteen. Though "Miss" is less commonly used as a title by unmarried adult women in the United States than in the past, some still prefer to be referred to as such. Twenty-first century etiquette honors an adult woman's personal preference of title. However, if the preference is not known, "[Miss]" is used. "[Miss]" is becoming the preferred choice as this female title in business. It is the equivalent to the male title "Mr." as neither is marital status specific.
Basically, the choice between these two honorifics has historically drawn from a woman’s age and marital status, but if you’re not sure you should probably use “Miss”.
On a personal note, I learned from working as a sales clerk that women with non-white hair almost universally prefer “Miss”. Sometimes it does not convey respect to imply that someone has earned it with their oldness.
Miss is both common and proper. Ma'am is proper but not common. Ma'am has connotations of both older and higher status, Miss connotes younger and lower status. Since the sales-clerk is in a lower-status position vis-a-vis the customer, Miss is typical even when the clerk is older than the customer. Conversely, the clerk might address the customer as Ma'am. Miss is generally safe, because most people like to be thought of as young, even though it connotes a lower status.
Growing up in a military family and serving myself, I'm not sure I would think to use the term "miss" when referring to a female I didn't know such as a clerk or waitress. While I agree that "miss" generally connotes a younger woman, and "ma'am" an older woman, in the military (at least in my experience), it was always "ma'am", even to someone considerably younger than the speaker. I may jokingly refer to one of my friend's children or my nieces as something like "young miss ", but those are girls that I know.
As pointed out by @JR, I was also raised with a southern mother, and it's definitely more common to hear "ma'am" in the southern states than others, so that was probably an influencer for me as well.
I would be okay with the use of ma'am if were not consistently linked to age as we all know it is. I have seen some sales clerks call a woman perceived to be younger miss and call the woman behind her ma'am. I see how this could bother some women because it is implying outright that the woman is older which may make some women feel bad because no one wants to be thought of as old, especially if they are younger, like ages 35-55. I feel if the word ma'am is to be used to address women that it should apply to all ladies, as sir applies to all men young and old. I also feel the word ma'am is misused. I mean there are people calling women ma'am that are clearly older than the woman.
I'm a young adult and prefer "miss"; I've always thought of "ma'am as meant for women who are middle-aged or older. I actually made a survey on this topic, if anyone wants to take it: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/S3W82WD