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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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    I would suggest asking questions like this one at English Language Learners, where they would be a better fit. Perhaps a moderator can migrate this. – J.R. Jan 9 '14 at 18:02
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    @J.R. This would seem an especially interesting topic to discuss on this site. I would be particularly interested as to how modern America is changing in this regard and how the experience there compares and contrasts with how similar forms are used in Britain, both now and hitherto. The matter is at the very centre of where language interacts with social change. – WS2 Jan 9 '14 at 18:12
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    @WS2 I would hate being called Mom, too: hard to blame her, really. Why do people do that? Tom, on the other hand, is just fine. Not sure what I think about ham. Perhaps if she told them it rhymes with damn, the stronger term would stick better in people’s memories, if not their craws. – tchrist Jan 9 '14 at 20:03
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    @tchrist It is not 'Mom'. What she hates is 'farm' the way I say it - which is not the way you say it. – WS2 Jan 9 '14 at 20:10
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    @WS2: RE: I find it interesting, since in my lifetime, I cannot ever remember anyone calling a salesperson Sir or Madam... So, what would you call a salesperson, if you didn't know their name? – J.R. Jan 9 '14 at 21:00
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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.

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    "Ms." is not something you'd call a salesclerk though but would use in written correspondence. "Miss" for younger women and "Ma'am" for older women is customary in my era and part of the world (U.S. Midwest) – Kristina Lopez Jan 9 '14 at 19:04
  • The question is how to address the female shop assistant, not the client. But I'd say Miss is probably the best option, the least likely to offend or cause embarrassment. – Mari-Lou A Jan 9 '14 at 19:46
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    @KristinaLopez I edited the post to clarify that "Ms." = "Miss". – Tyler James Young Feb 7 '18 at 23:00
  • @Mari-LouA Your comment is phrased as a correction, but does not contradict anything in my post. – Tyler James Young Feb 7 '18 at 23:00
  • Is it common to address a female sales clerk as Miss in the US? What about ma'am? Your referenced answer doesn't really answer this point, it's a bit nebulous. Sorry. The small print should be less timid. – Mari-Lou A Feb 7 '18 at 23:07
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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.

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    I'm one of those "uncommon" habitual users of "Ma'am". As this answer hints at, I use it to show respect. Saying "Miss" is in effect saying "Hey, subservient female". Ugh. However, as this answer also gets at, Ma'am can get you into trouble. It can also imply that you perceive yourself to be younger than the woman in question. Some women can be really sensitive about their age. I've gotten a talking to over this in the past. – T.E.D. Jan 9 '14 at 20:12
  • ...in fact, just last month I was reading a book where the protagonist went into a day long downward introspective spiral because some guy had called her "Ma'am" – T.E.D. Jan 9 '14 at 20:19
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    It's quite regional; you'd likely hear ma'am used a lot more in the some of the southern states. I've pointed to this beer commercial before, and I'll do it again; it's hard to specify how "Americans" speak because people from Dallas don't always speak exactly like they do in New York, and those in Chicago don't necessarily greet each other in same way they do in Charleston. It's also cultural - those who grew up in career military families or served an enlistment might lean toward using "Sir" and "Ma'am" more often than the general population. – J.R. Jan 9 '14 at 20:56
  • @T.E.D. 'Hey, subservient female' is exactly how calling a woman 'miss' would be seen in Britain and I suspect anywhere in Western Europe. Mademoiselle and fraulein are only used with children. It does seem astonishing that it should still be the practice in America, a country that has been in the vanguard of feminism, and where words like 'waitress' and 'bar-maid' are ruled out. – WS2 Jan 9 '14 at 22:02
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    A good workaround is "pardon me" or "excuse me" where no gender label is necessary. – Kristina Lopez Jan 10 '14 at 1:31
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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.

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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.

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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

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  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. This answer is actually bordering on spam, as it redirects to a survey service. If you would like to post the results of the survey, that would be fine. – Cascabel Feb 25 '17 at 22:15

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