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I will have a visa interview (for the US) in a few days and I would like to know how I address people in a conversation.

Especially, I would like to know the differences between the following:

  • Sir
  • Madam, Ma'am
  • Miss
  • Misses
  • Mister

I have read the following questions/answers, but they don't explain the terms in context. I would like to know what the differences are:

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Sir is a general-purpose term of respect, and it's hard to go wrong with sir when used in polite conversation. The equivalent term to use for women would be ma'am.

My name is Joe Blanton.
Good morning, sir. Pleased to meet you.

My name is Lisa Blanton.
Good morning, ma'am. Pleased to meet you.

Unlike sir and ma'am, Mr., Mrs., Miss, (and Ms.) wouldn't be polite words to use unless you use them in conjunction with the person's name:

My name is Joe Blanton.
Hello, Mr. Blanton. Pleased to meet you.

Mrs is used for married women, Miss is used for single women, and Ms can be used for either. I would recommend using Ms unless the person you are talking with indicates otherwise:

My name is Lisa Blanton.
Hello, Ms. Blanton. Pleased to meet you.

My name is Miss Blanton.
Hello, Miss Blanton. Pleased to meet you.

  • Could you please explain what the abbreviations mean? (Ms. = miss, Mrs. =Misses?) – Martin Thoma Apr 20 '14 at 10:19
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    Ms. is explained here. Mrs. = Misses; Miss does not have an abbreviation, and Ms. does not have an expanded form. – J.R. Apr 20 '14 at 10:26
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    Without knowing what grasp of English @moose has, is it common for non-native speakers to use ma'am in the US. As a UK English speaker I'd have great trouble using the word ma'am without putting on an American accent (as I only hear it from Americans, or rarely when the Royal Family are involved) but I do understand it is a much more common term in the US. – Frank Apr 20 '14 at 11:16
  • @Frank - For the most part, the closest equivalent to sir in the U.S. would be ma'am (but I'll grant that ma'am may not be quite as universally applicable in all contexts). – J.R. Apr 20 '14 at 11:19
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The facts in J.R.'s post are correct, but to address your questions of appropriate usage of these, there are some nuances that should be noted.

When you encounter a person for the first time be prepared to use "Mr. (lastname)" or "Ms. (lastname)" (for example Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith). You should definitely avoid the term "Ma'am" or "Madam" as some women will feel that they are "too young to be 'ma'am'." It doesn't necessarily make much sense outside of cultural context but I have encountered it on many occasions. So likely better to be safe than sorry.

Also, follow the direction that the person gives you when they introduce themselves. If, when you shake hands, they provide only their first name ("Hello, I'm John"), then they are looking to be called "John" and you should comply. Otherwise if they call themselves "John Smith" during this introduction, then you should continue with "Mr. Smith" unless otherwise instructed ("Please, call me John").

  • I don't know if I'd go so far as to say one should "definitely avoid the term ma'am," but I agree that it wouldn't hurt to be a bit more careful with "ma'am" than with "sir." – J.R. Apr 20 '14 at 18:12

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