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At my office when referring to customers or external vendors I often use the word gentleman. I do this in effort to show that I’m speaking respectfully about them so the content and tone of my statement is less likely to be mistaken. For example, “I spoke with the gentleman about the issue he was having and it turned out he forgot to turn his computer on.”

However, when the subject is a female the use of the word lady doesn’t seem to project the same level of intended respect.

Is there an alternative female or gender neutral word that I could use in these cases?

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  • 6
    Lady is appropriate.
    – ermanen
    Jun 6, 2014 at 14:54
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    Most of the answers are missing the whole point of this question: Gentleman retains connotations of respect that Lady has largely lost, so is there a current conversational way of referring to a female customer that does carry those connotations more strongly than lady? The answer may be "no" but that doesn't make it a bad question. Jun 6, 2014 at 15:15
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    @ChrisSunami The answer isn't no. The answer is one of societal convention. If you frequently thank your customers who are male with "thank you gentlemen", then you should thank your customers who are female with "thank you ladies" - not "thank you gentle persons"; because that is respectful, women are not neuter and to do otherwise is condescending. Jun 6, 2014 at 16:48
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    For work-place specific gender-neutral politically-correct terms refer to the answer by @third-news. Otherwise, as Elliot Frisch has suggested, lady is the term you want. But in my opinion, if you're talking about clients of yours, be gender neutral. Lady can have negative implications in this setting because it is often used in a negative fashion, e.g. That lady wouldn't stop talking about her cat during her visit to my office. However, nobody would say That gentleman wouldn't stop--. There is, unfortunately, a large disparity between the two. Use each in the correct setting. Jun 6, 2014 at 18:09
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    It is unequivocal that lady is often said when someone wishes to express their irritation or annoyance with a woman: "Listen lady, I ain't got all day to stand here..." The OP is asking for an expression with the similar positive connotations that gentleman has. It is therefore NOT a duplicate question, the two answers provided are lady and therefore do not satisfy the OP's request.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 7, 2014 at 13:12

8 Answers 8

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Unfortunately, 'lady' has a paternalistic connotation, and it is best to refer to both sexes as clients, customers, vendors, manager, assistant... -when possible. IOW, avoid referring to their sex but only their position.

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    Lady has a paternalistic connotation (that gentleman doesn’t have)?! Since when? Your advice itself is fine (except for vocative cases—“Thank you, clients!” would probably not be appreciated nearly as much as “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!”, even if the ladies and the gentlemen in case are clients), but the first line seems very odd to me. Lady has lots of connotations, but paternalism isn’t one of them. Jun 6, 2014 at 17:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet 'Ladies and gentelmen' is a specific case where very few people will take offence, but if you refer to an individual woman as a 'lady' (or a group of women as 'ladies'), there's a reasonably good chance that you will annoy her (depending on the prevalence of feminist thought where you live). It's a word with overtones of patronising 1950s newsreels.
    – evilsoup
    Jun 6, 2014 at 17:59
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I would disagree. Lady has always had paternalistic connotations, for hundreds of years. In fact, it still does, even in other languages, e.g. madame from French --> ma dame literally meaning my lady, implying ownership. 'Back in the day', women were essentially bartering tools and that has just recently started to change. So I agree with Third News in that it is best to avoid using gender-specific terms at all, at least in the workplace, and instead use positional titles. Jun 6, 2014 at 18:01
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    @ChrisCirefice Paternalism is “the policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to or otherwise dependent on them in their supposed interest”. I might agree to a certain extent that lady (or at least madame) could sound a bit like ownership is implied—but restriction of freedom by the authority is not something I can imbue into lady no matter how hard I try. (Note: monsieur means ‘my sire’ as well. ‘My lord’ and ‘my good man’ are similar expressions. They do not connote ownership to me.) Jun 6, 2014 at 18:05
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I was trying to communicate that implications for the term that existed hundreds of years ago still exist today. See my comment on the OP's question for when to use lady, because it does have negative implications in some settings which is, again, what I was trying to get across. Jun 6, 2014 at 18:12
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Gentlemen and ladies lend me your ears! You seem to be looking for lady.

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    I agree that in this instance, lady would work but unfortunately outside it being paired with gentleman, it’s intended tone can be misinterpreted.
    – RWL01
    Jun 9, 2014 at 14:28
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    I have come here in search of an alternative for, "lady," since, "Good afternoon ladies," seems to me to have a creepy connotation that, "Good afternoon gentlemen," does not, in the setting of a written business salutation.
    – StockB
    Jan 27, 2017 at 18:20
  • Note that, in the traditional form of polite speech where “lady” is parallel to “gentleman,” the rule is ladies first. Thus, you would always say, “Ladies and gentlemen.”
    – Davislor
    Jul 11, 2022 at 19:14
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A gender-neutral, respectful word to describe a customer is "customer". Even in communications that are likely to be shared with said customer, in practice I've found that the word is far less likely to offend. This is especially true in those cases where your customer sounds like a "gentleman" on the phone, but is in fact a "lady" (or vice versa).

Your example phrase would therefore sound just as professional and respectful if spoken thusly:

"I spoke with the customer about the issue he was having and it turned out he forgot to turn his computer on."

Of course, using "he" in the same sentence negates the gender neutrality of the term you use no matter how carefully you choose it, but that's far too broad to properly cover in detail here.

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How about Madame? Though it isn't a direct parallel to gentlemen I think it shows respect

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    Madam often refers to an older woman who manages a brothel, escort service or some other form of prostitution, that is, a procuress. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madam#Other_usage Jun 6, 2014 at 20:07
  • Madam or Ma'am is widely used as a respectful form of address. "Gentlemen's" is also a term for a public toilet, but that doesn't stop the OP considering it respectful.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 11, 2022 at 8:13
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    @SpehroPefhany In American English, madame and madam are pronounced differently.
    – Davislor
    Jul 11, 2022 at 19:16
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    But also, “Madam Speaker,” “Madam President,” etc. seem to be accepted respectful forms of address.
    – Davislor
    Jul 11, 2022 at 20:25
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Perhaps the most obvious word here is gentlefolks, which until the nineteenth century appeared only and always in the plural. Shakespeare used it in the plural, as did Thackeray. Eventually, however, writers towards latter end of Victorian era began to use gentlefolk in the singular.

But it does seem a long word, doesn’t it? As a shorter version, the courageous might make fair use of the noun gentles, especially in the plural. It’s mostly just an “abbreviation” (as it were), of gentlefolks.

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene I:

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show.
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know.
This beauteous lady Thisbe is certain.

Or at the finale, in Puck’s final address to the audience:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

The OED does note that gentle is rarely used in the singular, but describes this sense as

One who is of gentle birth or rank.

Nonetheless, saying a gentle rather than gentles in general is long gone. Even in olden days, simples were opposed to gentles, as in this OED citation:

  • 1882 Mrs. Raven’s Tempt. III. 8
    The simples are not bound to pick up what the gentles throw away.

It is now perceived as archaic, but could work for vocative uses in the right setting — especially if you wish to impart an air of formality or antiquity.

A few examples of using gentles this way, which might be a comic “vulgarism” for gentlefolks, given by the OED are:

  • C. 1590 Greene Fr. Bacon x. 16
    Now, courteous Gentles, if the Keepers girle Hath pleas’d the liking fancy of you both [etc.].
  • 1591 Troub. Raigne K. John, To Gentlem. Rdrs. (1611) 70
    Gentles, we left King John repleate with blisse.
  • 1599 B. Jonson Ev. Man out of Hum. (1600) Prol.,
    Gentles, all I can say for him is, you are welcome.
  • 1638 Cowley Love’s Riddle v,
    It’s no matter for that; farewell gentles.
  • 1641 Marmion Antiq. ɪɪɪ. F 4 a,
    Gentles I would entreat you a courtesie.
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    I like this answer - I learnt some interesting things - but does it really answer the question? I don't know how most people would react to being called gentles, but there would likely be some kind of confusion in their responses.
    – Anonym
    Jun 6, 2014 at 19:48
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Gentleman was initially a compound noun, composed of Gentle and man. Gentle, here, is derived from French gentil, meaning of nobility by birth. As such, Gentleman can be considered a sort of synonym or Lord, a title for men with female counterpart Lady.

With regards to a gender-neutral version, initially Noble could be a title used for either gender. Now, though, because the word does not have the exact same meaning, it may not be used as such.

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"Lady" is the accepted term; perhaps use a capital L.

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    Capital L? Really? If you write "I spoke with the Lady about the issue", to me it seems to suggest that she is a member of the nobility. (Or that the writer is a native German speaker.) Jun 6, 2014 at 17:36
  • Different strokes. I don't see anything amiss with it.
    – seagull
    Jun 6, 2014 at 23:29
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    I believe It is quite Well Established in the english language Which words in a Sentence are To be capitalized and which Are not... Jun 7, 2014 at 0:06
  • Indeed it is, and the evidence supports my conclusion.
    – seagull
    Jun 10, 2014 at 10:07
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Consider gentlelady, gentlewoman, and the gender-neutral gentle-person.

gentlelady: US a form of address for a woman

gentlewoman: (archaic, now rare) a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered woman; lady

gentle-person: a person of good family and position; gentleman or lady

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    I can't say that I have ever heard gentle-person used in my entire life. As well, gentle-woman is incredibly uncommon, at least in colloquial English. I would personally not suggest using either... Jun 6, 2014 at 18:02
  • Sadly, gentlewoman and goodwife are archaic. Mistress is also unusable for different reasons. Jun 6, 2014 at 18:21
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    Even if these are actual entries in a dictionary, those entries are missing nuance, or rather the glaringly obvious context that no one in their right mind would use these today, except in much older period pieces.
    – Mitch
    Nov 2, 2015 at 16:54

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