Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
We don’t often think about how to properly address others, and as a result we tend to be quite rude. We often assume we should be on a first name basis as soon as we meet someone. We don’t even consider what we’re saying to people with how we address them. I’m hoping I can give you some useful guidance here.
Who you’re speaking to is, of course, of central importance. When you’re addressing VIPs, they often have special styles of address you need to know. Fortunately, most people are given the opportunity to ask about protocol before they meet these people, so you can easily find out how to address them. Everyone else is simple.
Most people are to be addressed by a combination of their name and a salutation. If you don’t know a man’s name you can address him as “Sir” and if you don’t know a woman’s name you can address her as “Ma’am.” Some people will address young women as “Miss” but I would discourage it because it makes an assumption about her that she’s likely to interpret as negative. The best way to address someone before you know what would be appropriate is to use “Mr.”/”Mrs.”/”Miss”/”Ms.” followed by their last name. “Mr.” Is typical for men, “Mrs.” is for married women, “Miss” is for unmarried women, and “Ms.” is for women whose marital status is unknown. If you’d like to address young boys as “Master” that would be acceptable as well.
People like armed forces members and police are best addressed by rank instead of using “Mr.”/”Mrs.”/”Miss”/”Ms.” Don’t use rank alone if you don’t know the relevant protocol.
Clergy usually have other ways to be addressed. Protestant pastors are usually addressed with “Pastor” or “Reverend” in place of “Mr.” and Catholic clergy are typically addressed with “Father” for priests, “Brother” for monks, or “Sister” for nuns, both are sometimes addressed using these titles alone. “Professors,” “Doctors” and other academic figures use these titles to be addressed similarly to clergy. Choosing not to use these titles shows a lack of respect for the person or qualifications.
Until you are told otherwise, you should address others in the most formal way you can. Once they establish their preferences it becomes acceptable to address them as such when it isn’t too casual. For example, if your friend John Smith prefers to be called “John” then you should call him that around the poker table but you should still call him “Mr. Smith” when you meet him at a wedding. Later on in an event it always becomes appropriate to address others more casually. Formality really only applies to greeting and introductions. If someone is your superior in some way, such as age or rank, then you may want to consider addressing them formally regardless of their preference.