How to Properly Address Others

Man tipping his hat.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. 

Showing Respect in Passing

Drawing of a Victorian man tipping his hat.
Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.

These days we tend to walk through the streets with our heads down, afraid to interact with anybody. Why? It’s probably because we don’t know how to show the proper respect in momentary interactions and can’t expect to get it in return. There’s not much you can do about the latter, but this article should fix the former. 

The most important rule is to always give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Only an infinitesimal number of people are dangerous, although far more aren’t respectable. Of course, this doesn’t give much practical guidance but it’s a good starting point. 

You also can’t assume your business is more important than anyone else’s. You don’t know what they’re doing. For all you know, they’re on their way to present the perfect solution to crime, although that’s pretty unlikely. Don’t expect others to wait unnecessarily for you or to yield the right of way to you for no reason. 

If someone speaks to you, reply respectfully but don’t allow idle conversation with strangers to interfere with anyone’s business. If someone makes a request if you that only requires a brief pause then it’s advisable to oblige them, and it’s never a bad idea to give someone genuine help. Although you shouldn’t help people if it’s just going to make you feel good, so don’t give money to panhandlers since it’s most likely to be used to support a drug habit or a avoid contributing to society. 

If you make eye contact with someone in public then it’s extremely disrespectful to not acknowledge them. A nod of the head to a fellow man, a quick smile to a lady, or a wave is adequate, but if you’re wearing a hat you have better options. Touch the brim to acknowledge a fellow man or momentarily lift the hat to acknowledge a lady. If one of you is in the military or some other uniformed civil service then a salute may be appropriate, depending on local customs. 

Your speech around others must always be respectful, free of crude language and topics. Also, try to speak in the local language so people know your words aren’t disrespectful, and keep private topics in private. If you feel the need to play music then it needs to be inaudible or away from where others are likely to be, unless you’re busking. 

Those are all the rules that come to my mind for being respectful in superficial interactions. If you have recommended rules of your own or feel you can elaborate on mine, leave a comment.