Despite the confusion that comes along with self-identification and pronoun use, it is still not generally acceptable to call a girl or woman “sir”. Anyone doing so commits a serious faux pas in Western society.
Here, we will explain why calling a woman “sir” is at best misguided and at worse, considered rude and disrespectful.
Note: We will not be reviewing how to address nobility or royalty.
Honorific Forms of Address
The English language uses specific terms to convey courtesy and respect when one person is addressing another. Traditionally, these honorifics are based on several factors:
- Official government title
- Military rank
- Membership in the clergy
- Educational status
- Job title
Appropriate Honorifics for Women
When addressing females, these are the acceptable honorifics:
- Miss – Girls or unmarried women
When the honorific is referring to a young girl, it is permissible to say Miss (First name), but when referring to an adult woman, it is more appropriate to say Miss (Last name).
- Ms. – Adult women whose marital status is not known
- Mrs. – Married women
- Mdm. – A term of respect for a woman of authority
For a woman holding a political office, the correct use is Mdm. (Office), “Mdm. Ambassador” for example.
For a civilian woman, the correct use is Mdm. (Last name).
“Mistress” used to be the appropriate term for a woman who was head of the household, but because of modern connotations, it has fallen out of favor. Of interest, Miss, Ms., and Mrs. are all abbreviations of “mistress”.
“Ma’am” is a general term of respect for a female, appropriate for use on most occasions, especially when nothing else is known about them. In modern usage, it is largely interchangeable with Miss or Ms.
For example, if a man on the street wanted to ask a female stranger for directions, he could address her with, “Excuse me, ma’am/Miss/Ms.”, and each would be appropriate.
Similarly, it is customary for someone in a service position to address women as “ma’am”, i.e. – “Good afternoon. May I help you, ma’am?”
In common usage, “ma’am” is the female equivalent of “sir”.
What Does the Military Have Say?
If there was a situation where you might guess that distinction of gender was not recognized, you would think that it would be the military. However, that is not at all the case. The protocols for addressing a service member are clearly defined and do differ, depending upon the gender of the person being addressed.
According to Army Field Manual 7-21-12, The Soldier’s Guide:
“Most forms of military courtesy have some counterpart in civilian life. For example, we train soldiers to say sir or ma’am when talking to a higher-ranking officer.”
The military recognizes the differences between men and women. Using the proper term for the other person’s gender is a sign of respect and courtesy. To call a female superior officer “sir” is disrespectful, insubordinate, and can even lead to military punishment.
What about the Business World?
Even the corporate world recognizes how important it is to address someone properly. Once upon a time, it was commonplace for companies to send out letters with the heading, “Dear Sirs”. Of course, not every recipient was a man.
A few years ago, a prestigious law firm in London switched its salutation to “Dear Sir or Madam”. For their US correspondence, their letters will now begin, “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen”.
Chris Pugh, the Managing Partner for Freshfield Law Firm, said, “It’s a relatively small change, but it’s a significant point, and you notice that when everyone immediately accepts that the change needs to happen.”
The company made similar changes within the rest of its global network, updating the heading in Mandarin, Cantonese, and European languages.
Addressing someone properly is a basic courtesy to which everyone is entitled. Calling a woman “sir” is sexist and can even be considered discriminatory. There is no circumstance where it is acceptable to do so.