This article is part of a series focusing on inclusive language. Learn more by visiting theinclusivelanguagehandbook.com.
For years, the traditional business communication advice has been to use “Mr.” for a man and “Ms.” for a woman. However, now we know that those forms of address aren’t fully inclusive because they don’t include people outside the binary categories “man” or “woman.” Even the recent addition of “Mx.,” for someone who is nonbinary or genderfluid, doesn’t actually solve the problem, and for many people, it feels inauthentic and uncomfortable.
Asking which courtesy title – or honorific – the person uses is a best practice, just like asking a person’s pronouns. But what if you don’t know the gender of the person you are addressing – either because you are writing an email or making a cold call?
Some writers choose to exclude honorifics entirely and address everyone by their first name. But in some cases, that too seems inadequate, largely because using these titles is a way to honor the other person’s dignity. When someone who is trying to earn my business calls me “Ms. Keister,” for instance, I feel respected and valued. I feel differently when they address me as just “Amber.”
“There are lots of feelings associated with these gendered honorifics, because people feel they’re so inherently tied to respect,” says Dr. Dana Riger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Human Development & Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sidney Poitier as police detective Virgil Tibbs eloquently demonstrates the emotional weight of courtesy titles in the classic 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. Tibbs is taunted about his first name by small-town Mississippi police chief Bill Gillespie, who says: “That’s a funny name for a […] boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?” and Tibbs angrily responds: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”
By demanding the courtesy title and the respectful treatment he deserves, Poitier’s character pushes back against the systemic racism of the time. The scene especially resonated with Black audiences, who were often denied the dignity signaled by the honorific. There are still many people who consider using a person’s first name without their permission to be a microaggression.
Luckily, there’s nothing wrong with using Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Mx., so long as it’s consistent with someone’s stated gender identity.
On a cold call, greeting someone with their full name is usually appropriate, followed perhaps by “Do you mind if I call you [FIRST NAME]?” After this question, people will generally tell you how they wish to be addressed.
Written correspondence is a bit more tricky. “Hello” is a fine way to begin a casual note, but when that level of informality would be offensive, Riger suggests a quick online search for which pronouns a person uses. LinkedIn or company bios are great places to find that information. You are likely to be safe using Mr. for someone who uses he/him/his, Ms. for someone using she/her/hers, and Mx. for someone using they/them/theirs.
“The practice of identifying your pronouns either in your signature or in your profile helps normalize the sharing of those things, so you don’t have to guess which pronoun someone uses,” Riger says.
For the most inclusive honorific, Riger agrees with the syndicated advice column “Miss Manners,” which suggests addressing unknown persons with the abbreviated M., as the French often do. The genderless courtesy title makes no assumptions, and it can be used in formal business correspondence where first names may not be needed or desired.
Professions like academia, healthcare, and government sidestep the gender dilemma entirely with titles like Doctor, Professor, Governor, or Senator. This practice of using professional titles can also be used in written correspondence. For example, in a job application, “Dear hiring manager” or “Dear search committee” can replace the outdated and clunky “Dear sir or madam” or the standoffish “To whom it may concern.”
The real challenge is with “ma’am” and “sir.” If you work in customer service or were taught as a child to respond to adults with “Yes, ma’am” and “Thank you, sir,” like many of us raised in or transplanted to the South, it’s difficult to stop using these terms.
“Because you grow up saying, ‘Hello ma’am’ or ‘Thank you, sir,’ not saying that feels like there’s something missing,” Riger says.
To break the habit, she suggests coming up with responses that fill the now-empty space where your brain wants to put gendered forms of address. Instead of saying, “Thank you, sir,” you can say, “Thank you so much. Have a great day.” Or instead of saying, “Yes, ma’am,” say, “Yes, indeed.”
“If we’re going to change the culture around gender assumptions or inclusivity, there are going to be some growing pains,” she says. “It’s okay to feel like, ‘It doesn’t really feel right,’ or ‘It doesn’t feel like it should.’”
The key takeaways are to be mindful and respectful, do some research, ask the other person how they wish to be addressed, and welcome any corrections with grace.
“Language is fluid, and it’s constantly evolving,” Riger says. “It’s really important when anybody’s having discussions around gender inclusivity, just be open to the idea of change and learning and growth.”
Learn more by ordering The Diversity Movement’s first full-length book: The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership and by watching our related webinar: The Word Choice Workshop: Inclusive Language Tips for Everyday Business.
Amber Keister is a Content Writer and Editor at The Diversity Movement. She has spent more than 20 years as a journalist for publications throughout the South. Connect with her on Linkedin.