Serious Question: At What Age Do You Start Calling A Woman Ms.?

February 5, 2013  |  

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Issa Rae isn’t the only awkward black girl in existence.  For years I’ve found myself in awkward situations and my latest socially awkward mishap came as a result of not knowing the proper protocol of addressing people correctly. Specifically, women who were a bit older than me.

Whenever I meet older women, in a professional setting and outside of work, I usually embark on a silent debate of whether or not to give them a pre-fix of Ms. If a woman appears 10 years older than me but less than 20, is it considered social suicide to put Ms. before her name?  At what point is it acceptable to address her by her first name if she doesn’t ask me to, and am I unknowingly offending people by giving them an undeserving matronly title?

I know that even when you’re trying to be polite, calling someone “Ms.” can get a playful, but negative reaction (“OH NO! Please don’t call me that!”). And since some women have the tendency to be catty, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some folks are intentionally doling out titles that no one wants. I know I can’t help questioning the reasoning of any woman a few years younger than me that calls me “Ms.” anything.  A five year age difference is hardly enough of a difference to warrant Ms. in front of my name, but are there any real hard and fast rules to know what age range determines when someone should or should not be addressed as such?

I just learned a colleague’s real age after several years of knowing her.  I always assumed she was only a few years older than me, but it turns out that she’s old enough to be my mother’s age, and she just has extremely good genes.  I’ve been calling her by her first name because I didn’t know she was so much older than me and now I’m wondering if calling her simply by her first name was disrespectful.  She never corrected me and she never told me what she’d prefer I call her when we initially met, but now, knowing the vast age difference, I’m in an awkward position. Or maybe I’m overreacting?

I can avoid using her name altogether in many different situations by utilizing different monikers like “homegirl” or “sista.” Or I could listen intently as introductions are given and try to decipher if I heard her add Ms. before her name.  Or, I could even ask her what she prefers to be called, but then again, being awkward as I initially stated, it hasn’t been my first thought. But what would you do? And how do you determine who you want to call “Ms.” and who you address by their first name? And how do you feel if and when someone pulls those two letters out on you?

Ashley Brumeh is the creator of www.everythingelo.com a blog dedicated to Christ, culture, and everything in between.

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