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

February 5, 2013  |  


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 a blog dedicated to Christ, culture, and everything in between.

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  • Jochar

    In this day and age, calling someone Mame/Sir/Mr/Mrs/ is in too many ways unacceptable in. Exception to this iis for authority figures or when requested.

    Since I have been 18, I have been calling people by their first name. I find this keeps thing informal and allows others to relate better. I prefer everyone call me by my first name too.

    This seems to be the norm in vancouver canada.

  • anonymouse

    if you mean calling someone ‘ms insert first name’, then I don’t think that’s ever appropriate. I hate that my mom’s co-workers call her ‘ms. dorothy’ and I wasn’t fond of it when the kids in the daycare that I was helping out at called me ‘ms. jennifer’ either. From my experience, most people who use the ‘ms’ or ‘ma’am’ term are not doing it out of respect anyways and it’s best just to call people by their first name or ms. whatever their last name is

  • MissK

    I SERIOUSLY had this conversation with myself yesterday! I received a wedding invitation yesterday and at the bottom of the RSVP card its a space for you to enter your “title” and name — “M_____________:. I hesitated because I was confused; am I MISS or MS.?! I’m 27 but felt that Ms. was reserved for single older women, over 40… but Miss seems a bit too immature. What am I?!?! Ms. or Miss?!

    • jochar

      I am a bit shocked that you did not assume all female, even those under 18, would have the title ms.

      When Mrs and Miss was the acceptable norm, at 27, you would have been a Mrs and had a number of children.

  • MsTea67

    Not sure but at 45, most young people call me Miss. I expect my 2 younger children
    (17 & 18 y.o), to call anyone my age or close (40 y.o) Miss __ or Mr. ___, unless the person does not want that expression of respect. My 23 y.o son does not have to do this, but he still does. I am old school and it was expected but it is a matter of what you deem acceptable. I do not expect all younger people to do this since it was not part of their training.


    For me, I would start calling a woman ‘Ms.’ if she is 25 or older.

  • Drew Smith

    “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…” Ashley, what sense does this phrase make? She’s either old enough to be your mother, or she’s your mother’s age. Come on, now. I’m wondering whether the writers on this site proofread their own material, because it’s painfully obvious that a dedicated editor isn’t on the payroll. I’ll admit it: I’m hypercritical, but I also don’t see any reason why a lack of attention to detail should be so easily forgiven. Madame Noire writers, please do your craft justice by striving for excellence; it’s part of the Writer’s Creed. Good day.

  • bigdede

    Anyone my mother’s or father’s age I call Ms. or Mr. But if that woman who is my mother’s age acts like she’s 21 and wants to hang out, I’m calling her by her first name. Also, I don’t call my supervisor or managers Ms. I call them by their first name. My grandmother use to forbid us from saying Sir or Ma’am. Maybe because she was raised in the South and had to say that all the time, she did not want us to use that word. She wouldn’t even let us call our great grandmother (her mother) ma’am. So never used that word

  • Darling

    At what age do you start calling another woman Ms.? Well, if you’re an African American woman, especially one in the baptist church, you call every other woman who is at least one minute older than you Ms. because she is your elder. *Rolling eyes.