Do you still get confused about when to use Miss, Mrs., or Ms.? Ditto. These are just three examples of honorifics—words that imply or express status, politeness, or respect–that are still used in the workplace when addressing cover letters and emails, introducing someone, or meeting a new colleague.
Although they might sound fairly similar, they’re not interchangeable terms, and it’s always important to practice respectful, professional etiquette as often as possible when interacting with others in the workplace. In this guide, we’ll lay out the history of these honorifics, how to decide which term to use in different situations and contexts, and how to make the conversation around this topic more progressive and inclusive in the workplace.
An introduction of each term & its usage
Which term you prefer to use is completely up to you. But historically, the terms have denoted women’s marital status and/or age. Here’s a quick guide on all three:
The term “miss” generally refers to an unmarried woman or younger girl (some say that 30 years old is the cutoff for using this term). It can be used by itself, without referring to names (ex: “excuse me, miss, you dropped your book”), or can be combined with someone’s first and/or last name (ex: “Miss Tia Edwards is our new software engineer intern”). Miss wasn’t adopted by adult women until the middle of the 18th century, and before that, Miss was only used for girls.
“Mrs.,” an abbreviation of “missus,” has been around since the 16th century and generally refers to a married woman. Sometimes, a divorced or widowed woman will still go by Mrs. When using Mrs., it’s customary to combine the term with a woman’s last name (ex: Mrs. Jefferson).
In the past, Mrs. was used along with a woman’s husband’s name (ex: Mrs. Carlos Jefferson), but this practice is becoming more scarce as we move toward more progressive language. For more context, The New York Times dove into the history of the word “Mrs.” through a contemporary lens to see what the honorific means to women and their identity, and how the meaning changed over time.
In the 1950s, women started pushing for a third, more neutral term: “Ms.” Feminists promoted Ms.–short for “mistress”–as the female counterpart to Mr., and the movement gained steam in the 1970s. Ms. is commonly accepted as the most neutral of the three, since it applies to any adult woman, regardless of her marital status. If you’re unsure of a woman’s preferred title or marital status, Ms. sounds like it would be your safest bet, right? We’ll talk about that in the next section.
Note: Keep in mind that “Dr.” is another honorific, and any woman who has earned a doctorate degree should be referred to as Dr. [last name].
How to know what to use when addressing someone else
Should we even be using these terms in the workplace anymore? Many workplaces are becoming more and more informal (bye bye dress codes, hello flexible hours), especially in terms of communication, which means that honorifics can come across as very formal. Despite that, they’re terms you’ll inevitably encounter in your professional life, so it’s best to know what to use, when, and why sometimes actively avoiding them altogether is the right choice.
If you’re addressing someone for the first time and don’t know what they prefer, simply ask what they’d like you to call them:
"It’s nice to meet you. Do you go by Sundha or do you prefer something else? / Do you mind if I call you by your first name?"
If someone else is introducing the both of you, follow the introducer’s lead. When writing an email or a letter, steer clear of honorifics. Use the person’s first and last name, and watch for how they address you in their response. Never use Mrs. unless you’re absolutely confident they’re married and that’s their preference.
You might be thinking to yourself, “But Ms. is clearly the safest option, why avoid honorifics?” Well, Miss, Mrs., and Ms. are still all gendered terms, and it’s important to avoid going into any conversation with assumptions about a person's gender or their titles or pronouns. The best and most straightforward way to make sure you use the right words when introducing someone is to simply ask them what they prefer.
For example, if you're introducing someone in public or even on a virtual onboarding meeting, speak with them beforehand about their honorific preferences to avoid any confusion or embarrassment. You can simply ask them:
"When I introduce you, how would you like to be addressed?"
Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is a major way of showing respect for someone’s gender identity.
It can be uncomfortable deciding which term to use, as it’s unlikely you’re setting out to intentionally offend your colleagues. Chances are, no one is going to hold a grudge against you if you use the wrong term. But if you do slip up and someone corrects you, apologize and make it a point to use their preferred term going forward.
How to make this topic more progressive and inclusive
A lot of our everyday language is binary and excludes people who don’t identify as exclusively female or male. LGBTQ+ activists and linguists have pushed for more inclusive language when it comes to honorifics, and small tweaks to our language can go a long way to respect nonbinary individuals and promote gender equality.
For example, in 2017, Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral honorific Mx. (pronounced like “mix”) to its dictionary. The title is intended "for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender, or for people who simply don't want to be identified by gender." If you’re in the C-Suite, it’s important to set the stage for inclusive language and encourage employees to use whichever honorific makes them most comfortable. If you’re not at the top, you can still influence company culture by setting an example for those around you.
Another way for CEOs and managers to promote inclusivity is to encourage all employees and direct reports to include their personal pronouns in email signatures, LinkedIn bios, or business cards, so that employees can both normalize usage of nonbinary pronouns and accurately address everyone in the company. Examples of personal pronouns include:
Read more: What Is Inclusion in the Workplace?