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Now that I’m well past youth, I encounter salesmen, waiters, and other casual contacts who append young man to their greetings: “Good afternoon, young man!” The perpetrator is always male and, usually, younger than myself. Since I remain the sort of person who frets about tiny social irritants, I leave the store/restaurant/front desk inventing comebacks: “And good afternoon to you, skinny/handsome/muscles,” or whatever nickname would give the most conspicuous lie to the offender’s own condition. But that would be mean, wouldn’t it? Whereas him saying, in effect, “Hello, sir, I notice you’re getting old, so let’s defuse the tension right away” gets a pass as well-intentioned.
Can you explain the rationale behind focusing instantly on some pigeonholing feature in the guise of pleasantry? I won’t really respond to these guys because I’m not assertive enough, but I’d love to replay your best ideas in front of the bathroom mirror.
Thank you for your question, sir.
Under these conditions, the strongest return of serve is a crisp backhanded insult. When a cutely ironic or otherwise irritating direct address leaves a gentleman feeling undignified, he should assert the superiority of treating people with dignity.
Smirking salesman: “Good afternoon, young man.”
Older gentleman: “Good afternoon, sir.”
This is always a correct reply. You could also try italicizing the tone of the sir so that it lightly slaps your interlocutor with an implicit disdain for his low standards of conversational conduct.
Why is the salesman speaking to you this way? I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’d say that his manager told him to, possibly guided by the belief that some people find this kind of thing ingratiating. The problem with the salutations you describe is their false familiarity; the young salesman who addresses an older customer as young man is assuming a privilege of intimacy. He’s joshing around like you guys are already old pals when all you ought to be is two gentlemen doing business as pleasantly as possible.
The most correct form of address for a dude whose name you have no reason to know is sir. For instance, when drawing a dude’s attention to a book that dropped from a carry-on bag to an industrial carpet at JFK, you might say, “Sir? I think your Tipping Point slipped behind the chair.”
Of course, American society (if that’s not too strong a phrase) is generally a casual environment, and there are many contexts where using sir seems cold and stilted, like the diction of an incompetent narc. In relaxed circumstances, you may correctly address a dude whose name you have no reason to know as dude or mack or buddy.
Other popular options include pal, partner, par’ner, chief, governor, hoss, and my main man. The guys at the coffee cart make my friend work, and the GS is nearly nostalgic for the random panhandling street hustler who once hailed him as slim, a title certainly more desirable than Poindexter. No one minds being addressed as doctor or captain.
However, every now and then—more often if you’re running with the wrong crowd—you may injure the feeling of a dude who feels that you are mocking his rough manners and low social standing by addressing him as sir. The sir directed at the salesguy has a trace of this mockery. That is its beauty. You are dissing the guy by being respectful of him and his position, with its obligation to make the customer always right with the world. But the point is, though the salesguy probably won’t shiv you, some dudes who take offense at being called sir will. Comport yourself accordingly.
When addressing male children whose names you have no reason to know, stick with little boy, young man, and young sir. If he is being annoying, then you can say, hey, kid with impunity. After age 13 or 14, sir or dude or youngblood will work for boys. Also, if a group of them is loitering in a pool hall, you may address them as you boys, with the subtext of you punks, as in: “You boys know where the bridge stick is?”
Girls under 13, you may address as young lady, miss, little lady, or principessa.
Girls 13 and older you may cause to blush by addressing as ma’am.
Women are tricky. Lady has an edge of chiding and derision or correction. Ma’am implies a certain agedness. Madame is impossible unless you are a maître d’hôtel in an animated film. Best to stick with Miss, which is only superficially anti-Ms. and accepted across class lines on most major U.S. transit systems.