When you’re among friends and family members who are your own age, you probably refer to each other by your first names. You might even address each other using nicknames or other terms of endearment. But when you’re addressing someone older than you—whether they’re a family member, friend, or a stranger—that’s not always the best choice.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Can You Call Family Members Who Are Older Than You?
- What Can You Call Older Friends or Family Friends?
- How Should You Refer to Older Strangers?
So if it doesn’t’ feel appropriate to call an older acquaintance by their first name, what should you call them? Some languages, like Korean and Japanese, have specific rules about how you should refer to your elders.
They even have specific terms based on age range, roles, and social distance, known as honorifics. But in English, the rules are much less cut-and-dried. And we have far fewer options when it comes to addressing our elders.
Below are some helpful ideas if you’re looking for ways to refer to someone older than you, whether that person is your family member, a friend, or an acquaintance or stranger.
What Can You Call Family Members Who Are Older Than You?
Many of the older people you interact with might be your family members. Some of them could be well-known to you, and you might only encounter some of them once or twice in your life. Either way, these terms referring to older family members might apply.
1. Aunt or Uncle (First Name or Last Name)
If you’re speaking with (or about) an older aunt or uncle who you know pretty well, you can use their first name and the title Aunt or Uncle. For example, “Hello, Aunt Justine!” or “How is Uncle Benjamin doing?”
The titles “Aunt” and “Uncle” can apply to your direct aunts and uncles (your parents’ siblings) as well as your great aunts and uncles (your grandparents’ siblings).
You can use “Great Uncle (Name),” if it feels comfortable, for your great aunts and uncles, too. For example, “I haven’t seen Great Aunt Margaret in ages.”
If you’re referring to an aunt or uncle who you’re not especially close with, you can refer to them by their last name instead. For example, “Where’s Aunt McArthur?” This works especially well if the person has a different last name from you, and if they’re your only aunt or uncle with that last name.
2. Grandma or Grandpa (First Name or Last Name)
Most of the same rules that apply for aunts and uncles apply for grandparents. When it comes to your grandparents, you most likely have your own names for them, such as Grammy or Pops. And that’s usually what you’ll call them.
But if you need to address a grandparent more directly or clarify who you’re talking about, you can add their name onto that.
When referring to your grandparents, however, it’s usually best to stick with last names. After all, you’ll usually have one set of grandparents on each side of the family, so there’s no need to clarify with first names. And referring to an elder such as a grandparent by their first name can come across as disrespectful. Therefore, consider addressing your grandparent as “Grandma Jones” or “Grandfather Jacobson.”
3. Ma’am or Sir
In many families, using “ma’am” or “sir” to refer to your elders is boilerplate. In others, the terms may only come up now and again or never come up at all.
But if you need to address an older family member, and you’re at a loss for what to call them, “ma’am” or “sir” should be your go-to, default options.
4. Captain, Sergeant
If your older family member is a decorated serviceman or woman, it’s appropriate to refer to them by their title. You’ll likely hear other family members doing the same, especially in the case of “Captain.” This title can also apply to captains in fire departments and police departments.
To use this term, you can simply say “Captain,” as in, “See you tomorrow, Captain.” Or you can refer to your elder family member when talking to someone else as “the Captain” as in, “Is the Captain coming over for dinner?”
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What Can You Call Older Friends or Family Friends?
Not all of the older people you interact with are family members. Some might be friends of the family, or even friends you meet separately at work or elsewhere. Here are some ways you can refer to your older friends and family friends.
5. Mrs., Ms., or Mr. (Last Name)
Your most basic option is to refer to the older individual by the last name, preceded with the honorific Mr., Mrs., or Ms.
- “Mr.” is an honorific title that refers to all males, regardless of their marital status.
- “Mrs.” traditionally refers to women who are married, but it also refers to women who are well-established or simply prefer to go by “Mrs.” rather than “Ms.”
- “Ms.” traditionally applies to older women who aren’t married and to women whose marital status is unknown.
If you’re in doubt about whether to address an older woman as Mrs. or Ms., go with “Ms.” until you’re sure.
6. Ma’am or Sir
Again, if you’re ever unsure of how to refer to someone older than you—including a family friend—you can default to “sir” or “ma’am.”
For women, you can also use the term, “madam.” Unlike Mr., Mrs., and Ms., you don’t need to include a last name or surname after sir, ma’am, or madame. This makes these phrases useful for older people whose last names you don’t yet know.
These titles might feel too formal if you’re referring to someone you’re close with, however.
7. Reverend, Pastor, Rabbi
Many families become close with their religious leaders, so a family friend might be one of these. If so, you can refer to your elder by their title.
You can simply use “Reverand” as in, “Thank you, Reverend,” or you can throw in the person’s last name, as in, “Goodbye, Rabbi Smith.”
How Should You Refer to Older Strangers?
Knowing how to refer to an older stranger can be even more difficult since you don’t know their name. But often, respecting your elders is even more important when you’re making a first impression or meeting someone for the first time.
Below are some ideas for referring to an older stranger.
8. Professor or Doctor
One of the most common times you’ll encounter and work with older people you don’t know yet is at college or university. Before you get to know your instructors, it’s a safe bet to refer to them as “Professor.” You can simply say “Professor,” or you can use the person’s last name, as in, “Where can I find the syllabus, Professor Jones?”
However, if you’ve seen your instructor’s name listed somewhere and it was followed by “Ph.D.,” you can also refer to that person as “Doctor.” It’s best to use this term with their last name, as in, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Roosevelt.”
9. Mr., Mrs., or Ms. and Sir or Ma’am
If you’re referring to someone who’s not your professor and you’re not sure of their title, it’s always appropriate to use Mr., Mrs., or Ms. (See number 5, above, to find out when to use each of these.)
And just as with family and friends, you can always default to “Sir” or “Ma’am” if you’re not sure what to call an older stranger.
10. First name
You don’t always have to use an honorific term when you’re speaking with or about someone older than you. If you’re close with the person, it’s appropriate to refer to them by their first name, even if they’re much older than you.
This is especially true in business situations, where people generally address each other by first name (unless you’re speaking with a boss or higher-up who goes by Mr. or Mrs.). It’s also true online, where people typically use their first names.
How to Address Someone Older than You
Knowing what to call someone who’s older than you is a good start in being respectful towards your elders. But it’s also essential to speak with proper manners and to help them to address you, too.
For example, when you’re speaking to an elder, it’s respectful to use terms like, “Excuse me,” “Pardon me,” “Good morning/good afternoon/good evening,” and “Thank you,” in combination with however you’ve chosen to address them (Ma’am, Sir, etc.)
And you should always take into account that an older person might not remember how to address you, so it’s considered respectful to offer a solution. For example, you can say, “Please, call me (your name),” when first meeting a professor or when you notice someone doesn’t remember your name.
If you’re ever at a loss for how to address someone older than you, observe how others around them address them. You’ll quickly notice whether people use Mr. or Mrs., or whether they use another title like Professor or Doctor. Then, take into account your particular relationship with the individual to decide how you’ll refer to them.
If you’re still unsure, it’s considered polite to directly ask the person, “How would you like to be addressed?” or, “What should I call you?”