Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

I was at brunch with my mother, enjoying a delicious plate of French toast and a club sandwich, when the server made a common fatal mistake. No, she didn’t spill my drink or forget my order. She continuously referred to my mother and me as “ladies”.  Aside from assuming our gender, – both of us do identify as women, but she didn’t know that –  I don’t like when people call me a lady. Lady recalls images of prim and proper women that are at the top of the social hierarchy; therefore, ladies are above other women not deemed good enough to be a lady. “Lady” is an antiquated term, designed to separate women from men and to separate women into those deserving of prestige and those that are not “ladylike.” Today, women are not separated into classes based on who deserves the title, but the term itself makes that distinction. 

Here is an incomplete list of things I have personally been told are not ladylike: having unpainted toenails, talking with my mouth full, having holes in my jeans, wearing crop tops, cursing, going to graduate school, shouting and talking about sex. Not only are men not ridiculed for these things, but their masculinity isn’t called into question for doing them. When something is labeled as unladylike, it implies that it goes against society’s idea of femininity. Usually, unladylike things oppose etiquette and modesty expectations. But when men dress provocatively or act like pigs at the dinner table, they are not called unmanly. The expectations aren’t fair.

I assert that “lady” is not feminist and verging on misogynistic. According to Dr. Debbie Cameron, a world-renowned sociolinguist who studies gender and language, there is a social distinction between the words “lady” and “woman.” It seems impolite to refer to a group of females as women –  why? In Cameron’s blog she claims, “The difference between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ in these examples is the difference between femininity and embodied femaleness.” Lady refers to a person’s femininity. Lady asks how much a female resembles what a female should be like and how much a female ignores the physicality of the female distinction. Whereas woman refers to the true physical nature of what it is to be a female. Cameron continues, “‘Lady’ is a euphemism, a veil drawn over the grossness of female physicality, sexuality and reproduction.” “Lady” ignores all the important things that make us female, whereas “woman” acknowledges them. So, when customer service workers use this terminology, they are reinforcing that division.  

The distinction between “lady” and “woman” may seem insignificant to some. Why should a customer service worker calling me “lady” insult me when it connotes women of class? I answer that question with another question –  why call me “lady” at all? If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to me.

 In Dr. Robin Lakoff’s 1973 study from Cambridge University, she concludes, “Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing.” 

“Lady” is a symptom of larger inequities at play in society. Why is my gender needlessly incorporated into an interaction where it is utterly meaningless, like in a customer service exchange?  

Antifeminist issues aside, there are more implications that come with the use of “lady” – is the recipient a woman at all? Assuming a person is a woman, even if they appear to be, is no longer an assumption everyone can make. A 2021 Gallup poll indicates 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ+, and one in six adult Generation Z members (18 to 23 year olds) identify as LGBTQ+. In a college town with an exceptionally high rate of people in that age group, assumed heteronormativity is even more dangerous.

As a customer service worker for many years, I make a conscious effort to not use “lady,” even when speaking to women and to use gender-inclusive pronouns or no pronouns at all. I serve ice cream at a local homemade ice cream store, and I interact with people of all genders and age groups. My fellow co-workers greet groups of women with “hey ladies” or groups of patrons with “hey guys” even if they don’t all appear to identify as a man. 

“Guys” started to become a group pronoun in English, to express a group in a casual way, like,“hey guys, how’s it going?” It’s natural and something we use so often in common conversation that we don’t even think about it. But is it right or appropriate to call a group of apparently female customers “guys”? Similarly, is it right to call that group “ladies”? Neither of them truly represents that group of apparent women.

When I approached my coworkers and encouraged them to use different terms to reference groups, they claimed they use terms like “ladies” and “guys” because they don’t know suitable alternatives. A reasonable excuse, I suppose. But ignorance is reasonable for only so long. 

My go-to greeting is, “hey y’all, how’s it going ”I came across a Reddit thread asking what to call female customers without “offending them.” The responses range from calling women “ma’am” or “miss,” depending on their assumed age, to just avoiding pronouns altogether. The Reddit thread was created over 10 years ago. The issue with pronouns and words-of-address is not new –  it’s just recently that pronoun discussions became more mainstream. Using a marked term, or a term that carries a gender distinction was once assumed but now can’t be. In a field such as customer service, where you interact with everyone, it’s better to use inclusive language, at the very least, to avoid a confrontation. A happy customer is always preferred to an unhappy one. 

 for groups, and “hey, how’s it going” for singular people. I use “y’all” for groups –I grew up using it, but “you all” is also a great substitute –  and omit pronouns for singular people. Another great alternative is “folks” as a group pronoun, especially for older people. The American Library Association has a helpful guide for improving customer service skills through using gender-neutral speech. It also includes language when talking to coworkers about customers, in which it’s perfectly acceptable to use they/them pronouns for strangers. Phrases like, “did you help them?” or simply, “did you help that patron?” work great. 

These are incredibly small alterations to your customer service skills that can make a powerful impact on people struggling to receive recognition for their appropriate genders and identifications. We don’t need to make it harder for them. Even if you don’t work in customer service, in your everyday speech with strangers, I implore you to use gender-neutral speech because I am tired of being called “lady.” 

Delaney is a fourth year English major at the University of Florida, with a focus on children's and young adult literature. Her favorite articles to write are book reviews and anything about women's issues, including writing about her often disastrous college dating life. When she isn't reading vampire novels or sipping tea, she can be found buying second-hand clothes or baking cookies.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️