I suspect I might have offended some of my professors/lecturers and tutors by calling them sir or miss despite them holding a PhD.

Edit (info provided in comment): I'm from Malaysia. We have our own variation of English called Manglish (Malaysian English). So ma'am instead of miss then for female college educators?

  • 20
    This depends on where you live... In France it would be weird to address anyone as "doctor", other than a medical doctor while they are working. Also, perhaps a native speaker can weigh on this, but I'm pretty sure that today calling anyone "miss" is rude (or at least not appropriate).
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:10
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    I would be offended if you called me "sir" (or "miss"), but not because I have a PhD.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 0:16
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    @JeffE Out of genuine curiosity, why (would it be offensive)?
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 18:25
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    @JeffE Have you ever been to, e.g., India? You'd spend your day being offended. After many years of teaching to international students, I've come to accept that students address you as they are used to, and it might take a long time to them to get accustomed to a different culture. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 19:48
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    @JeffE Then, I don't understand your previous comment in the context of this question. Would you mind explain? Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 4:43

7 Answers 7


I'm a male PhD holder from a private university in Malaysia. This answer is based on my personal experiences.

It is very common for me and my male colleagues to be addressed as 'Sir', and I have not personally come across any (local) academic staff for whom this has been a problem. Generally, 'Sir' is considered suitably respectful, especially as it's pretty often used as a translation for the Malay 'Tuan' or various Chinese dialect honorifics which could alternatively be translated to 'teacher' or 'professor'.

This is slightly different in universities with significant foreign teaching staff (I also have experience with 2 such examples), where some staff take more notice of these titles, but even in those situations I've not yet seen any academic staff take offense. It's easy enough to introduce ourselves to students with something like "Hi, my name is So-and-so and I'd like to be addressed as Dr. So".

That being said, please do not use 'Miss'. That's only partially acceptable in very Chinese-centric institutions, and not at all acceptable outside those. 'Ma'am' is much better, even though not as well known locally.

Finally, considering our local culture, there's probably a hard age limit above which you'd wish to be very careful how you address a teaching staff. Generally speaking once the academic staff is mid-40s or older (or old enough to be your parent) you should be more careful in including titles. The younger staff just starting out generally do not mind.

  • 8
    Comprehensive, well-written answer, targeted to OP's area. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 14:51
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    Sometimes, it’s the fresh PhD holders that are particular about the (new) honorific.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 8:18

As Johanna has noted, "Sir" and "Miss" are not actually equivalent titles. There's also a risk in that many female academics have grown weary of having their academic titles dropped while this happens more rarely to their male colleagues, so it's also possible the level of offense differs by gender.

Personally, I'd ask them what they prefer to be called, and address them by that.

If you called me "Sir" in a lecture, I'd think it was odd, but probably not take offense. I have a number of colleagues who if you called them "Miss" they're be irritated. "Ma'am" would be more equivalent to "Sir" in the U.S., and I suspect would fall under "Odd but probably inoffensive".

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    In the UK, 'ma'am' would be weird. There is no equivalent of 'sir' in the vocabulary used to address school teachers. I know you made this US-specific, but the OP's edit suggests that s/he may not have appreciated this, so perhaps it would be worth elaborating a bit. I'd assume somebody who called me 'ma'am' was taking the piss - and that reaction is one I could not entirely stifle even after teaching in the US for a decade.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:16
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    @cfr Growing up in the UK with many female teachers in primary, secondary and tertiary levels, we always addressed them as "Miss" in class, e.g. "Miss Barnes, I forgot my homework again", even if they were married (I'm assuming because it's an abbreviation of Mistress); by Sixth Form and university we're on first-name terms and we never addressed lecturers and professors by their titles e.g. "Dr Barnes" in class - only in formal situations and introductions. So I disagree that there's "no equivalent of 'sir'".
    – Dai
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:19
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    @Dai I mean in the US we called our female teachers in primary and secondary school "Miss" - but that both wasn't equiv. to "Sir", but rather "Mr" and it now feels genuinely more than a little archaic and presumptive.
    – Fomite
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:30
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    As a yankee in Texas, I had to get used to a more polite culture. Students from small towns will "sir" and "ma'am" the pants off you. And many children are taught by their parents to address older women (age 20 to 90) as "Miss Firstname" if they are familiar. Other wise "Miss or Mrs. Lastname." It can make someone uncomfortable if they're not used to it, but it is nice to have a good number of students who operate on the assumption that you outrank them (in a good way.)
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:46
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    In primary and secondary school, our teachers frequently objected to being called 'Miss'. Yes, people did it. And they were routinely told that the teachers considered it disrespectful, regardless of whether they were married or not. (All in the UK.)
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:59

Especially when you first meet an instructor or tutor, err on the side of formality. The person will volunteer if you may call them something else. (Also, as Johanna and Fomite mention, pay close attention to how they introduce themselves and how they sign emails to you.) If you have an academic advisor or a professor you feel comfortable approaching outside of class, you may be able to ask them about the appropriate forms of address.

After I introduced myself and signed all emails as "Dr. [Last Name]", a student sent me an email addressed to "Miss [Misspelled First Name]." I did not think it useful in that situation to correct the student, but it did not convey respect. I was not offended, per se, but I was annoyed that the student had not paid attention enough to know how to address me; while it did not affect the student's grade, it might have changed my perception if I were writing a letter of recommendation. I still am amused by how wrong the student got this, and I still wonder whether they were trying to get it as wrong as possible. (Personally, I find "Miss [First Name]" less respectful than just "[First Name]".)

If a student called me "Miss" or "Miss [Last Name]" or "Ma'am" in person, I would dislike that and probably politely say, "Please, call me Dr. [Last Name] or Professor [Last Name]." (My title is not "Professor," so I was originally hesitant to usurp that title, but it seems to be the culture here.)

There's a lot of politics around status in this question. It looks petty to squabble or correct someone over mode of address. However, many students act disrespectfully toward instructors who appear younger, especially if they are female. Not using forms of address that are respectful within your culture (for instance, that acknowledge role as a teacher and/or academic degree) can signal that the student might later challenge the instructor's authority in other ways.

In the U.S., you can respectfully address someone as "Professor [Last Name]," "Doctor [Last Name]," "Professor," or "Doctor." Often "Professor" is used based on the person being one's teacher, whether or not their job title includes "professor" and whether or not they have a doctorate. In other systems (I believe the UK?), there may be a lot of status attached to being able to call someone "Professor" beyond mere "Doctor," so perhaps calling the lecturer "Doctor" or "Doctor [Last Name]" is the safest approach.

  • Definitely agree about '<first name>' being better than 'Miss <anything>'.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:23

This does depend on where you are. However, in the west, addressing anyone as Miss is considered a little inappropriate. A woman's title should not be determined by her marriage status. Sir for a male professor is not quite as bad, just very odd. In general, in an academic context you should use a person's academic title unless they have asked you to use something else (like first name).

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    "The west* is not a homogeneous block. Your advice would be wrong in some places. Besides OP said he comes from Malaysia.
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:50
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    @DSVA However they introduce themselves. Asking what you should calk them is also an option. In general, Ms is the title that corresponds to Mr.
    – user141592
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 16:28
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    "Sir for a male professor is not quite as bad, just very odd": Please, don't generalize too much. Most of my students from south Asia address me as "Sir", so there is probably a large part of the world where this would not be considered odd. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 18:36
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    I definitely agree to stay away from miss. I hate it when my students call me that. It makes me feel like a 12-year-old girl.
    – lemontwist
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 19:00
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    More than 'a little inappropriate'. Many would definitely be offended by this.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:20

Unfortunately, you do not include your location in your question, I will answer from a UK perspective.

Note to non-UK readers: in the UK, "sir" and "miss" are the standard titles for schoolchildren to refer to their teachers, regardless of name or title. The usage of 'miss' in this context is distinct from the usage of "Miss" vs. "Mrs" for unmarried/married women or the use of "Ms" to avoid either. For teachers below university level, this is polite, normal, and fine.

I would not take being called "Sir" as rude, as such, just odd. 'Sir' is what you get called in fancy shops; you're not a school child and you're not serving me in a shop, you don't need to call me sir. When I was teaching as a graduate student my standard reply to students who did so was "I am neither a teacher nor a knight; you do not need to call me 'sir'". I'll not presume to comment on how my female colleagues feel about being called 'miss'.

But, as to taking offence, most academics are used to dealing with students from other cultures who may use different styles of address with varying levels of formality and unlikely to actually be offended if you get it wrong. Your best bet is to observe the local culture and try and adopt the style of address used by those around you. In the UK, that usually means referring to your lecturers as 'Dr. X' or 'Prof X' (if they're a professor) the first time you talk to them and then just using their first name after that.


Undergraduate students (particularly level 1) are probably not familiar with the idea of the title "Doctor" when applied to non-medical people. When I first referred to a tutor as "Mr X" he corrected me saying he was "Dr X". I don't believe any offense was taken and afterwards I referred to all my tutors as Dr.

Much later, I was introducing staff members to students and asked a colleague about the title of a new female staff member. I was assured that she hadn't formally been awarded her PhD yet so introduced to her to the students as "Ms Y" (in the UK I believe it is more common to refer to women as Ms rather than Miss, indeed I am aware of one example where someone was referred to as Miss then asked to be referred to as Ms). She was quite angry at this and claimed her correct title was Dr so I made an apology. Frankly, I thought she over-reacted to this but explained my reasoning.

So, I believe most people would just correct you with no offence taken, some people do get uptight about it.

  • Presumably you felt she overreacted because you had reasonable grounds to use 'Ms'. If, say, you'd used 'Ms" despite knowing she had a PhD (which I take to be the OP's position), wouldn't it look rather different? Also, I note that you did not use 'Miss' and I take it you wouldn't have used 'sir', even if the new member of staff was male. So I'm not sure how directly this answer relates to the question actually asked.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:30
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    @Dai I related an incident that happened to me when I was a student. After leaving school I'd never even heard of the term PhD. Not sure where you get your statistics from.
    – jim
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:55
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    @Dai You apparently come from the US. Why do you assume that all of "the developed world" is exactly like the US? I had (very few, maybe 1-2) teachers who were doctors in secondary school, and I have never, nor have I heard anybody (not once in my life!) call them "doctor". It just isn't done here. I called them "Monsieur" and "Madame". Anything else would have been strange. Now that I am myself a doctor, I have been called "docteur" only as a joke the day of my defense, or by foreigners. (Now perhaps you don't consider that France is part of "the developed world".)
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 11:38
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    @Dai "I'd wager the majority of secondary schools in the developed world have at least one PhD teaching staff member." Depends on the country. There are countries where teachers normally don't have PhDs and even the ones they do, do not often get or like to be addressed as "Dr." Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 15:33
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    Certainly in the questioneer's country (also mine) it's very rare to have a PhD holder teaching at a secondary school level. Even our universities sometimes have up to 50% of teaching staff who do not hold PhDs (either very experienced degree-holding professionals or masters holders).
    – Ng Oon-Ee
    Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 1:59

If it's a Ph.D, no, depending on the person you are addressing, and depending on the environment and situation you are in. If you are addressing them on front of their peers, and in a formal context, then "Doctor Smith" or "Doctor Jones" or whatever is fine. Sir is okay but not the convention.

If it's a medical doctor, then always "Doctor" - Sir is perhaps okay for a gentleman, but never ever "Miss" for a lady as it undermines status, and they need that status to make a living.

  • In the UK, consultants are no longer called 'Doctor' but rather 'Mr' or 'Ms' or whatever. That is, for the most senior medics, 'Doctor' disrespects their status in a way that regular 'Mr'/'Ms' does not.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:25
  • @cfr No, that's only for surgeons: rcseng.ac.uk/patient-care/surgical-staff-and-regulation/… - all other doctors, including highly credentialed specialists are referred to as Doctors.
    – Dai
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 23:22
  • @Dai There are an awful lot of surgeons who apparently never do any surgery in our local NHS trust hospital, then. I've never seen a consultant go by 'Doctor'. Not saying they don't, but that's certainly not been my experience here.
    – cfr
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 0:02

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