How can we name female people whose name we dont know when we refer to them?

I was in a situation in which I talked to a female person who works at information desk in a company and after I talked to her , I talked to someone else in the same place.So in this situation how can we refer to the first person I talked to if we do not her name and she is about in middle-ages like 35.

Should I say:

1.The lady I talked to on reception desk said that.. (for me it sounds fancy)

2.The woman I talked to on reception desk said that.. (for me it sounds a bit rude )

3.The girl I talked to on reception desk said that.. ( for me it sounds unfitting)

4.The ma'am I talked to on reception desk said that..

5.Another option

I wrote what I feel for some options but I can be wrong. Thank you

  • 4
    There is nothing rude about #2. I think it's your safest option.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:35
  • 2
    "The woman 'at' the reception desk",(AmE) or "The woman 'in' reception," (as in 'reception area') -or- "The receptionist said..." (save yourself the social anxiety)
    – Oldbag
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:52
  • 3
    Do not use 'girl' to refer to grown woman.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:25
  • 1
    If you don't like girl, you might wanna try 'guuuuuuurl' Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:45
  • 4
    Is mentioning her gender necessary? If not, I might go with "person", or "The receptionist I spoke to..."
    – BowlOfRed
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 21:09

5 Answers 5


This is generationally and regionally variable. I am answering for the West Coast of the United States.

1.The lady I spoke with at the reception desk said that..

Feels slightly casual to my ears, but is frequently used.

2.The woman I spoke with at the reception desk said that..

In most cases I would chose this one.

3.The girl I spoke with at the reception desk said that..

Unless she is much, much younger than me (high school age), I would not say this. People older than me - say 50-55 and up would say this with no disrespect intended, even if the woman is their own age.

4.The ma'am I spoke with at the reception desk said that..

I sometimes use ma'am when addressing women directly. I would absolutely never refer to a woman in the third person as a ma'am or the ma'am unless she ran a brothel. It sounds too much like madam.

  1. The gal I spoke with at the reception desk said that..

This is common in the West, especially among people from rural areas.

So - In my region, #4 is one to categorically avoid. #3 is only slightly better. You'll hear #5 used, but unless you have flawless English and can let it out in a lazy drawl, I would steer clear there too. #1 isn't bad, and #2 is your best bet.

I will be curious to hear what people from other places say.

  • 1
    I mostly agree. "gal" is appropriate in certain regions, but sounds much more informal and would sound odd from someone who didn't seem to be "native" to the region. Lady seems possible again depending on region. It might sound old-fashioned in some places. Definitely avoid "the ma'ma". The girl is okay for children/women much younger than you.
    – eques
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:03
  • 1
    People older than you can train or retrain themselves to not use 'girl'. I would not use the term in public, as it really is chauvinistic--and I believe most women object to it. Similarly, if a woman starts calling me 'honey' (because that is their habit when addressing men), I will tell them to their face to not call me that. Unless it's a cute nurse.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:23
  • @carsmack. Agreed - girl needs to go. In the 90's, my dad had a friend who called all women sweetie, which drove my mom nuts until she found out his age. He looked like he was 60, but was actually 85. Once she knew his age, she gave him a bit of a pass, since for his generation it was such a common expression.
    – Adam
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:32
  • 2
    @Adam eques and CarSmack thank you. I learned a lot from your answers.I think I will stick to using the word woman.I don't why I thought it sounds a bit rude.I think political correctness has gone mad for me. Because I wouldn't mind at all if somebody refers to me as a man simply.
    – Mrt
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:41
  • 1
    @Murat: the main way "woman" could be rude, here in the UK at least, is to someone who thinks that you should always say "lady" and hence to say "woman" implies "not a lady", that is to say the person is somehow not respectable (and the same for saying "man" instead of "gentleman", if people who think that treat the sexes the same. Which they often don't!) But unless you create the contrast by saying, "the lady at reception and the ... woman ... in accounts" then it won't normally be taken that way. Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 3:27

1.The lady I talked to on reception desk said that.. (for me it sounds fancy)

In my AmE dialect, this is what we typically use. "Lady" here is just polite and not intended to imply she is part of the Nobility or to put on airs. Lady can be used in less polite ways though ("Move it lady! The light's green!") so I would recommend the next sentence for general purpose use:

2.The woman I talked to on reception desk said that.. (for me it sounds a bit rude )

Woman is the most neutral and widely accepted word to use in this context, in my opinion. If you said "The female at the desk" it would imply either that you have an unfavorable opinion of her or that you don't know the correct term in English, but woman is neutral.

3.The girl I talked to on reception desk said that.. ( for me it sounds unfitting)

I would probably not refer to woman working in a customer service position as a girl unless she was obviously under 19 or so (in high school, not college). Usually high school girls are not working as receptionists, so in this context I wouldn't use it. An example where I would use girl is "the checkout girl at the market". Many high school aged girls work as cashiers at our market, and they are too young to be referred to as women.

4.The ma'am I talked to on reception desk said that..

I would never use ma'am in this way. In the Southern US, we often say "Thank you, ma'am!" or "Thank you, sir!" to customer service people regardless of their age, but I would never use "The ma'am" to refer to a woman.

I personally would say:

The lady I spoke to at the reception desk said...


The woman I spoke to at the reception desk said...


Since you are referring to a more formal or professional setting, I would use your second option:

The woman I talked to at the reception desk said...


The receptionist said...

Which might be better because gendered titles (stewardess, waitress, actress, saleswoman) are falling out of favor in America (for gender equality reasons), so I would prefer a gender-neutral term unless necessary.

And I agree with other answers regarding #3, never use girl to refer to a grown woman (18+).

(Note that I grew up on the west coast of the United States.)


Regionalism does play a part. In the South and parts of the Southwest, many people of varying ages would say "the lady", or call her "ma'am," even if she were considerably younger. The exception would be if they were being casual or cutesy, where a woman might call another woman a "girl" or "gal" in a friendly manner. It took me the better part of ten years to get used to that habit. I grew up in the Midwest, where we would use the term "woman", and my experience in places like California, Boston, New York, etc., is that it's common currency there too.

You may also refer to her as "The person who I spoke to" - independent of gender. If you continued speaking you'd probably refer to either she or he (e.g. "The person I spoke to was very patient with me. She told me where I could go to find the right paperwork I needed.")

Someone reiterated that you should not call a grown woman a "girl" in any professional context. This is true, unless you have an established friendship in a casual setting where she has already used similar language (for instance, an off-the-clock meeting with a group of colleagues at the bar). I would say overall, avoid.

Likewise, never make assumptions about a woman's marriage status, and avoid using terms that designate marriage status for a stranger, unless she tells you specifically to use it. It is always OK to call a woman in business or professional settings, "Ms." (Pronounced "Mizz") because it can be used regardless of whether she is married, or not. It's been used for hundreds of years but became more recently popular. "Miss" and "Mrs." designate marriage status.

About ten to fifteen percent of women in the US keep their name after marriage, as I did, which is another reason why Ms. is a better catch-all title. "Ms. Tail-Kinker" has been correct my entire life. It is incorrect when people call me "Mrs. Tail-Kinker", though, even though I am married. Tail-Kinker is my surname or "maiden" name, the one I got from my father's side of the family. In Spanish speaking cultures I believe it is typical for a woman to be called "Mrs. Tail-Kinker" after she marries, rather than "Mrs. [Husband's name]". But in US practice, the term Mrs. refers to a woman using her husband's name, not her maiden name. If you therefore call a woman who has kept her original name "Mrs. Original Name", she might be offended or annoyed. Many of us particularly find it extremely rude to refer to a married woman as "Mrs. Husband's First Name - Husband's Last Name".

Again, the safe bet professionally is to call someone "Ms." and then follow whatever they ask you to do specifically.

  • 1
    I believe that almost all native speakers mean something different by "Christian name" from what they mean by "maiden name". Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 20:06
  • 2
    I still don't find "surname" and "maiden name" to be synonymous. My wife's surname is Wallace. Her maiden name isn't. Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 20:52
  • I do think that the terminology is lacking when it comes to the married woman's surname situation. Surname means your last name from wherever it may have come, maiden name means your surname prior to you changing your name after getting married, and married name means the name you changed your surname to after getting married. If you didn't change your surname, you have neither a maiden nor a married name in my dialect, just a surname.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 21:08
  • Oh but then there's that rare-but-it's-happened situation where the husband takes the wife's surname - does he have a "maiden" name? Best just to skip changing a woman's title because she's married and use Ms. similar to the way Mr. can mean a married or unmarried man and just call them all surnames :)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 21:19
  • I did not say that surname and maiden name are synonymous. I specified first that I did not change my surname upon marriage. I then stated that my surname is also what is called a "maiden name", the name I was given by my parents. Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 21:51

How about the person at the desk? Personally I use the term ma'am. I was raised to be respectful. Women you do not know,and are unaware of their social status(married,simngle) you address as ma'am,men as sir. If you know them it is Ms. Miss or Mrs. then their last name,unless you have PERMISSION from them to use their given name. Ma'am is not an insult,it is a sign of courtesy and respect. So those women who get upset over it,I suggest you get over yourself MA'AM!!

  • 3
    Welcome to ELL Jake! I'm not sure this answers the question. Murat is not asking about how to address a woman he doesn't know but rather how to refer to her. "The ma'am at the desk" isn't common in any dialect that I'm familiar with.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 20:31

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