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Miss Manners: ‘Is there a gender-neutral alternative to sir and ma’am?

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Dear Miss Manners: Is there a gender-neutral alternative to “sir” and “ma’am”?

I was in a retail establishment this morning, and a staff member walked past me pulling a flatbed cart full of potted plants. One fell off the back, and the staff member did not notice it, so I instinctively called out, “Sir, you dropped something!”

They stopped to thank me and put the plant back on the cart, and when they spoke, it became apparent that despite their physical appearance, I may have gotten their gender wrong.

I felt a little embarrassed, but did not want to call attention to either my dilemma or their physical ambiguity by apologizing. It would be so easy if there were an ungendered way to call out for someone’s attention, short of “Hey, you!”

Dear Miss Manners: I just had a large formal tea (as formal as I dared to make it without embarrassing myself or my down-to-earth friends) to celebrate both my daughters’ birthdays since they are a few weeks apart. The part that I enjoyed the most was sending out handwritten invitations with pretty stamps.

We had a babysitter looking after 10 children while the adults enjoyed themselves in another room. Unfortunately, the sitter let the kids raid the presents and play with all the toys, books, etc.

I was really looking forward to writing thank-you notes and getting my preschooler to scribble “thank you” in her shaky hand, but now I have no idea who gave what!

Is it okay to call or message the guests to ask which presents they brought? It’s not very smooth, but I feel it’s better than to write “Thank you for your generous gift,” which is my Plan B. What does Miss Manners recommend?

As you have no doubt discovered, “smooth” is not often a word associated with hosting a party with a 1-10 ratio of adults to young children.

Send a message to, or call, your guests and apologetically say, “I’m afraid the children got into the presents while we were enjoying our tea and I don’t know who gave Lilabell and Tiara what. We would so like to thank you properly. Do you mind letting us know which of the lovely presents was yours?”

And as tempting as it may be to blame the hapless babysitter, Miss Manners suggests you keep the accountability part vague so as not to limit your options in the future.

Dear Miss Manners: I am female, but I have an androgynous name often associated with a dog or a male. I work with the public, and many times I am confronted with rude questions, such as, “You’re named after a dog?” “Did your parents hate you? Why are you named that?” “What is your real name?” and so on.

I struggle to find an appropriate answer, as I do not want to sound rude, but am tired of people insulting my name.

“Yes, my given name is Pooch” followed by a pleasant but defiant smile that says, “You got somethin’ to say about it?”

New Miss Manners columns are posted Monday through Saturday on washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her website, missmanners.com. You can also follow her @RealMissManners.

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