A guest walks into your business and your associate offers a warm, “Good afternoon! How can I help you, sir?”
The guest speaks, “I’m here to….” but, in that moment, the associate realizes that the guest is transgender and quickly responds, “I mean, ma’am. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean any offense. I’m new here and not used to…” and perhaps goes on and on.
How awkward. For everyone.
The guest may feel like an alien, further embarrassed by the associate’s over-apology. The associate may feel like a fool and fear for their job. No one wins and the guest may be reluctant to return to that establishment.
There are an increasing number of people who are identifying as gender non-binary, gender fluid or gender queer and don’t fit neatly into those binary male and female boxes. Several states and numerous countries even recognize non-binary as a legal third gender. The future is fluid.
For those guests who are transgender or non-binary, use of the word “sir” or “ma’am” may be actually perceived as offensive and uncomfortable. They don’t feel respected or seen. Your associate may be misgendering them completely by accident, but it could mean an awkward scenario and loss of a customer for life. One of our survey respondents told us:
My gender doesn’t change the fact that I’m human. Sir/ma’am is the worst nightmare of some of us. As a trans man, I’ve been called ‘ma’am’ or included in a greeting of ‘ladies’ when with my wife, and it makes me want to never return to that establishment. Using gender-neutral terms can be more comfortable for everybody.
Face it, this is going to happen — but it doesn’t have to be so awkward. The associate should take a simple approach and apologize quickly and move on. Over-apologies drag out the drama when both parties would rather discuss something else. You are exposing your brand when your front line team isn’t trained or aware of their own unconscious bias.
What is unconscious bias? Well, the associate certainly didn’t intend to offend. Most people don’t. But it happens because of the way our brains have been programmed by years of stimuli, in this case, placing others in boxes of either “male” or “female”. An unconscious bias training will increase your employees’ awareness of these situations and give them tools to effectively communicate with their guests and team.
So what should your associates be saying instead? Keep it simple. In this case, it means that all you have to do is leave off the “sir” or “ma’am”. In a group of people, don’t use the terms girls, guys, ladies or gentlemen – all gendering terms.
The best solution is actually to strip those gendered words out of your associate’s vocabulary so we don’t accidentally offend any gender nonconforming customers, colleagues and clients. It’s easier than it sounds. Here are some greetings that don’t use gender:
- Good afternoon! How are you today?
- What can I get for you folks?
- Hi there! Can I help you with anything?
- Did you find everything you were looking for?
Pretty simple, right? I know for many people, it means a rewiring of how they’ve always spoken, but simplicity is best to ensure all your customers and guests feel comfortable in your space.
How are you planning to train your team members on this change?
Bernadette Smith is CEO of Equality Institute, an LGBTQ sales, marketing, and customer service consulting firm dedicated to inspiring trust, enhancing your brand and fostering dignity among employees and guests.