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I heard that it is not appropriate to call women or girls "小姐" in northern China. That it is considered rough and has a meaning close to "hooker".

So I never address girls or women as "小姐" in the north and even when I am in Shanghai or even further south.

But is it really an issue? And if it is, what should I use instead? Right now I always use 姐 or 大姐 just to be sure I don't "hurt" someone.

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Where in China using 小姐 is ok? I sometimes hear 小姐 in Taiwan movies. And is it ok to use 小姐 in 香港? – Denis Kucherov Nov 30 '12 at 12:11
In 香港,it's fine to use 小姐,but do note that in 香港,we use Cantonese, not Mandarin. – Russell Dec 2 '12 at 6:34
I hear this more in Taiwan, but I'm still a little scared to use it. – Matthew Rudy 马泰 Dec 3 '12 at 8:24
@MatthewRudy马泰 I hear it a lot in Taiwanese movies. For example in 斗牛要不要。 From this movie its clear that 小姐 used in polite and not flirting way. So I guess that in Taiwan 小姐 has quite a different meaning. – Denis Kucherov Dec 3 '12 at 13:20
@DenisKucherov The basic meaning is the same. I don't know where the hooker meaning come from. And the hooker meaning is still slang, in my opinion. – fefe Dec 4 '12 at 11:23

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Yes. It is an issue. But or 大姐 is not very appropriate sometimes.

  • You can use or 大姐 to call a lady who is elder than you. But they'd better be not very young.
  • To call a young lady, 美女 is popular now in cities, though maybe they are not really very beautiful.
  • If there is some context, like to call a waitress, just use 服务员 or other address expressing their jobs.
  • And at last, 女士, literal translation of lady, is always a choice.

Edited: It is an issue not because the meaning is used by everyone. But there are too many use cases, nobody wants to be misunderstood. Ironic, this is something like Gresham's Law.

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Yep. I sometimes have feeling that its not appropriate. 美姐 is sounds great I will use it. It's reminds me 帅哥. But if the girl is really ugly, can 美姐 be considered like a joke? – Denis Kucherov Nov 30 '12 at 8:38
Mostly not. But 美姐 sounds a little strange. – halfelf Nov 30 '12 at 8:40
美女 doesn't carry the negative implication (i.e. hooker) that 小姐 does, however, this word has a flirting nature. You need to be careful of the context and your tone when using it. – NS.X. Dec 2 '12 at 0:41
What about 姑娘 when you address someone likely younger? – gb. May 13 '13 at 2:20
If used in title or form of address, 小姐 has no negative implication. Like 我家小姐心很好。 If used to refer to job occupation, then 小姐 means hooker. Like 他找了个小姐. Both third tone and neutral tone can be used in both cases. I think it is the usage, not the tone, which determines the meaning. An example in English: lady is a polite word to use to refer to a woman, but if you address a woman by "lady", like "Excuse me, lady", she will be offended. – 孤影萍踪 May 13 '13 at 23:35

Edit: this post assumes you are using these words when addressing women in person. If you are simply talking about women rather than to them, then 女生,女孩,姑娘 etc are what you want, 女生 being the safest.

小姐 is neutral when it follows a person's surname and means "Miss ___." Otherwise, addressing someone as 小姐 would typically only occur in formal situations when addressing young women. One example might be on an airplane when flight attendants address passengers. This use is similar to 先生. That being said, when addressing strangers/getting their attention, 美女 is the preferred term to use in mainland, especially for the younger generation (靚女 in 廣東). Use it in places of business when calling a clerk, waiter, etc. when you don't know the employee's title. It can be used between persons of the same or opposite gender and sounds simply casual and friendly rather than inappropriate. 帥哥 is the male equivalent and is a word any male can expect to hear in just about any social situation as well (it does not imply flirting on its own). 姑娘 does not work for the situation you're describing as it's reserved for people on more intimate terms (often between girls jokingly referring to the other as 姑娘) and would sound a bit cheeky and out of place.

Edit: Addressing 姐: Don't use this unless you can say with some certainty they are significantly older than you (let's say 7+ years) or you are on good terms with them and have already established how you think about each other agewise. This word can cause some bad feelings because you're making the listener feel old. The gender of the speaker and listener also matters. 大哥 is used between males without much regards to age (just more of a "bro" than anything), but for a male to address a female as 姐 implies an age gap of up to a generation and creates some distance. Not to mention age is a somewhat more sensitive topic for women.

Side note: for women age 40 and on, 阿姨 becomes a safe option (and 美女 consequently becomes less appropriate).

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I have posed this question to dozens of Chinese people. I think that copying their responses is against the community regulations, but I have observed several things:


While this is always identified as Taiwanese it was never identified as offensive and was the best practical solution for me, because I could always point to my Taiwanese family.


Seemed second best. Almost everyone called it provincial, but only few rejected it, claiming the Japanese used it discriminatingly. The rejectors were Notherners though. From 太原 and 北京。


Many older traditional people see this as very bad Chinese, but a connection to prostitution was only once explicitly stated.


While many people defended it, this was criticised as relating to prostitutes more than any other.

These results are very different from what I thought when younger, namely: 姑娘 is the normal term and a girl might even use it talking about herself to people of equal status. 小姐 is the young miss from a noted family. 美女 is absolutely not a standard address and indicates intimate interest when used as one. I am very curious to know if this reflects the thinking before the cultural revolution, or just my world. I have created a question here:

小姐 and similar terms before the cultural revolution

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"小姐" is not such a dangerous work, haha. Just try to avoid using it in places like clubs,hotel etc. Because "小姐" will arouse bad associations in such places. By the way, “美女” is becoming more popular.

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It depends. It can be dangerous if you are not familiar with use of it.

In my experience, when 小姐 mean hooker, the 姐 often has a neutral tone. Normal 小姐 would never have a neutral tone. Instead, when someone uses 小姐 to call others, 姐 would be more emphasized than 小。

Secondly, when 小姐 is used to call someone, it seldom has the meaning hooker. The meaning hookers are used sentences like:


She is a hooker.

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Interesting point about neutral tone. So basically you mean that if emphasis third tone on the last character then it's ok to use 小姐 anywhere in China? For me even 他是一个美女 sounds a little bit suspicion, maybe because in Russian it's sounds with a bit of irony. – Denis Kucherov Dec 1 '12 at 6:59
I cannot say for anywhere in China. I live in the Beijing area. And in call others, I mean using sentences like "小姐!" to get others attention. – fefe Dec 1 '12 at 7:34

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