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I was wondering what is the polite way to address elderlies I do not know. Take the following context for example. Perhaps I visit a store and there is an elderly woman running the register and I would like to ask for help.

I found this question and I think it may be related but I just wanted to clarify. Is it proper to say 老奶?and 老爸?

  • 大妈(尊称年长的妇人) aunt,大爷,(尊称年长的男子) uncle, cf. 大姐(对与自己年龄相仿的女人的尊称) elder sister 大哥,(尊称年纪相仿的男子) elder brother – user6065 May 4 '15 at 6:27
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For an elderly woman, 大妈,大娘,大婶,阿婆,老奶奶 -- what's best really depends on what they are using locally and the age difference between you and the person.

You can always just say: 您好, if you are not sure what word to use.

  • Does it differ by region? Taiwan vs China? and also how big is the age gap have to be? – aug May 6 '15 at 1:09
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    Yes it differs by region. For example in the northern part of China, 阿婆 is seldom used. For the age gap, 大妈,大娘,大婶 should be someone about the similar age as your parents. 阿婆,老奶奶 should be someone looks really old. Remember many people like to be called something younger than they actually are :). – Tzu May 6 '15 at 1:41
  • thank you very much -- yes I actually was gonna clarify the 老奶奶 phrase because I had friends told me they should be "grandma age" so be careful. Really appreciate it! – aug May 6 '15 at 2:22
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老奶 and 老爸 is improper.
老奶 is not used at all. It should be 老奶奶(for elder female, typically old enough to be a grandma, because 奶奶 means grandma).
老爸 is usually refering to your father, I think it work as "old man", when talking about someone with no relationship, maybe 大叔 is better.

note: 爸 typically means father, only in some dialect it also means father's brother.
example:
二爸 means father's brother(2nd eldest)
四爸 means father's brother(4th eldest)
but you can ignore this, in official mandarin this is not used.

a simple list:
male:大哥(whose age like your brother's), 大叔(whose age like your father's), 大爷(whose age like your grandpa's)
female:大姐(whose age like your sister's), 大婶/阿姨(whose age like your mother's),大妈/大娘(whose age like your grandma's)

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never use 老奶/老爸! 老奶奶 is ok if she is really old.

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The most polite/proper way varies among different regions, as shown in each of the other answers. Here are some tips that I know of:

  • If you know the dialect in that region, it would be best to address the elderly with the associated word, e.g. 阿公, 阿嬷(mà) in Taiwanese.
  • Since an elderly (whether male or female) is usually concerned with age, it would be safer to address the elderly as younger than his/her age if you find the age ambiguous in @Doubble22's simple list. Again, beware that the list differ among different regions.
  • Generally speaking, the way you address an elderly may imply the degree of friendliness you are expressing. 先生/小姐, or simply 您好, are formal, polite, and applicable to all age group, but it more or less leads to a relatively "distant" interaction; 爺爺/奶奶 and the likes show more friendliness but again, an elderly is usually sensitive to age. This hence becomes a choice of which would outweigh the trade-offs.
  • I was told that 先生 and 小姐 might be a little strange if they are very old but perhaps that isn't the case? Thank you for the clarification! – aug May 6 '15 at 21:15
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    Well, not in Taiwan at least. I guess it depends on the situation as well as local conventions. And no problem :) – Thomas Hsieh May 6 '15 at 21:41

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