Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Sir and Ma'am

I grew up in the rural south. I went to a school in a farming area. Heck, I took some shop classes in high school, and after I got into them I loved them. (Oxy-acetylene cutting torch = feelings of empowerment.) I even belonged to the FFA. I was drafted for extemporaneous speech and parliamentary procedure because I could talk a blue mile, or as the shop teacher put it -- he "needed my mouth."

Another thing we were taught, both in shop class and in general 'Shire society, is to say sir and ma'am as a general rule and always to our elders. Not nessecarily every time a phrase exited our little mouths, but reasonably often within a conversation. It's stuck. I say sir and ma'am to anyone who might possibly be five minutes older than I am, and to almost anyone with whom I'm engaged in a formal interaction with. (e.g. Any cashier is a sir or ma'am. Even if he or she is probably younger than I am.) It's just a part of my scripted interaction with the world.

So, recently, I've noticed that folks are starting to react to sir or ma'am with a comment along the lines of -- What? You just called me sir? -- or -- Don't call me ma'am. I'm not that old. -- Not everyone I encounter, but a decent number of people seem to be mildly offended by sir or ma'am. Terms I view as the closest equivalent to the Russian вы or French vous in the English language. I've been informed reactions will grow increasingly hostile if I move up North.

So, sir and ma'am, have they somewhat shifted from a sign of formality and respect in language to something derogatory? It confuses my little shop class brain. Shall adherence to the rules of ma'am and sir go the way of avoidance of "barnyard" terms?


Dw3t-Hthr said...

I always feel somewhat discombobulated by being sirred or ma'amed (and I have gotten both).

A goodly part of that is because of cultural issues, as they're not part of the cultural matrix I was raised in, really, and thus I don't have immediate senses of what is an appropriate mode of response. I suspect a fair number of us Yankees will react to it poorly because of the being put on a social footing that we don't really have the tools to respond to. I suspect that for you there's a whole set of knowledge about how to respond graciously to such stuff that came encoded with the instruction on how and when to use the terms, and that's something I just plain don't have, so dealing with 'sir' or 'ma'am' puts me into terra incognita right off.

A lesser part of that is the whole gender identity thing; I'm highly ambivalent about 'ma'am' for that reason -- it's something that throws me into a sudden round of "Ack, this is one of those gender roles that I'm really bad at, what do I doooo?!" moments. Which all is, I suspect, an atypical problem. (I don't have this problem with "Sir", in that case I mostly just am amused.)

Though the other major component of it is another sort of semi-dysphoric reaction -- my self-image is still really strongly influenced by the "Not old enough for anyone to take me seriously, damnit" of my teen years and early twenties (which was reinforced by people online who, say, thought I gave good advice until they learned my age; now, at nearly thirty, I still get it reinforced, even). So getting a respect-term-for-adults tends to hit my self-image and go, "Whoa, that was weird." Being taken for a grownup is such an odd thing ...

WordK said...

Oddly enough, I hadn't even begun to consider the gender issues inherent in sir and ma'am. (Which goes to show just how deeply the terms are ingrained into my social script. Come to think of it, I've never developed a dislike of ma'am in the same way I've developed a deep dislike of the term young lady. Interesting...I have no idea what that means about my headspace.) Obviously, the terms are binaries.

Thanks for commenting. I think I'll have to follow my thought further down the rabbit hole before responding.


I was raised in rural south and southwest. I heard "sir" and "ma'am" a lot, but never used it. My mom was one of those who did not like being called "ma'am" for feeling old at the sound of it. And it never took with me. Not that it NEVER came out of my mouth, but practically never...

Then when I was grown, I moved to Phoenix AZ. I took a blue collar job test driving cars for GM on their Desert Proving Ground. I was in my early 20's and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was "a workin' man." I felt like I was a part of something special, a culture of simple but genuine people that I suddenly found respectable at a new level. And I made a conscious effort to start using "sir" and "ma'am" around those folks.

And it became habit. And then I quit that job to go to Texas to college (non-traditional student - a 28 year old freshman!) I still used the respectful lingo and blended in the Texas culture very well with it (not so much at the university, but everywhere else for sure...)

I took an internship in Seattle one summer with the Seattle-King Co. Public Defenders office. And in Seattle, I learned to use the public transportation - The BUS! I went everywhere around that city by bus constantly -beautiful place BTW! And I used "Sir" and "Ma'am" with my ever developing Texas accent with other bus riders all the time. And it seemed to be a really charming novelty to those folks. They really took to me.

And then there was this young single lady who worked in the law office as a secretary or something (not sure just what -but not a position of authority anyway) and she was attractive and all.... And she took a serious liking to me! And I am no Brad Pitt or nothing like that! And it finally dawned on me - and this is when I really took note of the charm I was having on the bus too - that those Northern boys were not calling that lady "ma'am" and she LIKED it!

I had to back off the "Ma'am's" with her and hold my wedding ring hand up to cough alot after that...

Fun post...


Rich said...

I've been trying to locate some sort of guide for showing respect, particulary to men.
I am an Australian and "Sir" is very rarely used in everyday conversation with here as we tend to have a very relaxed society.
Though I have been trying to teach myself to use "Sir" and hopefully it would just become part of my vocabulary.
I am a manager for an insurance company and as such I deal with a lot of disputes. This requires me to take the upper hand in a lot of circumstances as in most cases, the customer is not always right.
Due to recent severe weather events, I have had to assist in another department where I have been taking claim lodgements.
I have used this instance to start using "sir" with customers, and aiming to address them as this at least three times during the call.
Could anyone help me with any ideas on how to develop my use of "sir"?