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“Sir” has traditionally been considered a term of respect for a man, especially a man of higher rank or authority. “Ma’am” has been used since the 1600s for “women of superior status.” But what was once considered a respectful way to address someone can change over time; and it has, especially when it comes to deciding who among us has higher authority or superior status—and who considers themselves a sir or a ma’am.
Despite being raised in rural Alabama by two Alabamians, I was never taught to use my “sirs” and “ma’ams;” and years later, as a parent, I’m realizing there are many reasons to actively not teach kids to use those words and instead look for more modern ways to be polite and show respect to people of all ages and genders.
Some reasons to stop teaching “sir” and “ma’am”
It comes with tremendous risk of misgendering trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people. It often offends people who feel young but associate the word with age.According to psychology professor Sheri Levy, “ma’am” is not intrinsically age-based, but it is generally used with older women and can be offensive. On the other hand, she says, infantilizing older women with labels and terms of endearment (“sweetie,” “dear,” “honey”) is a form of gendered ageism that is also often patronizing.Kids who are growing up in an environment of implied mutual respect among everyone they encounter are confused by the special rules for some people based on their age, gender, or geography.The expectation is an unsettling throwback to requiring people of color to say “sir” and “ma’am” to the white people they served.
Is it about respect, deference and obedience?
Devotees to “sir” and “ma’am” say they expect children to say it to show respect, or that they say it to show respect (maybe someone in their family tree taught them manners, and by god, they listened). But I’m not sure at this point if we are talking about respect, or deference and obedience. Teaching children to be unquestioningly submissive and obedient is obviously problematic—as someone who is raising two female children, I actively want them to be loud and opinionated and to expect respect for themselves as well. And historically, the distinction between who is expected to say “sir” and “ma’am” (and the people who expect to hear it) is divided on lines of class, race, age, and authority.
Instead of teaching kids to continually sort themselves into groups that do or don’t deserve such respect, we should teach them to discern when it is necessary to be polite (most of the time but not all the time) and how to be respectful with their words and actions in a way that does not make assumptions about or potentially offend the person they are talking to.
Alternatives to sir and ma’am that are still polite
You can politely and respectfully address someone by simply leaving off the “sir” or the “ma’am.” You can say, “thank you,” to the person holding the door for you; call out “Excuse me!” to get the attention of someone ahead of you who dropped something; and answer direct questions with a simple “yes” or “no.”
I talked to Jacqueline Whitmore, and etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. She said she also grew up in the south and was taught to use “sir” and “ma’am” but no longer does.
“If I were teaching my children today, I would teach them to say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ followed by an honorific (Mr./Ms./Mx.). For example, ‘Yes, Mr. Butler,’” she said.
I know that while I lean toward not using “ma’am” and “sir” to avoid offending people, there are people who will be offended by that choice. My personal comfort test for the use of “ma’am” and “sir” on a case-by-case basis is who is expected to say it to whom, and does that indicate a one-way power dynamic? If so, I’ll pass.