start calling people ma’am or sir.

16 Jun

Like standing when a lady enters the room, calling someone ma’am or sir is one of the finer points of etiquette that’s losing its footing with the current generation.  And while I’m okay seeing some things die off from that era (like those weird Organ stores in the mall), the common courtesy of a respectful address is a baton worth carrying.

Gentlemen, my encouragement to you is that you default to calling people ma’am or sir or, if you’re hella’ English, madam and squire.  Why?  Because it’s classy.  When the lady at the check-out counter says, “Thanks for shopping at Fatties” and you say, “Yes ma’am, thanks for your help,” people behind you in line are going to say, “Now there’s a real captain of industry type!”.  When your Uncle, who likes you because he knows that you know and are cool with “it”, introduces you to his new “friend” and you say, “Pleasure to meet you sir,” everyone around you will have a reverence for your maturity.

Dude, I’m not saying that Old English crap.  I’m keeping it real with bro or pal!

Otter, Animal HouseBroseph, we’re not in your frat house getting stoked about the huge “Killer BP” party (Beer Pong).  You’re an adult, and you live in the real world. Bro, pal, chief, Dr. Wang, etc., are all reserved for the close friends who put up with your idiocy.  Put away the toga and bust out the manners.

Here’s a word of caution, you’re going to get some push back on this ma’am/sir thing.  When you call a guy sir, he’s probably not going to say anything and just think you’re respectful.  When you call a lady ma’am, you may get a surprising, “Don’t call me ma’am, I’m not old enough for that!”

First of all, yes she is.  But we always want to respect that our XX sisters are a bit more sensitive to age than the XY’s, so here’s a line I use all the time that works like a charm:

Very old lady: “Ma’am? I’m too young to be called ma’am!”
Grown Man: “I can assure you [looking square into her eyes], it’s about respect, not age.”

Snap!   I’m telling you, the “respect not age” line will defuse the bomb 99% of the time and lets them know that, in fact, you are just calling them ma’am because you’re polite, not because you see them as your elder.

Here are a few closing rules for ma’am and sir:

– Use it for everyone, regardless of age.  11-year-old kids know when they’re being respected and will appreciate an adult talking to them that way.

– If someone says, “Oh no, please, call me [insert name] Murdock”, feel free to do it.  In fact, it’s better etiquette to call them by their name than to ignore the request.

-Avoid saying ma’am in southern accent, lest you sound like Matthew McConaughey (alright, alright).

Thanks for reading, kind sir.

Remember, tomorrow is Ask A Grown Man Thursday.

22 Responses to “start calling people ma’am or sir.”

  1. Pop 16 June 2010 at 8:37 am #

    You sir, are an excellent writer.

    Another thing to consider is how the concept of respect differs among cultures. For example, in most Asian cultures, you would never dare call an older person by their name, whereas at my workplace, I’ll call a manager sir or Mr. so and so, and they’ll insist I call them by their first name.

    Finally, something I’m finding more and more prevalent these days is the notion that someone has to earn your respect. For example, a little kid at my church called me by my first name and called me dumb. I told him he should respect his elders, and he said, “Why should I respect you?”

    • You're a Grown Man 16 June 2010 at 9:11 am #

      Oh man, I love how other cultures address this topic. In school, there was an Asian family who insisted that their son call me Uncle. It felt so warm and polite.

      And as far as respect having to be earned, I agree, it’s something inherent in people. While I believe people can lose respect, it’s still our job to be polite – even when it’s difficult.

      Great thoughts as always, Pop. Thanks for the compliment.

  2. lookingforsomethingtofind 16 June 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Once again, couldn’t agree more. I have the habit of always calling someone I don’t know sir, or ma’am, i.e. “excuse me sir/ma’am” to get someone’s attention. I have never gotten anything but a positive response.

  3. Tyler Clark 16 June 2010 at 11:18 am #

    I was just having this conversation yesterday.

    I moved to the South a few years ago, and “sir” and “ma’am” are the norm here. I wasn’t used to it, and I certainly appreciate it. Transplants like me don’t say it quite as regularly as the natives, but it’s part of the vernacular.

    You’re absolutely right that it is a sign of respect and politeness despite seeming odd to folks in other parts of the country. They may be a bit antiquated, but “sir” and “ma’am” beat “broseph” or “babe” any day of the week.

    Now I must return to cleaning my monocle and playing cricket.

    • You're a Grown Man 16 June 2010 at 12:33 pm #

      I knew you were having this conversation yesterday, I was listening.

      And yes, people in the south use it as almost as a verbal tick, but we’ve got to hold steady and make sure it’s continuing to be used for decency and etiquette. Keep up the good fight.

      Peace out broseph, GM

  4. Ian 16 June 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    I have been calling people sir/ma’am for years, and it really is a baton I’d like to keep carrying and pass on to others, too! Furthermore, your advice on the respect/age clarification is duly noted, thanks a bunch!

    • You're a Grown Man 16 June 2010 at 12:49 pm #

      Thank you, Ian! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Good day, sir.

  5. Tony 16 June 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    I think this one is definitely more location based. Drop the ‘dude’, ‘babe’ and ‘bro’ nonsense, certainly. But where I grew up (an old mining village in Derbyshire, England) sir and maam would probably not be appreciated. The local thing there is ‘pal’, ‘lass’, ‘love’ or even ‘me duck’. This tends to give an air of comradeship – we’re all in this together, and even though we’ve probably never met before today, we still address each other as friends.

    Personally, I’d quite like to start calling everyone Comrade. That’d suit me; I get a bit thrown when servicepeople call me sir, especially when they’re the same age as me.

    • You're a Grown Man 16 June 2010 at 2:50 pm #

      Ooooo, an international opinion! I like the idea that “even though we’ve probably never met before today, we still address each other as friends.” The problem is that in America, generally, we’ve got to start one step before that which is, “even though we’ve probably never met before today, we still [respect] each other…” It would be awesome if we could get to a point where respect is a given and friendship is the default.

      Very thought provoking comment, Comrade.


  6. C 16 June 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    Ack! I HATE being called ma’am, it makes me feel old and stodgy. My grandmother is a “ma’am” and she pins her control top hose to her girdle. If you have to call a woman something other than her name, try “Miss”– it will make any woman feel younger. I would also happily respond to “me duck”.

    • Jennifer 17 June 2010 at 6:49 am #

      I was thinking about ‘Miss’ as well but perhaps some women would think it’s condescending?
      I’m English and I’ve never heard the word ‘Ma’am’ used here in real life (maybe in reference to the queen). In my accent it sounds far too much like ‘Mum’. There’s always ‘Madam’ but when I was a waitress I was taught NEVER to call a customer that because a ‘Madam’ can mean ‘lady in charge of a brothel’. We were told to say ‘MaDAME’ instead. Is that far to fancy for everyday conversation?

      • You're a Grown Man 20 June 2010 at 7:38 am #

        Yep, this is where it gets tough, Jennifer. I’m writing Grown Man from America where ma’am is fairly common and Madam, MaDAME, or any variation thereof is almost never uttered. However, because I think the English are quite polite and set the bar for manners, maybe we should start the MaDAME fad?

        American Men, Madame/MaDAME is acceptable. When you’re asked to explain it, simply tell them that Jennifer said it was cool.

        Jennifer, thank you for reading from across the pond and bringing a little class to the joint.

    • You're a Grown Man 20 June 2010 at 7:31 am #

      I can assure you, C, it’s about respect – not age. However, if you’d like to be called Miss, I’m happy to oblige.

  7. Coco 17 June 2010 at 11:02 am #

    As a Grown Woman, I use sir and ma’am myself, and while I occasionally have received the “Don’t call me sir/ma’am; I’m not a sir/ma’am, can’t you just say {The Offended Party’s Version of Broseph/Babe}?” reaction, most folks seem to appreciate my manners. I like to use them and to hear them. It’s nice.

    However, I would also like to put in a vote for “me duck” because that is a simply delightful alternative.

    • You're a Grown Man 20 June 2010 at 7:33 am #

      Consider your vote counted, Me Duck. Thanks for keeping good manners alive!

  8. Dante 24 December 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Hi, thank you for this article. I have recently turned 17 and I have been saying sir and ma’am for years but at times it seems odd when i refer to some one about my same age as sir/ma’am so thank you for reassuring me that it is ok to still use.

  9. J 30 January 2012 at 12:42 am #

    Sir and ma’am? What century are you living in? Those are the remnants of a thankfully dying era where people had an undue respect for authority and the establishment, a time when a title conferred more respect than deeds and hierarchy trumped ability. They’re the vestiges of a caste system. I shouldn’t have to explain that both “sir” and “madam” come from titles of nobility.

  10. Chris Coates (@Mil_Bucks) 30 April 2013 at 5:42 am #

    Because my posts length portions were being cut off and it ended up submitting with a terrible format and not how it was intended. Something that I think is worth mentioning is that if an 18 addresses another 18 year old co-worker, teammate, or classmate as sir, but they never do to the ones they consider their friends, it is clear the word “sir” is being used to keep things formal and distance themselves from you. When a customer service person overuses it, it is clear that they were trained to use it as much as possible because it is polite. Since ~80% of people in this world are complete imbeciles, they think there is no limit to how much I can use it, the more the merrier! We live in a society were the majority of people disregard intelligence and genuine kindness/politeness is considered creepy.

    Unfortunately our economy is horrible and 50-60% of people in America are unemployed. This leads to boredom and boredom leads to intelligence. Then said intelligent people breed with one another and produce increasingly unintelligent and irresponsible people. This will only continue on this trend as long as we have a corrupt government that hand in hand with the major cooperation’s is benefiting from stupid people and making that 1% club more and more exclusive. Which is the ultimate goal, make everyone else poor so eventually they can be used as slave labor like what we see in other countries.

  11. TRUTH33 8 September 2013 at 1:35 am #

    ITS CORNY. Dont do it just to be a follower. Stay yourself. Someone with a well rounded personality backbone self esteem and charm. You know.. a real person. Don’t know if you are, but northerners have way more well rounded personalities than a “ma’am” talking southerner. They’re a lot more fun. Plus anybody who talks like a servant doesn’t have any personality.

    Dont turn into some weirdo robot talking moron with no spirit. People over 25 (all older people) who say yes ma’am and sir to each other always freaked me out. Even if I saw it on TV. Looks wussy and weird. Like you’re waay too overly obediant for no reason at all. Just be you. If its too creepy to say with people the same age when you’re young it’s still creepy later on when yr a little older. No different. The only people who dont look weird saying it are people under other people’s authority like soldiers in the military and cops to other cops with higher rank. I dont even call judges and cops ma’am or sir. I give them the title they are. Your honor and officer. That’s a lot more respectful than some servant sounding country hillbilly line.

    Theres no way I’d hang with any creepy ppl who use that. Definitely not my kind of ppl. They’re like the goodie goodies. BORINGG. I’m only cool with people full of life and originality just someone who’s themself not something someone told them to be. You know the sexy people. Not the cornballs.

    Plus those people are so worried about being overly polite and respectful to people they don’t even know, with one corny word, instead of just using their actions. Just be respectful and not disrespectful (shrug) how hard is that. Now that’s normal. So they just made sure they gave a whole lot of respect to some pedophile or murderer. How do you know you didn’t. You have to earn respect not just get it for no reason. Just be normal and not disrespectful that other stuff is a55backwards and not that bright. Trust me you’ll have way more friends too. Those people are homely and lonely.

    Pretty much. A few of them might actually have a huge social life. I doubt it.

  12. Charles 19 March 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    I’m not from the South and I met my wife (from North Carolina) in Delaware. We are raising our children to be polite. We do not use “sir” and “maam” in our house. My wife agrees with this even though she was raised to do so. Her parents do not agree with our decision to say the least. For us, being polite is saying please and thank you. When you say “yes maam” you remove the please, which to us is not okay. When you say, “no sir”, you remove the thank you. So what this is really about is whether maam and sir take the place of thank you and please. We don’t feel it’s polite for children to not say please or thank you. When we are in the south we almost never hear children say please or thank you. If I say, “would you like something to drink?” the response almost never includes a please such as “yes please.” Instead the response is “yes sir.”
    Another reason that my wife and I don’t approve of “sir and maam” is that we believe manners aren’t only about what a person says. For example, when we visit my in-laws in North Carolina they will speak very poorly about anyone who is not Southern. I was brought up that you don’t speak negatively to your guests and criticize where they are from, that would be seen as very rude. However in my in-laws house as long as you say “sir and maam” you’re considered polite and well mannered even if you are insulting or judgmental to guests and where they are from. My wife and I agree that having our children say “yes please” to us allows our children to show respect while also teaching our children that we are approachable and loving as a family. Our children do say “sir” and “maam” when talking to a STRANGER, such as a stranger dropping a hat, “excuse me sir, you dropped your hat.” But my wife and I are not strangers to our children. We are mom and dad. To place that kind of formality in our family would go against the type of loving and polite environment we have worked hard to form. Our kids are polite and I’m happy that they show respect by saying “thank you” and I love when they say dad, such as “thank you dad.” Nothing disrespectful or poor manners about that! I am not their “sir”, I’m not a stranger.

    On a side note, I originally wanted to move to the South, but after being there I understand that a person who is not from the South who goes to live in the country (cities might be different) will always be subjected to a great deal of judgement and open criticism. Everything from what beverage you drink, to what car you drive, to your clothes, will be judged. Yet, this is not seen as rude because apparently if you say “sir” and “maam” any other rude comments are fine to say and you have “manners” in the country in the South. My wife and I prefer a much deeper and thorough understanding of manners to be taught to our children. We’re teaching them to not speak negatively to guests and to not judge the guests we invite in our house. Instead they are to make the guests feel comfortable and welcome.
    Hopefully there are loving and open Southern COUNTRY folks out there, but I have yet to meet them. Just very judgmental folks that make you feel very uncomfortable unless you drive a large pickup truck (I’m not kidding, I drive a car and it’s constantly brought up when we visit – in a negative way — how silly is that?) and talk negatively about people in the suburbs (we live in the suburbs in Delaware and we are openly ridiculed for not being in the country – I’m not kidding, it’s nonstop, maybe a one-off comment would be funny, but all the time, really? nonstop?).
    So congrats to all parents who teach their kids to say yes please and no thank you instead of dropping the please and thank you!

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