The World According to Me: To “Ma’am” Or Not To “Ma’am”. That, Sir, is the Question

C'mon, you think I'd write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?
C’mon now, you think this geek would write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?

I have reduced myself to a mere spectator on social media any more because of the ugly and divisive forum it has become. However, when I get the chance to peruse the feed, a nugget will pop up that’s too juicy to ignore. Recently on my feed, an acquaintance posted a meme that states the following:

“Biggest pet peeve: ‘Don’t call me sir or ma’am, I’m not that old’ – Listen, I got too many whoopings growing up to not call you sir/ma’am. Just let me respect you, ok?”

Facebook meme

My acquaintance proceeded to talk about how they do not condone the criticizing of children that don’t say sir or ma’am, and they do not teach their children this because in their upbringing, it was not done out of respect but from a place of control and dominance. It is their opinion that returning a yes or no to a question is acceptable and doesn’t need to be followed by sir or ma’am. It caused me to ponder a question: Do these honorifics need to become a thing of the past?

The No’s vs. the No Sirs

Any time you share a strong opinion on the internet, Newton’s third law of motion becomes a gob-smacking reality. It says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This situation was no different. Acquaintances of my acquaintance began choosing sides. The great Facebook debate had begun. I read the responses with great interest, which ranged from a simple “I agree”, to “that’s bull____”, and everything between. Some spoke of their own upbringings and how they did or didn’t suffer the same punishments as my acquaintance for omitting or using the familiar form of address.

A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument - (woman yelling at brick wall)
A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument

I consumed them all with gusto. It was an extraordinary glimpse into human behavior over something I considered a non-starter. I know which camp I fall into, or at least, I did, but the great debate had me questioning my feelings on the subject. One particular exchange of ideas stood out, and forced me to ponder my own stance on an issue that I never realized was an issue. My best paraphrase of the exchange is that saying these formal terms are a sign of respect, to which the reply was respect is earned, not given. That phrase became the lightning rod for me.

My Own Upbringing and Experience

I was raised in the south, but I would not call my childhood a proper southern rearing. Florida is a mighty collection of transplants, so it’s hard to say Florida is truly southern. However, aspects of being raised by my dad and two grandmothers from Iowa allow adjustments for anything. While I was never forced to say ma’am or sir as a child, I always found it a better way to communicate with people older than me because using the words elevated me above the old saying children should be seen and not heard. By using these terms to address my elders, I was given the same amount of respect I was giving conversationally by people much older than me. And the interesting part is I learned that on my own without parental coercion.

Me and my dad, circa 1985
Me and my dad, circa 1985

The phrase respect is earned, not given is a conundrum. While it’s a true statement, respect is a red herring people chase endlessly and sometimes never catch. In hearing that phrase, my mind goes instantly to a newly-minted MMA fighter that feels like they have to trash talk and beat the baddest fighter in their ranks to get respect; that they have to go in and force it from their peers. Perhaps in that world, that is how respect is quantified, but in the everyday, non-MMA world, respect should never be forced from anyone. At the same time however, it shouldn’t have to be forced. Respect should be given freely until some reason arises where it can no longer be given.

I would go so far as to contend a lack of freely given respect is a major source of societal woe. In my day job, I often work with staff much younger than me. I respond to every one of them with sir or ma’am at the end of a greeting or statement. It is not always returned, and I don’t require it. But what I aim to do is show them I will give them all of my respect until they give me a reason not to. In the end, my staff usually hums like a well-oiled machine because they know where I stand with them. I may be the supervisor, but I respect the job I have trained them to do and their ability to do it, and treat them accordingly. By giving my respect freely to them, they, in turn, give it right back. For some, it takes a while for them to figure out how this mutual respect dynamic works, but in the end, they all get it.

If you have to earn respect, how do you do that?

"What you do has far greater impact than what you say." - Stephen Covey

I can only use my personal method on this, as I’m certain methods will differ based on the personalities you are working with. If I feel I have to earn someone’s respect, there’s two ways I attempt do it:

1 – Leading by Example

My staff knows there is not a single job in my purview that is beneath me. If it happens to be cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or any other job no one really wants to do, I’ll be right there shoulder to shoulder with them doing it. That does not mean I’ll do it for them (if that’s their job), but I am willing to help them if needed. No task can be beneath you. That is the price of being a good leader.

2 – Servant Leadership

My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I’ll say that again: My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I am not here to show my employees how to do everything and then watch them do it. I am here to teach them to be better versions of themselves. It is my responsibility as their leader to develop my staff into my business equals. It is my responsibility to ensure they are properly trained and to push them farther. It is my job to learn their goal and help them achieve it. It’s a job I take seriously.

Commanding respect with an iron-fist approach of do as I say and not as I do is a certain guarantee of disrespectful anarchy. Put these two principles into practice and I promise you will have no issues with respect, and you won’t ever have to ask… they’ll call you sir or ma’am of their own accord regardless of any upbringing.

Using Sir/Ma’am as a Sign of Dominance?

I can’t say taking these formalities as a sign of dominance is untrue because everyone’s experience is different. From the description, it would seem my acquaintance had a difficult time of it. It’s not for me to judge how someone was raised or the trials they faced. I spent eight years working as a civilian for the military. While no one ever told me (as a civilian) to address officers or enlisted soldiers in a specific way other than by rank, I still used the formal address when speaking to them. It wasn’t the product of any southern rearing or demand from anyone. It was just the right thing to do. Again, everyone’s experience is different, but I wouldn’t go up to my commander at the time and say “Hey Bobby, how’s it going?”. While I did become friendly with many of my military co-workers, I never felt dominated in any conversations with them. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

One of my old business mentors told me a saying I’ll never forget. Familiarity breeds contempt. The basis is, the more you know about someone, the less you respect them. Business superiors are not your friends. They are in those positions for a reason: to run the business. You can be professionally friendly with them, but the more you know of them personally, the less of a supervisor they are and the more of a buddy they become. Does this mean you can’t have friends at work? Of course not. Does this mean your boss doesn’t care about you? Of course not. I care a great deal for my staff and their personal well-being. You spend more waking time with your co-workers in a week than you do with your own family. It is a word of caution, however. Keep business relationships professional and above board. Freely give your respect while it is deserved.

Societal use of sir and ma’am has another consideration among gender identity politics. Folks who identify themselves as different genders other than their outwardly appearance are requesting not to be categorized by these terms. What some would see as a sign of respect is viewed by others as a sign of disrespect if you get it wrong. Whether you believe in a person’s choice to choose gender or not, at least in this argument, is irrelevant. If you’re going to use honorifics and you can’t be sure of who you’re addressing, it may be incumbent on you to find another way.

What’s my point in all this?

In the end, I can only govern myself and be responsible for my actions. I don’t think the mandatory use of ma’am or sir should be required by anyone except within your own parenting structure or within a military environment. While I can see both sides of the “dominance” argument, I do not require it from my children or staff. I’ll let their own respect-o-meters determine what honorific they use.

Where the world could use some improvement is when someone gets it wrong. Attacking a person for an attempt at respectful dialogue is wrong in any arena. Even minor corrections, like “I’m not that old, don’t call me ma’am”, or “My father was sir, I am not” are unnecessary. Even if those are said in jest, it creates an awkward situation that can have lingering effects. Allow the person to use their own judgement of you and practice their own culture. If you must make a correction, do it politely and quietly and move on.

While my theory on this is far from scientific, I will make you one guarantee. If you ever meet me, I can promise you I will grant you the utmost respect right out of the gate, and will likely call you sir or ma’am. Please don’t take it as a sign of dominance or a remark on your age. I say it out of my well-full of freely given respect.

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