I sir-tainly thought it was
Thursday March 06th 2008, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Life

Our Potomac, by Roy SewallI had an email conversation last night with a friend who grew up on the Virginia side of the Potomac River from me; she mentioned that using “sir” and “ma’am” was always a mark of respect, and her culture shock at finding that her more-Northern relatives thought she was sassing them.

I grew up on the Maryland side of the river, where “sir” was very much a part of the conversation, “ma’am,” though, not so much. When I was quite little I had some teachers who expected it, but “sir,” that one, we never outgrew. It was polite speech on up to putting the guy on a pedestal, depending on the tone of voice and the context, but it was always positive.

Here in California my car was once hit by a guy who seemed to have had a few, and when I tried to exchange insurance information with him, he at one point bellowed, “Stop calling me SIR!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m a Southerner.” (Oh, bright move, Alison, call him sir while apologizing for calling him sir. And I don’t really think of myself as a Southerner, although I’m from south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it was the best fast explanation.) Apparently he thought I was calling him a doddering old fool. Um… I thought I was doing the opposite, even if he didn’t deserve it.

It hit me after that friend and I chatted that I’d called that eye doctor “sir” in my post earlier in the day, and I’m sure he didn’t mind one bit if he read it, but I’m laughing at myself for missing the potential cultural difference. Hon, I ain’t sassin’ nobody. He earned that honorific.


8 Comments so far
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Ralph and his siblings got in a lot of trouble when they moved to Louisiana for not addressing teachers as ma’am and sir. In Northern Utah, they had only heard those terms used jestingly, with disrespect, so when they teachers hinted for them to use it, they had NO IDEA what they were supposed to say, and the teachers got very annoyed.

Comment by Laura 03.06.08 @ 1:00 pm

I’ve always used sir or ma’am, especially with strangers or superiors. I know some families insist on it for the parents, my mine weren’t that strict.

It’s odd that people would think you were sassing them, but that isn’t your fault. Ma’am. ๐Ÿ˜€

Comment by Liz 03.06.08 @ 1:38 pm

There was an enlightening conversation about the word “napkin” on Ravelry the other night. It is interesting how much inflence a geographical area and slang affect each other.

Comment by Amanda 03.06.08 @ 2:59 pm

I don’t understand why the rest of the country can’t learn about, and accept, the use of sir and ma’am. It shows respect and all young children should learn it. The only time I’ve ever had a problem with it is when someone my own age or older uses it in conversation with me. The way I learned it, you use it with older people as a respectful form of address, not with your equals and younger. But, it is so ingrained in some folks it’s hard for them to break the habit. Long live this and other unique parts of the Southern culture

Comment by Rosanne 03.07.08 @ 2:08 am

I get in trouble for calling people “sir” and “ma’am” at work often; I think it’s because I’m young, and they think I’m calling them old, when the truth is I don’t know their names, and am trying to be polite.

I’ve also noticed it more along economic lines — people who appear to be a bit more well-to-do don’t mind being called ma’am or sir, while those who appear more down on their luck are more likely to have an objection or feel mocked.

Comment by kristine 03.07.08 @ 7:58 am

I think I’m “the friend” and I owe you an email! I’m pretty sure that Yankees just have different cultural norms. I don’t expect them to accept the Southern understanding of ma’am and sir as standard, but I did really struggle with it because I often say it without thinking about it…so I think they’ve got to say, “Oh, she’s from Virginia, she can’t help it, she’s not meaning to be rude.” I recognize the rules are different in other parts of the country, and I wish they’d respond the same way. That there expects they will be slightly more worldly and aware than perhaps the ones who are offended are…

In my experience as a thirtysomething, there’s a big hangup about ma’am and sir from people who’ve been through the sixties, maybe the boomer generation. They think I am calling them old and saying “You’re part of the establishment.” …And yes, to me, they are older and part of the establishment! I owe them respect! Still, it offends them. ๐Ÿ™‚

Comment by Joanne 03.07.08 @ 8:56 am

I like sir and ma’am, and I’m learning to like being called ma’am myself…

Comment by Channon 03.07.08 @ 9:21 am

I Don’t think I will ever be used to being ma’am’d I’m not old enough yet – kicking and screaming and dragging my feet – despite my white curly hair.

Comment by rho1640 03.07.08 @ 10:37 pm



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