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Do you use ma'am and sir?

February 15, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
I've been taken aback a few times when a boy or girl I'm interviewing answers every question with "Yes, ma'am" or "No, ma'am." My first reaction is to wonder if they're being sarcastic. Then I wonder if they're afraid of me for some reason and I unconsciously try to loosen them up. This probably confuses the child, who was just using the manners that were drilled into him at an early age by his mother!

I'm guessing that this is question of northern versus southern cultural differences or the difference between a military and non-military family. Maybe it's both. I came across an online discussion between a northern-raised mother asking for advice on how she should raise her toddler son, who is growing up in the south. Southern-born mothers said they won't answer their children if they don't reply with "yes, ma'am" or will frown or raise an eyebrow at the child who forgets "ma'am" or "sir." Some of them even call the child "sir" or "ma'am" just to get them used to using the words.

One northern-born woman recalled the culture shock when she moved to Florida as a child and was punished by a teacher for not saying "yes, ma'am." Several of the Southern-born women expressed surprise that northerners don't necessarily see "sir" or "ma'am" as polite and don't like hearing it. A few northerners said being called "ma'am" makes them feel old and one said he won't call someone "sir" until he's knighted by the queen.

From my Midwestern-raised perspective, 'ma'am" is something you call someone in the store when she's forgotten her purse and you don't know her name. It's also a good way to mock someone, as in "Yes, MA'AM,' said in a voice dripping with disdain or sarcasm. My teachers would have known beyond a doubt that I was not being respectful if I called them "sir" or "ma'am." I was raised to call older people "Mr." and "Mrs." when I was being particularly respectful, but I called older adults I knew well by their first names.

My aunts and uncles were Aunt First Name and Uncle First Name until I reached junior high age, which was a sign of respect, but I notice that my older nephew has called me "Andrea" from the time he could talk. That's fine with me. He's a well-behaved child who respects and cares about other people and that's far more important than what he calls adults. I don't need the formality of an official title.

Is this a northern-southern thing or just individual preference?


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