Have you heard a child respond with ‘no, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am’ recently? Does your child ever call you, sir or ma’am? Are these phrases part of your common vocabulary? If not, why? Is this a conscious decision?
Saying ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is not old-fashioned or demeaning. Good manners never go out of style and many problems can be avoided by the inclusion of these simple words in conversations with authority figures or new encounters. All children should be taught these respectful phrases.
As parents of four, my husband and I have always expected our children to respond with sir or ma’am when talking to any adult. It is something we taught them to do as toddlers that serves them well as teens and young adults today. Sir and ma’am doesn’t solve all their problems, but it does remind them of respect in the midst of them.
Table of Contents
What is Etiquette?
Etiquette is sometimes referred to as the conventional rules of behavior for society. I like to call it acts of politeness. There might be varying definitions for politeness, but even so, most everyone will recognize it when they experience it. And certainly know when someone is being IMPOLITE.
Etiquette helps our society function. It connects us as a group of people. It helps us feel comfortable, by informing us of what to do and what to expect from others. Without etiquette, there is essentially chaos.
When someone disregards the accepted etiquette of a particular environment or group, he or she immediately sets themselves apart, and likely up for failure.
Types of Etiquette:
- Societal/Cultural Etiquette
- Etiquette within a family
- Professional etiquette
- Etiquette of sports
- Computer/Internet Etiquette
- Phone etiquette
- And so on…
Using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ is part of societal/cultural etiquette, so let’s focus on that. Examples from this category are shaking hands upon greeting, looking someone in the eye (but not too long), waiting in line, knocking before opening a door, and holding the door for the person behind you.
Which of these would you discard or tell your child is not valid? Which of these would you dismiss as a recipient? If you think these are important behaviors for you and your child to know and practice, then using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ should also be included.
“Sir” and “Ma’am” Benefits
There are many benefits from etiquette. It helps you feel comfortable in unknown situations. When you know the rules, you are able to walk into any room and fit in…like you know what to do.
For example, let’s look at one type of etiquette: business etiquette. Knowing business etiquette for a company helps you succeed within it. It keeps you from offending supervisors and colleagues, or perhaps losing potential clients. It may even save you from an HR inquiry.
There are general ideals of business etiquette that will help you. GCFLearnFree.org provides a free online tutorial to help you learn critical business etiquette such as time management, electronic (i.e. email) correspondence, office/cubicle expectations, and dress code.
However, beyond that, you will also need to learn the business etiquette of your particular establishment, too. Upon joining the ‘business’, you will learn when and where to take a water, snack, or restroom break. You will learn if it’s acceptable to use your cell phone, or display personal photos or knick-knacks.
You will probably have rules about checking and responding to emails. You will notice a pattern of how to dress. This etiquette makes your new company unique from many others, despite general business etiquette commonalities.
And without understanding the etiquette of this particular place, you will have a very difficult time adjusting.
The benefits of specifically using “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as readily as saying please and thank you is also just as valuable for your child’s success, now and later in life, as learning the etiquette of a business.
When you preface or end any response with sir or ma’am, I promise it will elevate the conversation almost immediately to the positive.
Simply think of an encounter you have had when someone responded to you with “no, ma’am” or “yes, ma’am”. How did you feel? I can almost guarantee you felt more at ease in that situation than any other time when hearing a single, “yes” or “no”.
If the situation is initially off-putting like doing a purchase return at a department store or asking someone for something that might be an imposition, getting a “sir” or “ma’am” attached to the response is better than not.
Especially if the response is “no” accompanied by “sir” or “ma’am”, the threat per se feels removed or at the least reduced, and you walk away feeling fine anyway.
“Yes, Ma’am”-Showing Proper Etiquette to People in Authority
From the time our children could ask for things, we taught them to say “sir” or “ma’am“. It became so natural that when they (rarely) forgot, it was quite obvious and immediately corrected. Not saying sir or ma’ma was almost as out-of-the-ordinary as walking out of the house without your shoes on or forgetting to close the car door.
It’s just what you do.
Sometimes we’d get comments from others, especially when all four were 10 and under while living in Southern California. And even there, the response was almost always positive. A few times, people questioned why we do this.
At least once, someone responded, “I’m no ma’am!” as if insulted. A simple, “you are to me” with a kind smile calmed the situation.
Whether you are talking to a police officer, teacher, doctor, cashier, or restaurant employee, adding “sir” and “ma’am” to your conversation is a show of respect for their position, regardless if you actually know and respect the individual.
In almost all experiences, you will find that these simple additions to the interaction will help! Most people either recognize that you are trying to show respect, or they’ll be so surprised having not heard these honors in so long, that they’ll be immediately relaxed and ready to work with you whatever the case.
Considering police officers directly, they have a tremendously tough job, let’s face it. They, more than the rest of us, encounter more destructive, vile, hardened, nasty minded people on a daily basis.
For instance, they truly never know what they might face when stopping a car for what seems to be a minor offense such as speeding.
Therefore, it may seem that many take the offensive approach and are curt, rude, aggressive, or deliberately pushing our buttons, right? Imagine the reaction when they firmly ask for your license and registration, and you calmly acquiesce with a “Yes, ma’am.”
As a person who drives 100s of miles a week, it’s uncommon that my husband has never had a speeding ticket. This isn’t because he hasn’t been pulled over. Though he rarely speeds, as a person who’s been driving over 35 years, he certainly has, and he’s been pulled over a few times times to boot. So why no ticket?
Well, it’s our belief that it is because he always addresses the officer with a respectful “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of every response.
“Sir, no, Sir”- Fundamental Military Etiquette
One of the first things a new recruit will learn is the use of “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing or responding to anyone above his or her rank in the military. This is to remind the recruit that they should show respect to those who are above them. Also, a reminder to remain humble.
There’s an old adage that says, “The senior will never think of the difference in rank; the junior should never forget it.”
In fact, the terms sir and ma’am in the military environment are so respectful that any officers with stars would not be offended if addressed this way, according to Military Customs & Courtesies.
Why does the military hold sir and ma’am in such high regard? The usage as stated earlier signifies respect to someone above you. It recognizes their hard work to earn that status. As well, it demonstrates your humility and willingness to learn from them.
This show of humility and willingness to learn are probably two of the most necessary character traits of a new recruit. No matter what branch, the military needs cadets who will be able to take and execute orders, follow directions, and have reverence for another’s life.
Something as easy as using sir and ma’am is an outward sign that a person is trainable and worthy of the US. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marines, or U.S. Coast Guard.
Origins of “Sir” and “Ma’am”
Often when learning about something, I want to know its history, when it all began. Sometimes this can shed new light on whatever is being studied or considered. As well if the past is checkered, this too can provide a new perspective…is it still a viable option or necessary?
When did it all being? Certainly as long as the U.S. military began, sir was in use. However, we can go back 100s of years before that.
Merriam Webster traces it as early as the 13 century, being a form of sire. It was used as an address to those in positions of power or respect such as knights, priests, and royalty.
Even today the British use “Sir” as a title for those knighted by the Queen of England for some sort of national or international contribution to society. Of course, there is quite the range of worthiness of contribution.
Some recent recipients of this honor: Sir Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, winner of 3 Grammies and several hit songs, and Sir Tom Moore, a World War II veteran who raised over $40 million dollars for Britain’s national health care.
One of the earliest findings of ma’am is from the 1600s, a few hundred years after sir. It was a shortened form of madam.
Madam was a polite way to address a married woman. Like sir, it shows up before ma’am, sometime during the 1300s. Madam was also used as a term of respect for a woman in a position of power or authority, which during this time period would be attributed to wealth or rank.
Not using sir or ma’am with a person of authority or position over you during the Middle Ages was not only considered impolite, but the rudeness could be a slight that would result in punishment such as a fine or jail.
Not just a Southern Thing
Some say it’s a southern thing…but we say it goes beyond that. Besides the continued aforementioned usage of ‘sir’ in England, the Holy See uses sir as a title too, to this day. India, Ireland, and the Philippines have a history of using ‘sir’ as well. All of these places use sir with the same intention: to show respect and honor.
Japan, though not a direct translation for sir or ma’am, uses honorifics like ‘san’, ‘chan’ and ‘sama’ attached to names. These essentially represent the same meaning as sir or ma’am, giving respect to one’s elder, or a person of authority.
In addition to Japan, Korea and China have a long tradition of honorifics like “sir” and “ma’am”. These titles are given our to deference to age, rank, and certain careers like teaching.
Martial Arts Tradition
From Tae Kwon Do to Tang Soo Do to Jujitsu to Karate, you will find that most all will require any participant, whether child or adult, to use sir and ma’am in responses to any instructor.
In this case, it is to show respect of position and rank, not necessarily age. The instructor may very well be younger than the adult students, but that doesn’t matter. Saying “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am” demonstrates respect and humility, that you are there to learn from them.
Today’s Etiquette Backlash
With such a long-standing history that crosses countries and cultures, it is surprising that sir and ma’am could propagate controversy. However, it is not without backlash in current times.
Some parents say that it is demeaning to require your child to use sir or ma’am. In response, I say, do you expect them to use thank you, please, or other verbal and nonverbal forms of manners? Why is that any different?
Does acknowledging a person in authority mean you are any less a person of your own? Absolutely not! Your self-worth (and likewise, your child’s) should not be contingent upon someone else’s authority or rank. You are no less of a person, in contrast I would say you’re the opposite, by displaying a sign of respect to someone else.
Ties to Slavery
There is a new train of thought, that saying “yes, sir” is too reminiscent of American slavery days, akin to the master/slave connection. Therefore, it must be bad. However, this is in error.
As origins of the word usage has shown, sir and ma’am pre-date the 1800s American slavery period. Relegating the use of sir and ma’am to just this time period alone is comparable to never wearing cotton again.
Just because it was used then, doesn’t mean causality. In fact, the very use of “sir” and “ma’am” is the antitheses of the crimes of slavery.
Old-fashioned & Not Necessary
The argument that sir and ma’am are old-fashioned is plain ridiculous. Again, did your grandparents or great-grandparents say thank you and please? So should we relegate those words (and actions) to ancient history and not use (or show) them today?
I think not!
Not necessary? Hmmm. Showing manners isn’t necessary but it is the polite thing to do. And it often is the buffer in a tricky situation or the bestower of a generous deed! Yet do you really want to teach your child that showing respect is only so you get out of something bad or happen to gain something good? I’d wager that most parents don’t think that!
Sir, Ma’am Etiquette Wrap Up
So to recap…
- Using “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am” is not old-fashioned nor is it demeaning to you or your child. It’s the opposite.
- There are many benefits to saying “sir” or “ma’am”, whether to elude tricky situations or to gain some sort of advancement.
- The military’s use of “sir” and “ma’am” reiterate the respect the words (and actions) connote.
- The use is rooted in the centuries, displaying the honor attached.
- It’s not just a southern thing. Use of “sir” and “ma’am” honorifics cross borders and permeate cultures.
- Martial arts traditions show it’s not just for age designation, but use of “sir” and “ma’am” honor position and skill.
- And finally, the modern backlash has no standing.
So what now? Think about the last time you said “sir” or “ma’am”? What was the situation? What was the outcome? Or maybe you can’t remember the last time.
Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to say it as often as your child. After all, he or she is always around someone older and wiser, in a position of authority (that’s YOU by the way). When was the last time you HEARD it?
For me, that was today after I told my son that dinner was ready.