Do You Still Call People Sir or Ma’am? Stop it!

You’ve probably been taught to call elders and those in authority by either sir or ma’am (madam is the formal version, but ma’am is more common).

Unfortunately, it can be insulting to many people and so I want to challenge you change how you address people.

It’s worked for hundreds of years, so why change now?

It’s true that we’ve been using formal titles for years, but these days, many English speaking cultures are becoming less formal.

Whether you agree with this shift in formality isn’t important and it’s something you can’t control. Your job isn’t to be the “language police,” but rather to understand how to use words to communicate as effectively as possible.

What about when an old lady drops a purse?

You’ll often use a formal term of address when you don’t know the name of someone and you want to show respect.

When you see a lady drop her purse, you probably have three options running through your head.

1. Grab the purse and run for it.

2. Say something rude like, “Hey You!”

3. Politely say, “Excuse me ma’am.”

The problem is that by saying ma’am, the person you’re talking to might be just as offended as if you’d said, “Hey you.”

Why are you insulting me?

In short, calling someone sir or ma’am makes them feel old.

These days, people are living longer, as I mentioned earlier, society is becoming less formal. If you call someone in their 50’s Sir or Ma’am, you may be insulting them.

Most people in their 60’s and 70’s will still understand the reference to respect and appreciate it, but in general terms, the younger a person is, the higher the chance that they’ll take offence to being called by a formal term of address.

What about the army or different geographic locations

Many people who have been in the armed forces use the terms sir and ma’am a lot. For them it’s an act of respect.

Times have changes a bit, and although I still feel great from someone from the army calls me sir, a key to effective communication is to use words that convey your meaning best to the listener.

There are also places, like the Southern United States, where it’s still a great idea to call people sir or ma’am. If you go to Texas and aren’t using formal greetings, you’ll soon wear out your welcome.

Your goal is to find out what works wherever you are. Just be mindful of how the person you’re speaking too will interpret the message your sending.

Alternative #1 – Omit it

It’s that easy. When talking directly to someone, just leave it off.

Intead of, “Yes ma’am,” just say, “Yes.”

If a lady drops her purse, try catching her eye and saying, “Excuse me! You dropped your purse.”

It sounds a little funny when you’re used to hearing sir and ma’am, but it works, and doesn’t feel insulting.

Alternative #2 Use their name (if you know it)

People love the sound of their own name. Dale Carnegie talked about this years ago, and it still holds true today.

My wife teaches 1st grade, and tells me that most of the parents who come in to volunteer want the kids to address them by their first name. I still feel uncomfortable having my daughter call adults by their first name, but that seems to be the way society as a whole is trending.

In summary

Society these days is decidedly less formal than it was even 10 or 20 years ago, likely in part to the widespread use of the internet and texting. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is a discussion for another day, but it is occurring.

It’s not your job to police the English language, but rather to go with the flow and use your knowledge of it to communicate as effectively as possible with others.

Whenever you communicate. Think about how the other person will interpret what they hear before you worry about what you’ll say.


  1. Bewc says

    Poor and relaxed language skills are indicative of the lower half of the income gap, which is not where I desire to be. I must strive to be more than I am, not acquiesce to mediocrity.

  2. Tom Graham says

    This is not an entire society thing.

    Almost every boy and every man likes to be called sir. It’s a sign of respect and recognition. Men are motivated by recognition.

    Women, on the other hand, can take Ma’am,madam, mizz or miss the right way or the wrong way depending on the age and sex of the person saying it. If I call a woman my same age ma’am, they feel insulted due to age, I call them madam they think I’m calling them a prostitute, I call them miss they think I’m denigrating their intelligence. I call them Mrs and they think I’ve called them the property of their husband (Mr’s)

    Society is not becoming more informal. All children are still expected to say please and thank you. Children are still expected to call their friend’s parents “Mr. last name” and “Mrs. last name”. Children in military families still say an awful lot of sir.

    When a child, a sixteen year old Wendy’s employee, a young cashier, a waiter or even a young bank teller calls me by my first name it’s disrespectful and makes me want to not shop there anymore.

    So the real problem is that women have been taught by society to treat respectful terms as disrespectful. This should be corrected through proper etiquette education.

    Instead of eliminating the traditional respect for one’s elders, customers, bosses and other members of society that you simply don’t know, I think the better thing to do is figure out why women take respectful terms the wrong way and perhaps come up with a respectful term that women all agree not to take the wrong way.

  3. Luis Alonso says

    In the long term you will get more benefits than disadvantages of being formally polite than just casual. It is true that eventually you will find some persons getting uncomfortable about being called Sir, Ma’am or Miss.
    But they are a minority, if you want to play winner in the long run; go formal. It opens more professional doors, It creates a more sophisticated version of yourself.
    Two advices: 1) Be natural. Don’t force yourself to be formal, that will just look fake and that is when people tends to be more negatively reactive. 2) Always evaluate the situation. I always preach that manners can take you very far in life. However, if the person you want talk is obviously sending an implicit message with his/her non verbal behavior it is better to find an alternative communication language. specially if you want to sympathize.

  4. Jayson says

    I found this topic on another forum and was dumbfounded to hear folks being offended by the use of sir and ma’am. I just couldn’t believe it to be true. So in searching the web for confirmation, I found this old thread. I have lived in Texas all my life but travel to other states from time to time and have never been corrected calling someone sir or ma’am. People of character demonstrate it in Texas with respectful, polite, non-curse word laden language. I can listen to you for 5 minutes and tell a great deal about your upbringing and societal status and frankly whether we have a chance to spend much future time together.

    For my children to hear sir and ma’am as normal, they have to see/hear me speaking to others. Regardless of age, we use sir or ma’am as a sign of respect and deference regardless of age. Every police officer that I have ever interacted with has called me Mr. and used sir even when I was the younger.

    I am stunned and saddened that some in our society might be offended by my verbal sign of respect, civility and courtesy and hope it is a very small and shrinking minority.

  5. Jacqueline says

    I believe in etiquette and I think there should always be some from of respect. I also believe there is nothing wrong with correcting someone if you do not prefer to be called ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am,’ it is rude to continue after being corrected. When I was in my 20s I would be very incensed if someone called me ‘ma’am,’ I preferred ‘miss’ but now that I’m in my 30s and married my mindset has changed. I will correct people if I am referred to as ‘miss’ and I will tell them, it’s ‘ma’am. I will do this even when I go to Mexico, down there I am referred to as ‘senorita’ all the time and I will correct them and say that it’s ‘senora’ because one refers to a single woman and the other refers to a married woman. I would rather someone use these social queues only because saying, ‘Hey you’ as oppose to ‘Excuse me ma’am’ is rude. Also, ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ are not excluded to the English speaking language, all other languages have a formal and an informal. The entire French language has informal versus formal when speaking to different people, to which is very confusing when you are trying to speak to different people, along with knowing when or when not to use the formal or vice versa. I think we have it fairly easy compare to other countries and languages.

    My questions for you Kevin, it has been a few years since you wrote this article and I see that you still keep up to date on reading people responses, has your opinion changed over the years? I ask because I know mine has.

  6. Jay says

    I refuse. Unless I am asked not to or pick up any nonverbal cues I’ll use the language that I feel is most polite and respectful. Some of us are just as uncomfortable being overly informal as others are being overly formal.

    • says

      Hi Sameka. It’s tough because each side of this discussion tends to get upset and dig their heels into a position. I would recommend looking at things from the other person’s point of view as much as possible. They’re probably trying to show respect to you – which is great. That means all you need to do is be “OK” with being called ma’am and everyone wins. You GET the respect, and they get to GIVE it. It might not be something you use yourself, but many others are passionate about it’s use.

  7. pete says

    Kevin, Unfortunately I think you are way off course here. While you may be young and believe that tradition and manners are probably a thing of the past, they are not. I grew up in the far north and now reside in the deep south. Respect is no different regardless of where a person lives. Also regardless of age, Sir and Ma’am are signs of respect offered without question. Especially in business situations. If I were interviewing someone for a position at my company and they did not use the term “Sir” until I gave them the ok to use my first name, I can guarantee they would not get the job.

    Police officers use the terms sir and ma’am when arresting a criminal, Politicians use the terms when addressing constituents, cashiers and other service personnel use the terms when addressing customers and clients, my boss uses the term sir when addressing me at official functions and I he, etc. My boss is five years younger than I. These terms should always be used on initial contact with an unknown person but if that person should then ask to be addressed by their first name, then it would be proper to call them by their given name from that point on. This idea that familiarity is a given privilege would be wrong to assume.

    • Joan says

      ^this person’s narrow viewpoint is amusing! They have only been in two areas of the United States. Explore more cultures!

      Also, it is best to NOT attempt to gender people. If you call a transgender woman “Sir”, you are being very disrespectful to them. The whole sir and maam thing is outdated/archaic. While it used to be cute when country folk used those terms, now it is annoying. I don’t go to tractor supply for this reason.

      To truly be respectful, we should ask someone their name :)

      • george says

        I disagree. At least where I am, Northeast US, greater NYC area, Sir and Madam/Ma’am are very common. Also, Miss is common if you don’t want to insult someone due to age. However I am 22, and I am regularly called “Sir” by anyone who to whom I am a customer. So, any shop, hotel, restaurant, etc. This is commonplace. At least where I am.

        I feel no need to avoid gendered language due to a very very very small minority of people who may be offended by it. I suppose those people would not do well with languages that ACTUALLY have gendered noun cases. Like Greek and any of the Latin-derived languages. I wonder if they would force male noun declensions on female nouns in those language?

        Language evolves naturally. Where I am from, these terms are in common use. The only “grammar policing” I see here are people trying to PREVENT the natural use of English, and force an artificial/politically correct version upon us.

    • nooy says

      I agree. People will say this was how i was raised and that is amusing to me. I tell them, i’m sure you were raised to do alot of things as a child that you did not do as a child but calling people gender and age specific names that theyt don’t want to be called is where you draw the line?? Ha ha. Then that person is made to feel bad because they feel they have the right to be called by their name.

  8. Katie Soto says

    I am from the South, and I have always used ma’am and sir as a term of respect. I am married with 3 daughters, and I surely do not mind being addressed as ma’am. I find it refreshing and thoughtful. Maybe Northerners are the one uncomfortable with it? My children have manners, and they use the same terms as I do.

  9. Eric says

    I disagree wholeheartedly. As you said, those with military experience get accustomed to chain of command and addressing others either by rank or formal nomenclature; as such, I think that as long as you address all strangers or non-casual acquaintances the same way that it is not insulting, but rather equitable.

    I personally very much dislike when customer service reps, desk clerks, etc. address me by my first name. As snobbish as this may sound, they are my subordinates and their job is to act as an agent for their company to convince me to patronise their establishment; thus they are in a sense working for me and not equal. The desk people at my gym call me by my first name excessively thinking that it will please me, but it just comes off as over-friendly, just the same as it would if I were to try to be endearing by calling my CO by his first name instead of, “Sir.”

    I don’t insist on being called, “Sir,” by any civilian person, I do however use that term toward all to whom I am socially subordinate and I think at the very least, if you know my first and last name, you should utilise the latter following a highly audible, “Mr.” I would consider this rude if I didn’t hold myself to exactly the same standard.

    • says

      Hi Alan. I’m just trying to put out an idea and get some discussion going about it. I appreciate you providing your opinion, but you’d probably be more persuasive if you avoided saying things like “Stupid” and “Dumb.” Especially since we’re talking about respect. I’m saying that with lots of love. :)
      Thanks for visiting the site.

      • Adam says are not just putting out an idea. You are putting out an idea and insisting that we the readers heed it and adopt it into our own lives. And your idea is flawed. Additionally, I don’t think Alan Pennini with gmail dot com is trying to persuade anyone and quite frankly I agree with him; your article comes off as pompous and is off base.

  10. Sree says

    I know I am commenting on a very old post and I found this while I am Googling something related to this topic.

    I think in future you also call your parents by name…

    • Kevin Achtzener says

      Hi Sree,

      Good point. I don’t think it’s all that far-fetched to consider something like this. Society as a whole is moving toward a flattened authority structure, so who knows.

      Maybe in 50 years I’ll be sitting somewhere on a porch saying, “In my day we respected our parents…”

  11. Tee says

    Just don’t say it. I’m in my 20s and I look very much my age..24/25. This guy who appeared to be around 21/22 called me ma’am. At first I didnt know he was talking to me. It almost felt as if he wanted to make some sort of miniscule age difference apparent. It was just weird. Next time I will call him sir, if I see him again.

  12. Hoodat Whatzit says

    I realize I’m commenting on an old post but I wanted to share my 2 cents.

    I am 43 and do not mind being called Ma’am. does it sometimes make me remember my age? Yes, but I’ll just have to deal with it. I grew up in the south and have always considered it respectful for anyone. if I know the person, yes, I would prefer to use their name but the few times anyone called me down for saying sir or ma’am to them, I can tell you I felt the dress down I received was much ruder than my use of a formal honorific.

    I don’t use sir or ma’am with the intention of offending or disrespecting the person I am addressing. I have far more colorful and inventive names in my vocabulary that I can use that will guarantee that my full meaning and intent comes through loudly and clearly.

    I remember when Wal-mart went through a period when their cashiers would call you by your first name when you wrote a check (yes, this was some time ago) and I was always annoyed by that. those people did not know me and we were certainly not on a first name basis. now that is not a problem, since by the time you actually get to one of the three human cashiers available at a Wal-mart you are so ready to get the heck out of their they could call you anything and you wouldn’t care. :)

    • says

      Hi, Hoodat Whatzit,

      I’ll second the comment people who don’t know you trying to use your name.

      Many call centres require that the workers attempt to say the clients name a certain number of times in the call. When I worked at one way back, we were supposed to say each client’s name twice per call. It always feel a little too contrived for my liking.

      Anyway… thanks again Hoodat Whatzit!
      (phew, got the name in twice :) )

  13. says

    I don’t like being called sir. It makes me feel old! :) I do have to mention that I did get a big chuckle the other night watching X-FACTOR. Sophie Tweed-Simmmons, daughter of Gene Simmons of KISS fame, said “Yes Ma’am” to Britney Spears when Britney gave her feedback on her performance. It just sounded weird. Although in hindsight I think she was just nervous.

  14. Guest says

    When a woman drops her purse and you want to get her attention, why do you have to call out, “Excuse me, ma’am”? Why can’t you just say “excuse me” or “hello” or “wait” or “you dropped your purse” to get her attention?

    Ma’am isn’t supposed to be a polite form of address for an older lady. It’s a contraction for “Madam” or a salutation for a married woman of any age (as in, “Dear Sir or Madame”). A lot of people use “ma’am” for a grown-up woman because they were taught to respect grownups when they were children, but maybe they don’t remember that they’re not children any more. They’re grownups now and they should act in a more mature adult fashion toward other grownups.

    “Older” is relative. How old is older? How can you tell? A lot of younger people look older because of thinning or grey hair and a lot of middle-aged people look older than they are. Illness or fatigue can make a person look older. How can you tell? Answer: you can’t. So don’t try. It’s not very polite to address someone as if they’re older if they’re not.

    “Ma’am” is also a bit condescending and patronizing when used in a general sense to address any woman. It’s not polite; it’s just a lazy form of address. People use it as a matter of convenience because they don’t have time to learn your name. It’s mostly annoying. Most people who use it also seem to use it because they have the impression that the woman in front of them is plain, ordinary, and therefore must be a “mam”. Doesn’t sound polite to me, just thoughtlessness masquerading as etiquette.

    Besides, we’re not a formal society and “ma’am” and “sir” are out of place and a bit jarring.

    So how do you address people? Answer: how would YOU like to be addressed by a total stranger? If you wouldn’t like it yourself, don’t do it to anyone else. You can be yourself without using false etiquette. Just treat others the way you would like to be treated.

  15. DavidCourtney says

    If you stopped calling people sir or ma’am start doing it again. Formality gives us the structure that society requires to be a polite society. I never want my daughter to call an adult by their first name.
    Lastly, if I can pay respect to a 70 year man or woman at the expense of some 55 year old’s self esteem I’ll take it every time.

    • says

      Hi David. Thanks so much for your comments. This certainly is a polarizing topic. It’s particularly tough due to the number of people lining up on both sides of the discussion.

    • nooty says

      That is rude in itself. Telling someone because you decided it was respectful then everyone should think that. She has the problem. If its about respect, a female should be called that at 18. Who are u to decide when a woman looks a certain age she should give up her identity, her name, she is only her age or perceived look. Sounds very respectable.

  16. jim says

    I know that well mannered people in the south usually use sir and ma’am. It is less common in the north. However, I, personally, have been called “sir” most of my life beyond the age of 30 in Ohio, by most people whom I meet. They don’t know me, the contact is usually causal, but for some reason I get a “sir”. It does not offend me, but merely makes me think that I am dealing with an individual of character and politeness.

    Our society is presently criticized by its lack of politeness. I refer to others as sir and Ma’am, at least beyond early youth, and am grateful by the polite interchange that we have.

  17. Meade says

    Im from Virginia, and people use “Sir” and “M’aam” redgardless of age. My nephew is 10-years-old and he was called ‘Sir” when ordering at a restaurant. Ma’am is usually used for any female that appears to 16 and older. Sir usually for a young adult male and up. But its really funny how people think its an insult. It has nothing to do with age. Its more a sign of a respect.

    • says

      Hi Meade,

      Thanks for your input. It’s interesting that women around the age of 16 or so would be addressed as Ma’am in your area. I normally call someone Miss until I think they’re beyond their mid 20’s or so. Even though we’re all so connected these days, there’s still a lot of variety. I love it!

      • poetess says

        That’s exactly the issue with ma’am. Miss was originally meant for unmarried women or children, yet there is no equivalent for men. Well, there was actually “Master” and it’s obvious why that usage became obsolete. In any case, I believe the whole controversy can be averted by calling every female ma’am as every male is called sir. That’s the only way to divest the term from age.

        • says

          Thanks for your comment. I still remember thinking it was funny whenever I’d be addressed as “Master.”

          Now that the world is so connected, we’ll see even more issues coming up regarding manners, politeness, and the (sometimes) subtle differences between regions and countries.

  18. Steven says

    I like it when people call me “Sir”. But I would agree that this is counter-cultural. I could be considered a rebel in today’s society in that I think that being old is an honour, not a curse. But, you make a good point about speaking with regard to how the listener will receive what is said.

    • says

      Hi Steve. I believe that it’s not so much what you say, but rather how the listener reacts to what they hear that matters. It’s a delicate situation, but something that we need to be aware of.

      I’m like you. As I get a little bit older, I’m starting to prefer hearing Sir or Mr. used with my name.

      In the end, it’s all about personal preference.

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