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.

Comments

    • 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.

  1. 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…”

  2. 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.

  3. 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 :) )

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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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