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Old 02-21-2013, 08:04 AM
 
Location: Southeastern Cumberland County
983 posts, read 3,680,196 times
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If you don't know me, don't call me by my 1st name. We're not friends or buddies, so you can call me Mrs. Royal. And don't say, "yeah,"...that's rude. "Yes ma'am" will do. Now, we do have some young 20's at church that make me feel ancient when they say, "yes ma'am," and I've told them they don't have to "ma'am" me, but in general, use your manners.
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Old 03-02-2013, 08:16 PM
 
Location: Tennessee
152 posts, read 268,038 times
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A Quick User's Guide to "ma'am" and/or "sir" in the South

A Brief Definition
Ma'am and sir are not considered subservient or racial in the South. (What IS racial is if you refer to a black man/woman as Uncle/Aunt instead of any other appropriate title. This is definitely frowned upon and considered as offensive as it is archaic. Do not do this.) Ma'am and sir are terms of respect which are technically from Old English. The South has many other oral phrases which have been preserved due its more rural and isolated areas. (Such as "over yonder") You are less likely to hear Old English phrases in major cities or port towns even within the South although some regions of the South are more traditional in general than others. In most circumstances not using sir/ma'am is perfectly acceptable so long as you are not overly presumptuous about familiarity with one another. (Be warned: Referring to any minority by their first name without permission HAS been considered VERY racist and demeaning in the South. This isn't common nor is it necessarily viewed as racist by most Southerners these days, but be aware that in the past it has been a method of asserting that minority Southerners were unworthy of being treated with the same respect as a white Southerner.)

Note on Common Misperceptions: Being polite and/or using these terms is not an automatic indicator of whether or not someone is "nice" or "being nice" to you. (Example: "Sir, I can teach it to you, but I can't learn it for you." translates to "You're too stupid for me to help, moron, stop wasting both of our time." Even if said "politely" it is still an insult which sometimes takes people from outside the South a while to recognize.) Though commonly associated with hospitality, and considered an accompaniment to the practice, it is not actually a distinctive trait of "Southern Hospitality" for someone to say ma'am and sir. Many times Southern Hospitality is conducted without either of these terms being utilized.

Social Usage
-The general rule of thumb is that sir/ma'am should be used when there is an obvious age difference between yourself and an elder. That means when there is at LEAST a 5-10 year age gap. Sometimes kids and teenagers use it on anyone who they perceive as being over 18-20 (aka: an adult) There is usually an awkward transition stage for kids nearing the end of their teens while they adjust to the idea of also being seen as an adult or being within that 5-10 year gap with an adult where it becomes frowned upon for them to use it. (eg: A 20 year old is rarely pleased when a 17 year old calls them sir/ma'am.) This can be perceived as insulting even within the South by those who are still adjusting to the idea of "being an adult/old." It can also be perceived as lacking self-confidence if the younger person uses it socially with people in their age range because it can come across as though they aren't comfortable with stepping into the "adult" world. The closer someone is to your own age, the less appropriate it is to say sir/ma'am.

-Sometimes elders will refer to those younger than them as "sir/ma'am" as well. Sometimes this is a method of kindly reminding children that they might be young, but they are expected to behave with a certain degree of maturity. Sometimes this is a method of praising or rewarding a child for showing maturity. Most of the time, if you are in your late teens or over 20, this is a recognition that you are also an adult and, therefore, are seen as a social peer by others who are older than you. Elders aren't required to do this, though, and if there is a significant enough age gap (eg: A 20 year old and an 80 year old) then the elder might always refer to you like a child. Though this can be taken as condescending, it is usually seen in the South as endearing. Similarly, calling a young person "Hun, sug, sweetie, etc." by an elder who is significantly older is almost always considered endearing in the South. It's a little more controversial when the elder's age gap is less than 20 years or the "young" person has crossed the threshold of 40-50. It depends on the situation, individuals and type of relationship whether or not such a practice is endearing or condescending. Much like how the phrase "bless your heart" can either be an earnest expression of sympathy or one of the most vicious insults the South has to offer, the context in which something is used determines everything.

-Women under 35ish can usually be called "miss" without incident, but it is normally restricted to young ladies (20s or below) and little girls so referring to an experienced woman as such can be seen as condescending. (There are times when you can get away with it although the ramifications of offending a steel magnolia can be scathing.) If in doubt, when talking to a woman it might be better to avoid "miss" or "ma'am" entirely if possible. Ma'am/miss are like a cherry on top, but since not everyone likes cherries, it is sometimes more prudent to assert your politeness with a smile, good attitude, holding doors for others (an important part of Southern Hospitality and no longer restricted to a specific gender so, ladies, remember it is just as important for you to hold doors for gentlemen and especially for your seniors!) and saying please/thank you.

-Like with all respectful terms/customs, over usage can be seen as a way of maintaining a respectful yet unfriendly distance from others. Generally, elders you are unfamiliar with prefer being called sir/ma'am when initially interacting with one another, but once a certain familiarity is established then it is better to restrict the sir/ma'am to casual utterances or when deferring to their experience/seniority. This is sometimes up to your own discression, but if an elder requests you call them by their name then feel free to address them as requested. However, if a young person continues to say sir/ma'am that doesn't automatically mean they are being disrespectful or standoffish; it might simply mean they are trying to discreetly say they do not currently reciprocate those feelings of familiarity or, as mentioned before, are not quite confident enough yet in general. Either way, it is usually better for all parties if you remember not to over use the terms and be aware of how others react to it.

-They can be used aggressively or sarcastically. Kind of like how "Your Honor" can be used with the utmost respect or pure contempt depending on the inflection/situation. It is important with Southerners to always pay careful attention to their FULL sentences because they have special, subtle ways of letting you know when they're not amused with you. Naturally there will be Southerners who will blatantly cuss you out which is difficult to miss no matter what your regional cultureis, but there are many times when non-Southerners fail to understand that "being blunt/upfront" in the South is frequently very different from other regions. In the South, telling someone that they "might want to rethink that" is the same as saying "do not continue or there will be unfortunate consequences." Sometimes the most aggressive threats/insults can be said in the sweetest ways which for most Southerners is distinguishable, but for others it can be confusing.

In The Workplace, School and General Authority Figures
-When working with customers, it is always good to be aware of your audience and surroundings. If you are a waitress at a fancy, upscale restaurant it is better to limit your ma'am/sir stuff unless you are confident that it will be well received but if you're at a local, casual restaurant which encourages you to unleash all your Southern, then let it out. Sometimes that is exactly what the customer is paying for! You can get significantly higher tips from people if your sir/ma'am attitude is part of the restaurant's theme or will help you connect with the customers/local culture. This can be applied to most customer-service positions in the South. Age restrictions on who is a sir/ma'am do not apply here; all customers over 18 are referred to as sir/ma'am regardless of the employee's age.

-When you're a small child, saying "yes, sir" or "no, ma'am" in school in the South is strongly encouraged in most places because it is generally seen as installing a sense of cultural norms. Teachers will say "no, sir" or "yes, ma'am" to small children sometimes to teach/demonstrate the habit. Similarly, many teachers will say things to you such as "What did your mother think about your picture?" to you instead of "What did <insert mother's name here> think about your picture?" because it is strongly frowned upon for children to refer to their mother by her name. This practice normally stops after kids are old enough to be held accountable for their own decisions about when they do/don't use manners or other cultural habits. For the most part. See below.

-Saying "Yes, sir/ma'am" or "No, sir/ma'am" when in trouble is a way of showing respect for authority and a way of demonstrating a rejection of "potentially harmful defiance." As some have noticed, in the military it is common to enforce respect/deference to superiors using the same phrases. This is important in the military because rebellious actions can lead to dangerous instability among soldiers during high pressure situations that could result in someone being seriously harmed/killed. Though schools tend to prefer for students to express themselves and develop their own opinions, some discipline must naturally be maintained and respect for authority enforced. (Such as when a teacher reprimands a bully for abusing another student. If the bully doesn't respect their authority then bullying can also tragically lead to a child being seriously harmed/killed.) In the South, asserting the teacher's authority is most commonly done verbally by the following dialogue: "Do you understand?" "Yes..." "Yes, what?" "Yes, sir/ma'am" I'm not going to debate nor assume whether this is effective/correct child care, but it is fairly common. The South does have the largest percentage of military families and strong military traditions so it is to be expected that there are similar cultural/philisophical overlaps between the military and the South.

-You will not be required to say sir/ma'am in order to be accepted in the workplace, but it might endear you faster to your boss if you do. If you don't feel inclined to, don't do it, but remember that many times it is a risk worth taking just in case the boss is a Southerner who likes a reminder of home or a non-Southerner who is flattered by such things. Most bosses worth having will politely inform you if they don't like it then move on. Take the hint. From my experience, the benefits far outweigh the risks in the South, but I can't promise it will always be well received especially as more and more migrants from other parts of the country drift in.

-Be careful, transplant employers; you're in the South now and your "political correctness" version of politeness that works in other places can have dire consequences. Ironically, I have seen some Southerners save their transplanted bosses from very unpleasant encounters with locals by stepping in with "sir/ma'am" attitudes to smooth things over. While it is important for an employee to respect the customer policy of their employer regardless of their rearing, transplant employers should remember that sometimes it is in their best interest to take up the policy of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." So be careful you are being culturally sensitive to the fact that sometimes cultural sensitivity can be construed as a threat to the very culture you're dealing with at times. You don't go to Britain and call their black citizens "African Americans" just because that's the politically correct thing to do in America, and you don't go to the South and ignore the local etiquette just because that's not how etiquette works where you're from.

I hope that helps people out who are confused how sir/ma'am is basically used in the South! Remember, these are just basic rules and there are always exceptions to every rule! "Sir/ma'am" responsibly!

Last edited by Blink101; 03-02-2013 at 08:30 PM..
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Old 03-04-2013, 06:22 PM
 
Location: Florida
7,693 posts, read 13,597,075 times
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I grew up in New England and although I have lived other places. I seem to have said it most of my life. Although I remember saying Yes Ma'am to a pharmacist at Walmart in Massachusetts once. She became quite angry and told me not to speak to her that way. She said she found addressing her as ma'am was very disrespectful. I said ok but I find it disrespectful, that you find politeness as disrespectful. Then tell the customer about it. So I will take my script to another pharmacy, where I can just deal with getting the script filled and not your attitude.
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Old 03-05-2013, 04:50 AM
 
Location: Rocky Mount
63 posts, read 176,805 times
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when I hear others using those terms I immediately question their intelligence. It's like one is making a point of being inferior. Let your yes be yes and no be no. Ma'am and sir are not pleasing to say nor hear.
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Old 03-05-2013, 05:58 AM
 
Location: Fayetteville, NC
1,490 posts, read 5,514,611 times
Reputation: 1603
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenne View Post
when I hear others using those terms I immediately question their intelligence. It's like one is making a point of being inferior. Let your yes be yes and no be no. Ma'am and sir are not pleasing to say nor hear.
You are going to have a rough life down here if being polite and respectful displeases you and make you feel inferior. Perhaps attitudes like this is why natives are not happy with Yankee transplants diluting their culture.

Last edited by faabala; 03-05-2013 at 06:29 AM..
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Old 03-05-2013, 06:09 AM
 
Location: Rocky Mount
63 posts, read 176,805 times
Reputation: 128
Quote:
Originally Posted by faabala View Post
You are going to have a rough life down here if being polite and respectful displeases you and make you feel inferior. Perhaps attitudes like this is why natives are not happy with Yankees transplants diluting their culture.
you were wrong to assume that I would have a difficult time in the south because I don't play some of the ritual games. I have lived here 7 years and love the area, I live in Rocky Mount, and find that a cooperative disposition makes for amiable encounters
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Old 03-07-2013, 08:34 AM
 
Location: Tennessee
152 posts, read 268,038 times
Reputation: 389
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenne View Post
when I hear others using those terms I immediately question their intelligence. It's like one is making a point of being inferior. Let your yes be yes and no be no. Ma'am and sir are not pleasing to say nor hear.
Hm... While I don't have a problem with people who don't use those phrases, and as I mentioned in my post it's perfectly fine even in the South if you don't, I find it to be cultural elitism as well as a blatant display of intolerance if not outright bigotry when people make such extreme judgments about another culture. Just because it is different from your cultural beliefs, that does not make it less intelligent, inferior nor less pleasing. It is simply different.

That being said, I am glad you have enjoyed your life in the South and are well accepted among locals.
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Old 03-07-2013, 12:41 PM
 
Location: Raleigh, NC
10,519 posts, read 20,562,897 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenne View Post
when I hear others using those terms I immediately question their intelligence. It's like one is making a point of being inferior. Let your yes be yes and no be no. Ma'am and sir are not pleasing to say nor hear.
You clearly are not from around here and might not fit in here culturally if you think it makes you "inferior"-feeling to address someone politely. Do you think it makes you inferior-feeling to call someone Mr.___ or Mrs.___?
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Old 03-12-2013, 08:36 AM
 
Location: Apex, NC
173 posts, read 186,156 times
Reputation: 340
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenne View Post
when I hear others using those terms I immediately question their intelligence.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenne View Post
and find that a cooperative disposition makes for amiable encounters
Do you qualify questioning another's intelligence based on their politeness as a "cooperative disposition"?

If you let the recipient of your questioning know that, does that make for an "amiable encounter"?
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Old 03-12-2013, 09:40 AM
 
Location: In the realm of possiblities
2,713 posts, read 2,483,124 times
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Blink101 explained it very well, and a lot I agree with. I would say, though, that growing up in Texas my parents taught us that as a sign of respect, Yes Ma'am - No Ma'am, Yes sir - No sir, were to be used to respond to anyone older than us. We afforded our parents that respect, and my parents felt that most, if not all adults were worthy of the respect as well. It never bothered me. In fact as I got older, I gave the response to those that were older, or even the same age as me, and occassionally to youngsters. I guess it became a habit. I wonder, too, to this day how much it influenced my potential employeers when I responded to their questions with the respectful answer? We lived in Utah for about 3 years, and have never been as apalled at the way children, and a lot of adults talk to each other there. I never heard anyone in the whole time there ever used this respectful salutory greeting. The norm was " yeah, no, uhuh, yep, nope, etc..." It might not be fair to draw a correlation between the lack of linguistic respect the youth I came in contact with in Utah had toward others, and some of the problems the parents had with them, but in working for the city while I was there, I saw more exhibitions of shameful behavior from the youth toward each other, and from the adults that attempted to chastise them, and complete lack of disrespect toward anyone with authority. Let me say, though, that I maintained the parks, and was only exposed to the ones that frequented there, so this is in no way a blanket statement of the whole state. My whole point in all this is, how hard is it to show someone respect? I was taught as a child to show respect to others, and they in turn, will, most likely respond the same toward me. Words are very powerful, and many times can, and will define a person. It doesn't take that much effort to show someone a little respect.
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