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 changed 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 you’re sending.
Alternative #1 – Omit it
It’s that easy. When talking directly to someone, just leave it off.
Instead 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.
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.