Monday, October 29, 2007

No Sir, No Thank You Ma'am

A few Sundays ago, some of my wife's co-workers gathered with their families (including me and dipity) for a nice little mid afternoon brunch. There was one other father there. Up to this point I had only known him through my wife's stories, and the hand me down kids' clothing he passed on. Initially, he confirmed my second hand impression. He made a few jokes, brought home-brewed beer, and looked as if he could have come from Berkeley. I lost track of the general conversation as dipity engaged in some activity I assessed to be potentially dangerous. And then I heard Mr. Berkeley say that at some prior job he had been on a hiring committee, and that he had been against hiring one candidate because he had failed to address an older member of the committee as "sir." Apparently the omission was especially egregious because the applicant was from Texas and ought to have known better. I said nothing, which may be a later lesson for dipity (and me too). But my instant reaction was to think such a position rather antiquated, silly, and off the mark; not to mention a tad too regionally specific to be entirely logical. As I continued to think about it, I became more and more interested in why I felt the way I felt. I am ordinarily a big fan of common courtesy, and presumably proponents of "sir" and "ma'am" would identify them as essential elements of common courtesy. Why don't I do it or expect it?

Proponents of "sir" and "ma'am" assert that it is a show of respect to address an older person in this way. I'm all for respect, but why should it only be shown towards older people. Don't give me any older is wiser crap, I know plenty of older people who aren't wise and plenty more who haven't earned anyone's respect. Now, I don't greet people by spitting in their face until I know them well enough to know whether I respect them. I do everyone the courtesy of showing interest in them when I meet them. I do this by making eye contact with them, and listening to what they have to say. I try to greet everyone I meet this way, regardless of age or social position. I suffer from more than a touch of social anxiety, so I'm not one hundred percent successful, but I always try. I hope that that my wife and I are successful in training dipity to do the same.

I'm not interested in training her to adhere to too many vestiges of our traditional patriarchal power structures. To me, "sir" and "ma'am" are part and parcel of a traditional social structure that granted status to men and particularly older men, and deemphasized merit. I also see them as what they are: words. If you want to show respect to me, I would rather you do it with actions. That is why I think opening a door for someone, and I open them for everyone male or female, is different.

I don't see Ma'am as connected to Miss, Mrs., or Dr. Dr. is earned. Last name versus first name is a different debate, and since a person's name is theirs and not mine, I'm more than happy to respect their wishes and say it any way they want me to.

I also don't see men and women who refuse to be called "sir" or Ma'am," as individuals who are denying their age. If my pants hang down around my knees, feel free to make fun of me. If I ask you to call me Sam, well you can laugh at that too, but I'm not trying to impress you. I'm also not practicing self deprecation. My self worth isn't tied up in a title.

I'm not sure what other reasons their would be for utilizing "ma'am" and "sir," unless you find yourself in basic training. Even there I find it antiquated, but since a butt kicking is all too contemporary, if I were a soldier "sir" would be a regular part of my vocabulary. Beyond that, it just doesn't make sense. If you want to use "sir" or Madam," more power to you. I don't think less of people who use them. I do think less of people who use them to judge others. If you dismiss someone because they fail to say "sir," well that's a reflection on you ... and not a good one.

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