There is an ongoing debate that centers around one simple question: Is using the terms “sir” and “ma’am” appropriate, outdated or condescending?
There are some that take offense when addressed as a sir or a ma’am; usually the complaint is that the terms are indicative of older age or the assertion that the terms come across as patronizing. Then there are those firmly planted on the opposite side of the fence who take offense when not referred to with sir or ma’am, as they feel the term shows an outward sign of respect.
Clearly, Southern states are more prone to use such a title while on the East Coast it is seldom built in to any conversation. While the military routinely use the terms sir and ma’am as a daily part of their communication, a technology company or PR firm would be less likely to require their employees to use the term.
In customer service, “sir” and “ma’am” are commonly accepted ways to address an adult customer when you do not know their name: “Excuse me, ma’am, did you want a Grande or Venti Latte?” Sir and ma’am are also often default terms when getting the attention of strangers: “Excuse me sir, you just dropped your wallet.”
Since the phrase does imply a perceived guesstimate as to a woman’s age (if you’re 16, you are more likely to hear “miss”) the safest route may be to simply eliminate the term altogether: “Excuse me, would you mind removing your shoe from the back of my jacket?”
Whatever your background, upbringing or training, here are some general etiquette tips on the use of sir and ma’am:
- Calling colleagues sir or ma’am makes you seem junior-level. If you are relatively young, using sir and ma’am emphasizes your junior status, diminishes your power and could possibly make the person you’re addressing feel uncertain or ill at ease. “Yes sir, I can certainly provide you with guidance on your financial portfolio, just as soon as I have my milk and cookie break.” If, however, you are a new graduate, on a job interview, using the terms would be respectful and appropriate.
- When in doubt of, ask. Your authority is conveyed through your tone of voice and professional demeanor. It takes self-confidence to ask “How would you prefer I address your clients, sir and ma’am, Mr. Jones or by a first name?” Taking it upon yourself to clarify shows leadership.
- Adapt to your surroundings. You may be “Southern born and bred” but if you insist on calling everyone older than you sir or ma’am, you may also be out of a job. Appearing unable to adjust sends the message that you are inflexible and unable to adapt.
- When in doubt, err on the side of caution. While up to this point, sir and ma’am are somewhat controversial, Mr. or Ms. provides more clarity. If you’re contacting someone you haven’t yet communicated with, it’s always safe to start by addressing them by their title (Mr. or Ms. ̶ never Mrs.) and last name. If they ask you to call them by their first name, you may oblige. Never use any gender-specific title unless you are absolutely sure of the person’s gender (The Chris’s and Pat’s will thank you).
Above all, give each other the benefit of the doubt. If you are addressed in a genuinely friendly and respectful manner, take it at face value and respond in kind. ~ Diane Gottsman
Diane Gottsman is a nationally recognized etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in corporate etiquette training. Diane is also the author of Pearls of Polish, an etiquette guide for today’s busy woman.