Leo Morris: Deference, sir, is no crime


I was not raised to say “sir” or “ma’am,” so those words have never been part of my regular vocabulary, except for three years in the Army when they were forced on enlisted personnel as the required way to address officers.

I say this without regret or pride. It’s simply a fact of my life and perhaps gives me some objectivity on the question of whether those forms of address are important to an ordered society and whether their disappearance should be lamented or celebrated.

That they are disappearing is not in dispute. They are the remnants of a more formal age when people left calling cards and gentlemen tipped their hats to ladies. This is very much an informal age in which few restaurants dare to have dress codes and men wear baseball caps backwards.

And that’s just fine with some people.

We should all be looking for “more modern ways to be polite and show respect to people of all ages and genders,” writes Anna Lee Beyer for the lifehacker.com website.

Devotees to “sir” and “ma’am,” she writes, “say they expect children to say it to show respect, or maybe they say it to show respect (maybe someone in their family tree showed them manners and, by god, they listened). But I’m not sure at this point if we are talking about respect, or deference and obedience. Teaching children to be unquestionably submissive and obedient is obviously problematic.”

I think she is confusing “respect” (or, heaven forbid, deference and obedience) with “politeness.” It has been my observation that people growing up in a “sir” and “ma’am” culture have not been taught to meekly yield to perceived authority but rather to be civil, courteous and well-mannered in their social encounters until and unless experience dictates otherwise.

It’s the same culture that encourages people to say please and thank you, to make others feel comfortable instead of asking them too-personal questions, to not interrupt, to disagree while still being kind and to accept criticism with equanimity, to neither spread nor solicit gossip. In other words, to behave decently toward others.

Anybody think there’s too much of that going around today? You, sir? How about you, ma’am?

To be fair, the author does acknowledge the need for civility in our lives. She just thinks we can do it without teaching children “to continually sort themselves into groups that do or don’t deserve respect.”

We absolutely must use our words in a way that does not “make assumptions about or potentially offend the person we are talking to.” We should avoid the risk of “misgendering trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people.” Or offending “people who feel young but associate the word (sir or ma’am) with age.” Or use a term that can be offensive to older women. Or confuse children growing up in an atmosphere of mutual respect “by the special rules for some people based on their age, gender or geography.” Or expressing an “unsettling throwback to requiring people of color to say ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ to the white people they served.”

That seems like a whole lot of baggage to put on two simple words. Elevating people who don’t deserve it but expect it. Denigrating people who will be further downtrodden by all our wanton displays of politeness.

What about the older white male who happens to be the most decent person you’ve ever met? Or the youthful, transgender person of color who is a selfish, dishonest jerk? Would we be better off to live in a world in which, until we got to really know them, we said “sir” or “ma’am” to both of them or neither of them? I think there is more riding on that question than we want to admit.

Spanish-speaking people have a better handle on this sort of thing. They don’t have just one second-person tense the way English speakers do. They have an informal way to address someone they know well or are more or less equal to and a formal tense for those they have just met or whose status is unknown to them. They gradually ease from one tense to the other as they go along.

Sort of levels the playing field.

In my Army days, I encountered the “sir” and “ma’am” culture at its worst, being forced to show absolute respect for people who may or may not have deserved it. I don’t think it made me a better person, but I can’t say it did me any great harm, either. It did allow me to navigate an environment in which everyone knew the rules and followed them.

Such certainty is not a bad foundation for civilized behavior. Bringing “sir” and “ma’am” back into play would not be the worst thing we ever did.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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