Thursday, October 14, 2010

A whole lotta ma'ams and sirs

My friend Tawna Fenske just does not understand the importance of adding "ma'am" or "sir" to yes or no. She, being the Yankee she is (okay, Pacific Northwesterner, but anybody above Virginia can technically be called a Yankee) sort of thinks it is an insult.

Yankee-types do this, making the wrong-headed assumption that being told "ma'am" is the equivalent of being carded in the chain drug store where you've sneaked to buy your beer or liquor on the faint hope that the other Baptists won't see you buying fermented fruit of the vine (or hops.) They think either being carded or being addressed as "ma'am" is a slight to one's age.

They couldn't be further from the truth. In the South, we have highly complex rules of "ma'ams" and "sirs." The rules are so convoluted that it's hard for me to pick them apart to instruct my wonderful Yankee friends all the ins and outs, rather like a native of Beijing trying to explain the Chinese culture to round-eyes.

So here goes my feeble attempt. Proper Southerners say "ma'am" or "sir" when:

You're addressing anybody that is obviously more than 18 and at least five years your senior. (Oh, pooh, you can tell. And if someone isn't quite at the five-year mark, they'll blush and say, "Aw, you don't have to call me ma'am!" You cease and desist, and no harm done.)

You're addressing your parents, even if (the shock of it!) said parent isn't quite 18 yet.

You're addressing your parents' parents, your parents' neighbors, your parents' boss, or anyone who bends down from the waist, cracks a fake smile and asks, "Well, sonny, how old are you?"

You're addressing someone in authority, even if said person is younger than you. By authority, I mean anyone who can make your life even temporarily miserable by saying no or yes when you strongly desire the opposite answer. That includes the return clerk at Wal-Mart, the whipper-snapper state trooper with not a hair of fuzz on his face, or the painted-up tart in the government office.

You're addressing a teacher -- whether it's yours or your child's or even your child's child, even if she's wearing blue jeans, T-shirt, and flip flops and has some mighty weird new-fangled ideas from that teacher college she went off to.

You're addressing a person who might possibly be giving you money for a good or a service. (So yes, it is feasible that you could say "yes, ma'am" to a clerk, and the clerk could say, "yes, ma'am" right back at you, and nobody would go away offended.)

You're addressing someone who is clearly better educated than you are.

You're addressing someone who is clearly LESS educated than you are.

You're addressing a preacher or his wife. Assistant pastors and youth pastors don't count, not until they get promoted up.

You're addressing a doctor or a doctor's nurse. Doctor's nurses actually are smarter than the doctors (well, most of the time) and at the first sign of disrespect, they can lose your chart and make your life immortal torment. A well-placed "ma'am" can avert such travesties.

You know you're in the wrong.

You're in ANY doubt about whether you SHOULD say, "yes, ma'am."

You're addressing anyone with a weird, Yankee-fied accent, because we Southerners love to see Yankees squirm, and what with all of our time being so prim and proper, we've gotta get our licks in somewhere.

So as you can see, down here in Georgia, we're pretty much "yes, ma'am-ing" and "no, sir-ring" all over the place, except the kids who are less than ten and have been corrupted by MTV and the Disney channels, which is pretty much all kids. These types drive us older Southerners slap-dab crazy with all their "uh-uhs" and "Hmh-huhs" and other various grunts and groans that bear no resemblance whatsoever to a very simple "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am."

But since we were the same way (without MTV or Disney to be our parents' scapegoat), I guess after about age ten, it will finally take. I'll keep you posted, ma'am.


Julie Weathers said...

It's a bit different here, I guess. Everyone gets called "ma'am" and "sir" unless it's some punk you're fixing to knock on their ass.

I call my sons and their friends "sir" and "ma'am" simply because it's polite. Of course sometimes it's, "No, sir, you are not climbing up that tree again and if you do I'm going to whip your butt to a fare thee well."

"Sir?" and "ma'am?" also substitute for "what?" or "huh?".

Summer said...

And the hallmark of a parent in the South? "Yes-WHAT?"

Not that I *ever* got way. Not I! ;)

Lydia Kang said...

I'm from Maryland, so, yeah, a Yankee here. Thanks for the education!

Cynthia Reese said...

Julie, you are so right! I do that to any kid that has the nerve to sass ... not that my own sweet Kiddo would ever do that, nuh-uh. ;-)

Summer, you HAVE to be Southern! And that "ma'am" or "sir" that got wrung out of the kid better be delivered with proper respect and a total lack of sarcasm.

Lydia, it is amazing that Maryland could truly ever be considered a bastion for Yankees, but even Atlanta has been changed in the past couple of decades. Thanks for humoring me!

Julie Weathers said...

Oh, I use it even when they aren't sassing. I just think respect goes both ways.

Tawna Fenske said...

I wouldn't have a problem being called ma'am in the south where it's obviously common courtesy, but I DO have a problem with people trying to apply the "rules" from one culture to a place where they're obviously inappropriate. It's like when we were traveling in Morocco and I saw a pack of idiot Americans walking around in shorts. Fine, fine...that's acceptable behavior where they come from, but when you're in someone else's "home," you owe it to them to follow the cultural norms that exist there. Same deal with ma'am. It's frankly considered rude in my neck of the woods, so why do it?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

As a thorough Yank, raised of all places in California, I love saying "yes, Ma'am" and "yes, Sir." But I confess I use it more as a term of endearment.

p.s. I just realized a friend of mine, who is a southerner who wants to get back to writing, absolutely must read your blog. :)

Dr. Goose said...

When Daisy would ask me to do things around the house I would say, "yes ma'am". Eventually, she began to pick up on the fact I was replying in a, "yes mom" tone.

When she told me to stop I said, you guessed it, "yes ma'am".

I won't go into what happened next but I have never said it since.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

As a Yankee who has transplanted to the South, I totally get this. And I like it.

Now, are you going to address the rampant use of "Honey" and "Sweetie?" That was much harder for me to adjust to. ;)

Anonymous said...

Summer stole my comment about saying "Yes, WHAT?" to my kids. ;)

Southern parent, here. Yes, ma'am.

Tawna, that is an excellent point. I'm glad you brought it up. "Be a considerate visitor/guest no matter where you are" was another lesson drilled home by my mama (and daddy, grandma, grandpa, and any misc. aunts, uncles, and cousins in the vicinity).

Cynthia Reese said...

Julie, you're right. I get in trouble helping out in the third grade because I'm so used to saying "yes, ma'am" to The Kiddo that I say it to the boys, too. EEEK!

Tawna, you are spot on! When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Thanks, Susan! I so appreciate that!

Dr. Goose, I know that tone. It's the secret, undercover "eye-roll" tone, and I grit my teeth when I hear it. I'm glad you lived to tell the tale!

Elizabeth, I am jotting that down on my to-do list for blog topics, because you're right: using honey and sweetie and darlin' is as contagious as the measles 'round these parts.

Midnight Blooms, The Kiddo had excellent manners until she went to school. And then suddenly she was all, "yuh-huhs" and "dunnos." So I find myself sounding more like my mama every single day. :-)

abby mumford said...

that is so interesting! i love learning about new cultures, especially those within the united states. so fascinating.

but yes, up here in massachusetts, i get cranky whenever i'm addressed as ma'am, probably because they don't have that southern lilt to soften the tone.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm originally from Montana, which isn't that far from Oregon. I think nothing of hearing or using ma'am, at home, but perhaps it's more of a country thing. I can't imagine anyone considering good manners rude.

Tawna Fenske said...

Julie, I lived in Montana for about four years, and you're right -- in some of those rural areas, it was much more common to use "ma'am" and didn't seem out of place or offensive there.

But in the uber-casual Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington), it's much, MUCH different. It's not only uncommon to use those terms, but uncomfortable for the people hearing them.

I agree that good manners are important, but we don't all define them the same way. I had the pleasure of dining with a family in Morocco where we ate with our hands and the guests complimented the cook by belching loudly at the end of the meal. For them, that's good manners. But if they showed up at Cynthia's house, eschewed silverware, and complimented her fried chicken with a belching contest, I don't think she'd see it as mannerly.

Bottom line, it's about adapting to the "good manners" of the culture you're in :)