Yes, Sir… Yes, Ma’am … Culture Clashes


Warning to Momma: I don’t think you are going to like this one. I don’t want to trounce on tradition, and I hope I can still come over on Sunday.

One of the things that has taken me aback since I’ve been here in Louisiana is the use of the titles Ma’am and Sir. I was raised here. I was scolded when I didn’t answer ‘Yes, Sir’ or ‘Yes, Ma’am’ growing up. I was also made to use it with people whom I didn’t respect at all. It was a rule, and it was meaningless to what I felt but seemed to mean the world to the person receiving it. I had to suck it up and say it. This morning I had a rather heated discussion with a friend about using it in the workplace with managers. It feels in my gut more like submission than professionalism, and I think we are all equal as humans in the workplace even though we are not equal in authority. I was pretty much told by my friend that my feelings were inappropriate, and I needed to adjust to the culture. Yes, Sir.

Since I moved away right after college, I thought that the whole ‘yes,sir’/ ‘yes,ma’am’ custom was something relegated to children and training them manners. I lived all over. I lived in Florida, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. I rarely, if ever, heard the sirs and ma’ams, but I did find people respectful and with good manners. The phrases ‘thank you’, ‘your welcome’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’ were used often. Doors were not opened for me except on occasion, but I didn’t really consider it rude. I knew it was a cultural thing, and I sort of thought that any of the rank and file stuff like monikers and opening doors was a little authoritarian. When I moved to Memphis it found it odd to hear the old ‘ma’am’ title come up. I remember being taken aback by it the first time in Kroger. I wanted to declare that I was not a ‘ma’am’. But, I let it go. In Memphis it was reserved for relationships where I didn’t know the person very well, and I guess I felt like it was a placeholder for someone who didn’t know my name. I didn’t feel any more respected because of it, and I felt a tiny bit unhappy about it because of the age thing.

When I moved even further south, I had an even bigger adjustment to make. Everybody ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’ams’, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how you decide who to say it to. In fact, I am called Miss Sharon by my younger co-workers. I tried to tell them that we were peers, and they could stop that, but they won’t stop. I’ve finally relegated it to the one of the weird things about living here. Everyone says it’s a show of respect, but I respect them, and I don’t call them Miss. I also have found that some of the most disrespectful people can ma’am me to death. I’d rather them be more respectful in general and drop the moniker.

In my late twenties, I went to a training workshop  in Atlanta, and I met a very nice Saudi Arabian man. I’d, of course, heard how that culture treats women, and I was surprised to find a very nice, talkative and respectful classmate. We had several conversations about culture. Toward the end of the workshop, we were working on a module, and he came over to me for feedback. The modules were self-paced, and we had to get feedback from a peer, make corrections and then get the peer to sign off on the module. We talked about his work, and he needed to make some changes. He wouldn’t walk away. He asked me if I was going to sign it. I awkwardly said “No. You’re supposed to make the changes.” He looked me in the eye, pushed his paper toward me and emphatically said, “Sign it.” I was entangled in a cultural clash. To this day, I regret that I was inauthentic to myself and let his cultural behaviors trump my personal respect. I signed his piece of paper and feel sick in my gut every time I think about it.

I talked with my girlfriend Alayne this morning about my heated discussion with my friend, and she said she chooses when to say it. If she doesn’t respect someone, she doesn’t use it. I suppose when I think about it, it’s probably slipped out for me if I’m talking to a very kind older man or woman, and I do want to show them respect. But, if I felt like I had to say it to people just because it’s expected?? Ewwwww…. That’s inauthentic. Alayne says the best way she’s seen it used is when her boyfriend uses it with his subordinates. He treats them with respect AND uses those mannerisms with them. I can see where it shows respect going DOWNWARD in rank …. if you also treat them with respect in other ways. I imagine since I don’t use it all the time, people around here might get the idea that I’m disrespectful. I hope that my other actions will prove otherwise, but it seems like a superficial way to judge people or even show respect to REQUIRE that they say something in a certain way. I’m not going to trounce on tradition, so if it floats your boat to call me Ma’am, I’ll try not to get offended at least. I’d just appreciate the same respect for my feelings.

When I moved to Memphis, I noticed that nobody blew their horn. I sat through a complete traffic light and nobody blew their horn at me. Coming from the Chicago area, I could not believe the lack of horn-blowing. A couple of years later I read that, at one time, it was against the law to blow your horn in Memphis. The law helped to solidify a cultural behavior based on having respect for other drivers regardless of the safety impact it had or any other road rage issues. I read this morning that Louisiana has a law that schoolchildren must address all school personnel with ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes ma’am.’ The law was established in 2000. I wonder how many second-graders have been thrown in the slammer based on this one? Louisiana lawmakers must have far too few problems to solve. Based on that information and my experience in trying to discuss the subject this morning, I suppose my opinion on this matter needs to stay mute. Who cares what I think? It’s culture. I guess I’ll have to suck it up on this one while I’m down here. Thank you, Sir. I’ll try to keep my mouth shut, Ma’am. And I suppose I’d better watch my tone while I’m at it.



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