I’m afraid we may be looking at an upcoming generation of Southern children who don’t know what it means to say “sir” and “ma’am.”

It’s an interesting concept, but Southerners are certainly known for politeness, and that includes the habit of saying “sir” and “ma’am.” If a Southern child simply says a terse “yes” or “no,” (or, heaven forbid, a “yep” or a “nope”), a nearby adult will quickly follow-up with, “yes, what?” or “no, what?” And the child who had momentarily forgotten his manners had better instantly reply with “yes, sir,” or “no, ma’am.” The child can also consider it a good day if the adult didn’t include a resounding thump as part of this exchange.

But here’s the funny part. While we Southerners consider it offensive and rude to NOT refer to an adult as “sir” or “ma’am,” Yankees basically consider it insulting to do so, and think of them as fighting words. Unless they’ve had a military background, Yankee women especially take it as insulting and derogatory to be called “ma’am” by anybody.

However, the real sticking point to a Yankee is that the act of simply saying “sir” or “ma’am” is subservient. They never teach their kids to say it, because they would view that as training them to be servants. So, when you hear a Yankee say “sir” or “ma’am,” it has usually been colored with a highly disrespectful and sarcastic tone of voice. Southerners, on the other hand, view “sir” and “ma’am” as obligatory expressions of respect, and we routinely train our children to say it. I know it’s not acceptable to whop kids anymore, but how many of us grown Southern adults have experienced some painful open-handed slaps to the back of the head from our mamas for the moment of insanity of uttering a profane “Uh-huh” to an adult? Ouch, I can still feel it. In fact, the affronted adult in this example might even take it as a bigger insult if the Southern mama didn’t whack the kid right there. It was just generally expected.

So, the chain of misunderstanding goes something like this. A typical Yankee woman encounters a rude sales clerk somewhere who keeps calling her “ma’am” with a nasty little flat tone added for deeper impact. The sales clerk fully intends it as an insult, and the woman takes it that way. An hour later, she asks a typical Southern child a simple question, and the child answers, “Yes, ma’am,” which the Yankee woman hears as insulting instead of polite. She says something snippy and sarcastic back to the child, who is utterly confused at this point, because that’s the way he’s always been trained to talk to adults.

Yankees consider politeness to be a weakness and a character flaw. I know that’s a pretty broad generalization, so sue me. I lived in Iowa for three years, and my wife and I have mountains of anecdotal data to back that up. Oh, Yankees will be polite to their boss, or anybody else above them for that matter, but it would be a major Yankee faux pas to express respect to an equal or less. You just don’t do it. And if you choose to do it, then it suggests to them that you are accepting a subservient status.

The solution? Make the Southern kids stop saying “sir” and “ma’am,” obviously. That’s not the way Yankees talk, so nobody should talk that way. You don’t think that’s what’s really happening out there?

Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since.

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