Column, Southern Thing Column

‘Ma’am’ and ‘sir’ offensive? We have a politeness crisis, y’all

The excerpt below is from a column that originated on It’s a Southern Thing. Click the link at the bottom to read the full column or go ahead and click here now.

Southerners, we have a problem. There are people in the world who are telling us we shouldn’t call people “ma’am” and “sir,” which can be a difficult habit to break if you still feel the invisible swing of a switch when you forget to say it.

The reason, say these people who apparently aren’t from around these parts, is that the honorifics can make some people feel old. I get that … to a point. Not too long ago, a young coworker called me “ma’am” and I was momentarily discombobulated … but not because I was offended. It was because in my head I am still 18 years old … and sometimes 8 years old, like on those days I actually laugh at Adam Sandler movies and fart jokes.

Like most of us in the South, I was raised to call adults “ma’am” and “sir” as a matter of respect and politeness. It is the rare Southern child who didn’t grow up hearing “Yes what?” if you forgot to use the honorific. Then I stumbled across a random blog post that reported something shocking: It can now be considered offensive to call people by polite titles.

The post was by Maralee McKee, known as the Manners Mentor. She wrote on her blog that her son, on the morning he started a new school, called his teacher “ma’am” and the reaction wasn’t pretty. It was like he’d said “Yes, Ms. Skanky McSkankerton.”

The teacher responded: “You’re new here, so I will allow you this one offense,” McKee wrote. “Do not call me ‘ma’am’ again; I find it offensive … Do you understand?” Her son apologized. Apologized, y’all! The teacher’s reaction really creamed McKee’s corn, mainly because she’d spent years training her son to be a nice, respectful boy. Then some random teacher comes along and undoes it with one good stink-eye that leaves him shaking in his boots.

I decided to check and see if the rest of the internet is offended by honorific titles because this sounds like a manners emergency. You won’t believe what I found –one kid was actually punished last fall for calling his teacher “ma’am” … and it happened in the South. A teacher in Tarboro, N.C., made a 10-year-old boy write the word “ma’am” repeatedly as punishment. The boy’s mom, Teretha Wilson, wasn’t having it.

Wilson was instructed to sign the paper so she would be aware of her son’s “indiscretion.” She responded by including the definition of “ma’am:” “a term of respect of polite address used for a woman.” In your face, Random Teacher.

The child was later moved to another class. Well, of course. What mama wants to spend an entire school year fearing her kid might accidentally be polite? Click here to read the full column.







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