There is no country on earth I love visiting more than the U.S. There are many reasons for this, but among the highest ranking are a handful of things that are tragically absent from where I live in the British Isles, while in the U.S. are probably too mundane even to bother taking for granted. The International House of Pancakes is one big draw (magnificent but not so international, it turns out). Root beer is another (this delightful beverage was always niche in Britain but has lately become nearly impossible to come by because one of its main ingredients, sodium benzoate, is restricted under E.U. regulations. Oh yes, I’ve looked into this).
But for me, perhaps America’s greatest attraction is this fascinating notion of customer service. When I’m in the U.S. I feel like a king because people in shops, restaurants, hotels and the like frequently smile at me, don’t micro-express that they want me to leave immediately, and very often call me “sir.” About a year ago, for instance, I spent a whole afternoon on my own in a largely deserted mall in Tucson, Arizona, popping into stores so I could be courteously attended to and sirred at. I came out of the experience with a surge in self-belief, a renewed purpose in life and two hats I didn’t need.
This is ego juice I don’t get at home. In the U.K. if you call someone “sir,” and you’re not addressing your superior in the police or armed forces, chances are you’re either dosing them with sarcasm or being deeply, creepily, Downton Abb-ily deferential. Or you might be doing both, as we see in this illustration of the typical use of “sir” by British retail staff, which somehow splices both obsequiousness and snobbery into a single oily syllable (and yes, the sir in question really is Johnny Depp, and that really is Ron Weasley’s dad sex-pesting him).
And yet, it has recently dismayed me to learn, this kind of honorific-related unease is no stranger to those who live in the U.S either. Even in service-industry sir-vana, I’m told, not everyone wholeheartedly embraces the protocol. According to my colleague Nick Leftley, a quick straw poll among the men on the MEL editorial staff was unanimous: “Everyone here declared that they hated it, as it made them feel old or just awkward.”
For women, it’s important to note, being called ma’am can bring into play an added nuclear stockpile of sensitivities around age and sexism; for reasons of space and cowardice, I’m not going to make any attempt at ma’am-splaining that side of things. But minding your sirs and ma’ams is a long-entrenched staple of American manners, and to an outsider like me, nine times out of ten it feels like plain and simple courtesy — so how has “yes sir” got to be such a sore point?
No Second Chance at a First Impression
According to Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who runs the Protocol School of Texas, yes, it’s courtesy, but it’s not exactly simple. “It can come across as placating,” she says. “While the person doesn’t intentionally mean to insult the other person, it depends on the tone of voice and the filter of the person who’s hearing it.” And when tone is so crucial, it’s easy to see how courtesy might often be misread as flippancy or contempt — especially if it’s subject to distortions from the preconceptions of the person on the receiving end, or what side of the bed they got up on.
The fact is that if a stranger is going to call us sir, it’s likely to be among the first few syllables they say to us, and according to a famous study by Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov, whatever they’re mouthing at this point, it’s way too late: Our brains have already cast them as friendlies or villains. Todorov’s findings in 2006 suggest that we all make snap judgements about people’s characters on sight, forming a lasting impression in the first tenth of a second, and zeroing in on aspects such as their perceived competence and trustworthiness — basically the pillars of a good customer-service experience.
So if we’re hearing “sir” in the context of a freshly formed character assassination that’s being wired in from our amygdala — the part of our brain that deals in fear and threat — we might transpose this jaundiced view of our server, hotel clerk or shop assistant on to the word itself and read it as a sign of disingenuous or insulting intentions. Right, Michael Douglas in Falling Down?
Say My Name, Say My Name
Equally irrationally, our annoyance might also be triggered by a sense that our whole identity has been sidelined, just like when someone you’ve met 12 or 15 times continues to refer to you as “pal” or “buddy.” “We much prefer to be called by name when possible,” Gottsman points out. Often in the service or hospitality sectors, “If someone says, ‘Sir, excuse me…’ they’re trying to be polite because they don’t know your name.” She advises tolerance toward this form of sirring, even if it pushes our buttons, because: “Think of their options. If they don’t know your name and they’re trying to be respectful, rather than saying ‘yes’ or ‘yeah,’ they’re adding something to it. And it might be their corporate culture; it might be the hotel’s requirement that they address you with what they would see as dignity and respect. So where I can understand that some people would be offended, most of the time the intention really is that it’s a sign of respect.”
The times irritation might be more justified is when your sir-sayer has had ample opportunity to call you by your name but went for the minimal-effort honorific instead. “Even as an etiquette expert,” says Gottsman, “I train that once you’re applying for a job, you lose the sir, you lose the ma’am, and you figure it out. You call them by their name.”
Wise counsel, since this is clearly at the root of some people’s sir-anxieties — as shared with the world in this all too obscure anger-management anthem, sung by Substitute Teacher Lou Reed:
While “sir” implies a certain seniority in the U.K., it’s not particularly associated with age. The term is much more loaded in the U.S., says Gottsman, “Because you’re taught at a young age to respect your elders — and in some parts of the U.S. to use sir and ma’am.” There may well be a certain amount of cultural dissonance going on within American usage in this case, adding to the confusion over sir’s intended meaning. Many are inclined to see it as “a Southern thing” — which, San Antonio-based Gottsman says, “to a certain degree,” it is. While in no way confined to Southern states, “In the South, sir and ma’am is normal training; in other parts it’s not, necessarily.”
“Here’s an important point,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one of whose specialties is the study of aging. “The first time a woman is called ‘ma’am,’ the considered wisdom is that it makes her feel like someone is talking to her mother.” She adds that the same is often true of “sir,” in relation to a man’s father. Flinching at this is, though, would be to miss the intended complement. “This terminology can actually signal deference to age or experience, and so it shouldn’t be considered insulting or problematic.”
To put it another way, when you hear “sir,” you might instinctively zoom in on your antagonist’s age, and assume that’s all they’re thinking about too. Instead, they’re addressing your shared social situation and making explicit who has control; all the speaker is really doing is giving you the floor.
As a way of establishing politeness — the study of which, by the way, is a whole area of sociolinguistics unto itself — “sir” serves as a way of minimizing ambiguity and misunderstanding. Once you’re both in the sir zone, says Krauss Whitbourne, “It’s understood that politeness helps to facilitate communication by showing respect for others and the maintenance of social boundaries.”
It’s a fair bet that sir’s power to offend has been augmented in recent years by our shifting notions of gender. It may well be the case that, across many English-speaking cultures, people feel increasingly uncomfortable trading in gendered terms, especially those that resonate with the values of a bygone era. In January 2018 the British Army — many of whose high-ranking officers are actual, knighted Sirs — announced it was dropping its protocol of addressing officers on the phone as “sir,” because it was seen as an “outdated” form of greeting. Instead, explained an Army spokesperson, those answering the phones should just ask, “How can I help you?” (Presumably “Shoot…” was an early rejection from the available options.) A few months later, the London Ambulance Service followed suit, telling emergency call operators to stop using “sir” and “madam” to avoid causing offense with terms loaded with gender assumptions.
And we might all be subconsciously thinking twice about dropping a casual “sir” in the wake of cases like Tiffany Moore, the transgender woman from New Mexico whose explosive reaction to being publicly sirred in a video-game store — “Excuse me, it’s ma’am!” — went viral in December 2018.
“These terms are in part culturally determined,” says Krauss Whitbourne, “and when used in the right context, serve to signal respect. However, as highly gendered terms, they might have the opposite effect that’s intended if the target prefers to use gender-neutral language.”
So perhaps an update is long overdue. As old-fashioned terms go, “sir” is about as creaky as they come: According to The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases, its status as a formal title for knights dates back to the Middle English of the 1200s, and it had fallen into use as a generalized term of respect by the 1300s. Etymologists trace its roots back through the Old French segneur (“lord”) to the Latin senior (“elder”), but its closest ancestor, the French word “sire,” suggests its English origins go back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and offers some clue as to why it’s still closely associated with formal systems of social hierarchy.
Up until the 17th century, Medieval England, along with much of Europe, was structured by what historians have characterized as feudalism — in loose terms a giant property pyramid scheme whereby nobles would grant land to lesser nobles as tenants, or “vassals,” in exchange for their loyalty and military service; these underlings would in turn apportion the land among their own vassals, and so on, in a series of subdividing tenancies going right down to the peasants who actually worked it. Both “sire” and “sir” were woven in to this stratification as common modes of address for vassals when speaking to their lords, encoding deference at each level up the chain of command.
The relics of this still exist in British society today, of course, in the so-called “honors system,” whereby the Queen (though really it’s the government) dishes out knighthoods and damehoods (alongside a host of other arcane, J.K. Rowling-esque titles) for achievements in public life. And as a side note on the increasing anachronistic clunk of the word “sir,” it’s interesting how many newly knighted British celebrities feel the need to express their queasiness at being dubbed one, among them Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Andy Murray and Sir “Lancelot” Billy Connolly.
But the much more important holdover from the word’s roots in the feudal era is its seamless incorporation, in English-speaking cultures the world over, into rigidly stratified institutions like police forces and the military. A glimpse of the old social resentments associated with it can be seen in the fact that sergeants and other non-commissioned officers by convention aren’t referred to as “sir” by their subordinates but by their rank instead — and this is often held up as a badge of honor. “Don’t call me sir — I work for a living,” is the old standby in the U.S. military, implying that the officer aristocracy doesn’t like to get its hands dirty. And here’s an Australian serviceman proudly demoting himself to “Corporal Dave” for the benefit of an American comrade:
The other important takeaway from feudalism is that it means being called sir really, literally should make you feel like a king. Because when someone calls you “sir,” they aren’t only showing you respect — they’re acknowledging their fealty to you, the fact that by royal assent you can take possession of all their stuff, and your right to lead them into battle against your rivals armed with a pike.
Worth clinging on to? Simply as a Brit who loves American service, yeah, I think so.
“I love that you love it,” Diane Gottsman tells me. “There are even some people in the U.S. that love it. But then there are others who don’t, just like with the scent of cologne — you know, some people like the smell, some don’t; some people love gardenias, some don’t; some people love sir, some don’t.”
To which the only response available is: Yes ma’am.