As I’ve written before, I learned a lot about being a man from my mom. One of the things she taught me was good manners. And one of the basics of good manners she taught me was saying “Yes sir/No sir” and “Yes ma’am/No ma’am”.
I can’t tell you how many times people paid compliments to my mom, dad, and grandparents for my and my brother’s good manners as children. “Sir” and “Ma’am” became reflex responses, embedded right behind my teeth for release any time someone in a position of respect or authority asked me a question.
In my hometown, nearly everyone my age used “Sir” and “Ma’am”. Of course, I grew up in a city of 3,000, 45 min from the closest major metro area, and as you might expect, using these words was one of the many small-town values embodied there. And this particular value was incredibly secure. Here’s what I mean:
- When I moved to this town in the seventh grade, my first day of gym class with Coach Wells required that we be assigned a locker. When he called our names and asked if we already had a lock, we were supposed to reply with our answer and “sir”. In my anxiety, I forgot. The penalty? Ten pushups, on the spot. I never forgot to use “Sir” with Coach Wells again.
- Even the meanest, orneriest, most disrespectful kids could usually not bring themselves to forego “Sir” or “Ma’am”. I have an image in my mind of the recalcitrant trouble-maker, standing defiantly before our vice-principal, glaring as he showed exactly no remorse for whatever he’d done, still saying “Yes sir” to the to administrator (and being quickly corrected if he didn’t).
Now, 17 years after Coach Wells reinforced my mom’s lessons about manners, I still find myself using “Sir” and “Ma’am”. At church, at work, in restaurants, in the doctor’s office: it still flows naturally. I’m a bit more conscious of it now, mainly because I hear it from others much less frequently (I almost never hear children or teenagers say it) and because I’m at the age of people for whom I used to reserve the “Sir” and “Ma’am” when I was a child.
Still, I go on using it. And it still attracts notice. One of my supervisors asked me why I still called her “Mrs. Supervisor” (“Mr.” and “Mrs.” being a partner to “Sir” and “Ma’am”). I told her that’s just the way I’d been raised. My explanation sounded a little hokey, but I don’t care. So many of the men I respect still use these designations. The use of these titles is born out of my own sense of respect, of good manners, of deference, of humility. And most important–of honor.
My plan, should God bless me with children, is to teach them to use “Sir” and “Ma’am” as well. First, it’s a tradition in my family. Second, I want them to have good manners. Third, I want them to have a sense of honor, of according age (and its accompanying wisdom and authority) its due respect.
At the risk of sounding like a the-good-ol’-days-were-better-because-they’re-old kind of guy, I think those just mentioned virtues are fading a bit in our society. I don’t have any empirical proof, just my own observation. I plan on bucking that trend and asking my kids to do the same.