For my generation (Generation ‘Twixt, as in twixt the Boomers and Gen X), it was anathema to ever use the courtesies of Ma’am or Sir. It wasn’t just a matter of “question authority” but rather an out and out disdain for authority. When I was young and I happened to hear someone use the term “sir” my lip would curl in sneering disdain for the seeming sycophant, or worse military oaf, or worst of all southerner espousing the deferential salutation.
Fast forward 30 years and I live in the South, and I am married to a gentle southern woman who was raised on the social niceties of Ma’am and Sir. From her I have learned, not deference to authority so much, as an egalitarian respect. Now, late in life I have begun using Ma’am and Sir. It is especially useful when I’m on the phone to Big Customer (non)Service, Inc. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten through to a human being who sounds edgy and weary from a day in the trenches fighting angry customers. A conversation will go something like this:
(Bored, edgy voice, with an undercurrent of thunderstorm) Thank you for calling Mega Corp, may I have your account number please?
(Me) Yes, Ma’am, my account number is 123456-89.
(Noticeably brighter, less icy voice) Thank you Mr. XXXX and how may I assist you today...
Readers, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like I heard that once upon a time English had a proper “You” for use with your betters and a vulgate “thou” for use with the peasants. Just as my high school Spanish taught me to use Usted with my elders but Tu with my friends. It used to be, back in the day, we English had You for lords and ladies but Thee, and Thou to use with our peasant buddies. I speculate that’s why the Quakers use Thee and Thou, to knock everybody down to a more humble size. Somewhere along the way, English discarded the Lords and Ladies, got all equal opportunity on our ass, and assigned You to everyone. And I’m not complaining – it’s a good thing.
Likewise, in that sense, I am using Ma’am and Sir with everyone, not just the president. And boy what an impact it has made. Folks just like hearing themselves refered to with the courtesy.
I’ve also had pretty good luck with coppers just by being respectful. I don’t really disobey traffic laws and haven’t gotten a speeding ticket in years, but I have been pulled over twice in the last ten years. Both times I used a pleasant, non-angry voice, and I used the deferential “Officer” a lot. I also apologized for my infraction upon hearing it – and importantly – I apologized in a sincere way. Okay sir, please be on your way. No tickets today.
I think it is a matter of respect, and when you respect those around you, you open up an unfamiliar power.