my coworker won’t stop calling us ma’am and sir

A reader writes:

I have an odd question concerning a new coworker. For context, I work in the communications department, and everyone on my team is fairly young (30s or younger). All members of this team are working professionals, and all of us have worked in other public-facing jobs before. Recently, our boss hired a new associate to help us with some of the day-to-day work, named Thor. Thor is extremely enthusiastic, in his early to mid-twenties, and incredibly nice. Which just makes the problem all the more frustrating.

The issue is that Thor refuses to stop saying “Yes ma’am” or “Yes sir” to everyone in the office, regardless of age. It’s hard to explain how odd it is to hear someone your own age (or within two to three years) constantly say “Yes ma’am/sir” to you, but the effect is quite jarring. This has been brought to his attention multiple times (by us, his colleagues, as well as his boss) in a variety of different ways. We’ve joked about it (“Thor, you have to put a nickel in the “Ma’am” Jar!), directly asked (“Stop calling ma’am/sir”), etc., but these attempts have had zero effect. At this point (several months in) we have all given up and just let him call us ma’am/sir.

Thor’s refusal to adopt what I would call an office norm is baffling to me. He once explained to me that he just wants to be “polite” but honestly I think it’s not polite to keep addressing people in a manner they find off-putting after being informed multiple times (by boss and colleagues) to stop doing it. However, it feels weird to keep asking someone to stop doing something that technically has no bearing on their work.

Because this might come up: He isn’t from a different cultural background than most of the other employees working here. And our office is located in the South (so most of the employees here — myself included — have a story about having to breaking this habit upon entering a “professional” environment).

Am I overreacting to this, and if so, is there a way to just accept it/tune it out?

This is interesting because in some ways it’s a small issue, but the ways someone does or doesn’t fit into a workplace culture can be a big deal. I’m not talking about stuff like “he won’t go out drinking with us!” or “why doesn’t she want to celebrate Christmas at work?” but basic cultural issues like “we address people the way they want to be addressed” and “we cultivate a warm, less formal tone with clients” matter.

In any case, I don’t think you’re overreacting — it’s legitimately off-putting to have someone refuse to address you the way you’ve repeatedly requested — but I also think you’re going to have to live with it.

If you hadn’t already been very direct, though, I’d suggest trying that before giving up. Like if you’d just made jokes about it or hinted, I’d say that you needed to say really directly: “Thor, please stop calling me ma’am. That’s not the way we address people in this office, and it makes me uncomfortable.” But it sounds like you’ve been that direct, and he’s still doing it!

His explanation to you that he wants to be polite sheds some light on what’s going on here, but as you point out, it’s not polite to insist on addressing someone in a way they’ve told you repeatedly they don’t want. That’s a very rigid definition of “polite” — a rigidity that this case is crossing over into impolite — and it won’t serve him well in his career.

Even if Thor were from a cultural background where this is The Way Things Are Done, he’s got to be able to adapt to workplace cultures that don’t operate that way.

Ideally his boss would sit him down and work through this — asking why he’s been resistant to addressing people the way they prefer and explaining that rigidly adhering to his own standards of politeness is alienating people. If it’s likely to hold him back professionally, she should say that too (like if she’d be hesitant to pair him with certain clients because this would interfere with relationship building, or so forth).

But for you as a peer, where you don’t really have standing to that, I’d try to just see this as a quirk and let it go. He might grow out of it in time or he might not, but meanwhile it only has to be as annoying as you decide it is.

{ 644 comments… read them below }

  1. dawnsname

    I’m 52 and I catch myself doing this all the time. When you are beaten as a child every time you forget to say “ma’am” or “sir” it is an EXTREMELY hard habit to break. I was a military brat and lived for four years in the South and I still can’t call my bosses by their first names. I try really hard not to do it now that I live in the North, but it isn’t even conscious most of the time, as I’ve had to explain over and over. Not claiming this is the problem with your co-worker, but not every ‘tic’ is voluntary.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Curious question for you, since you know that it’s involuntary, do you often at least catch yourself afterwards? I would be able to tolerate it a lot more if someone followed up with a “I meant Gertrude, sorry about that, old habits.” Instead of just following through with the formalities and pretending it’s not something that a lot of people don’t subscribe to?

      I have a lot of leeway for people who are from a different background like that when it’s known. If Thor said “I’m sorry, it’s how I was raised and it’s a hard habit to break.” I would be so much more understanding and less grouchy than “I’m just being polite! I’m going to keep doing it and not acknowledge that you’ve already told me that’s not how we do things here!”.

      I get it. It took me years to be able to call my friend’s parents by their first names, despite them and my parents always being very casual with all of us. They never ever wanted to be referred to as Ms. or Mr. but at 16, calling an adult by their first name, after 11 years of schooling drilling into your head that you don’t call adults by their first names and that theyr’e always superior to you, etc. Yeah it was certainly a large hurdle to get over! Now I couldn’t imagine calling anyone Mr/Ms or Sir *shivers*, I hate the word sir with a passion especially because feminism and such.

      1. dawnsname

        I do catch myself, and I do apologize but some people get very upset anyway and, since I don’t make a habit of sharing my childhood with co-workers, it has been a problem at times. I do say that ‘it’s how I was raised’, because that is the truth and most people will accept that.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          The “How I was raised” is plenty! And anyone who doens’t accept your apology is ridiculous, I’m sorry that they cannot get over themselves long enough to see it’s really not an insult and just a difference in upbringing.

          1. dawnsname

            Thanks. I’ve had to stop reading the comments below because so many people are so rigid that this is rude behavior no matter what. If you haven’t lived with that kind of upbringing, it is very difficult to understand. Sir and Ma’am are as ingrained as please and thank you, yet I made a conscious effort and my children do not use sir or ma’am, but they damn well know please and thank you.

            1. cmcinnyc

              Whenever someone can’t stop calling me m’am, I always ask, “Are you military?” And the answer is always some variation of Yes (military brat, veteran, reserves, what have you). And I know that means they’re going to call me m’am for the duration. It’s beaten in, sadly sometimes literally. I give them a pass (unless they’re in BEC territory, of course).

              1. pancakes

                Yikes. It doesn’t seem fair to assume that people who can’t stop saying ma’am or sir, even upon request, were physically abused as children and/or forced by overbearing parents to treat every social interaction as militaristic, but that’s what some of you seem to be saying. Asking coworkers to speculate whether so-and-so can’t choose their own vocabulary due to lingering trauma seems like a big ask, and quite possibly a misplaced ask.

            2. Ask a Manager Post author

              The thing is, if he were handling it differently, the reaction would be different. If he were saying, “Whoops, sorry! Hard habit to break,” that would be fine. The problem here is that people are telling him directly to stop and he’s refusing and saying that it’s “polite.”

              1. Anna

                Yes, but that doesn’t negate dawnsname’s point. If he were told that’s what polite people do and it was ingrained into him, then he does think he’s just being polite. That isn’t to say it’s rude to ignore people’s requests to stop, but culture is so much a part of who we are, it is incredibly difficult to just slough it off at will.

                1. hbc

                  If he actually thinks it’s polite to steamroll people’s preferences (versus struggling with a habit that he can’t break, like dawnsname), then he is a jerk and deserves what he gets.

                  I knew a guy who had a chance to meet Bob Dole. He knew about Dole’s hand injury, but still grabbed his hand and did the full on Proof of Manliness Squeeze as part of the handshake, because that’s the polite thing to do. Total arse of a human being who cared more about demonstrating etiquette than the actual purpose of etiquette.

                2. Anna

                  What exactly is “deserves what he gets” because I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be getting? Either way, I wasn’t disagreeing and I was politely acknowledging that by “polite” he may have it ingrained through abuse, like dawnsname experienced.

                  You might be interested in reading Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Every Day Life. It’s an interesting theory on how our expressions given off are ingrained so much you can tell a lot about a person no matter what they do to disguise them. And I think comparing this guy to someone who intentionally ignores an injury is not really comparable, aside from the gender issues at play.

                3. Curious

                  Do his preferences count too, though? He presumably would prefer to be addressed as sir, but I doubt anyone is addressing him as such even though that is his preference.

                4. SS Express

                  If he were told that’s what polite people do, then several people directly told him that nope, actually it makes them uncomfortable and they’d like him to stop, he doesn’t still “think he’s just being polite”.

                  In my culture it’s appropriate to wear black to funerals, but when I was asked to dress in bright colours at a funeral I went to in my early 20s, I knew that wearing black would *not* be the most polite choice in that situation. The rules of ettiquette are a default – they don’t override a specific person’s known preference.

                5. yala

                  @Curious “He presumably would prefer to be addressed as sir, but I doubt anyone is addressing him as such even though that is his preference.”

                  That…is a really big presumption. I generally default to sir/ma’am unless otherwise told, but I would not want to be addressed that way. Especially if he’s the New Guy.

                  Sir/Ma’am as a term of address tends to be a one-way street.

                6. TardyTardis

                  When my husband taught in Arkansas, ‘sir and/or ma’am’ was the order of the day, and sometimes it was enforced with spankings or by ear-pulling aunties. Also, the military, as has been said above.

                  Give Thor some slack–remember how hard it is for some people who’ve worked in a toxic workplace not to flinch when talked to by a new boss.

              2. CT

                Yes, and part of the problem is that by continuing to do it even when other people have asked him not to, he is effectively saying that everyone else is IMpolite in their manners — because apparently it isn’t possible to be polite without doing this, even if specifically asked and directed not to.

                1. Alleged Reporter

                  I met Senator Bob Dole. I was about to do a brief interview. I had all my equipment tucked in my left arm and extended my right. Mortified, I switched up and extended my left and apologized.

                  He laughed uproariously and said, “People who do it right the first time are way too upright.”

                  It’s been 20 years and I’ve never forgotten to check for a disability. Sometimes I check in advance, depending upon whom I’m meeting.

                  Some of us have to be smacked to learn.

              3. LizardOfOdds

                I’m not clear on whether anyone followed up after he provided this defense, though. Sometimes people need more than a direct request — they need context or further feedback on why they are being asked to change. Maybe the group has already done that and it’s not explicitly called out in the letter. Even as a coworker, I think the OP is well within their rights to say something like, “I hear you that you have good intent behind calling us sir or ma’am, but in this workplace, we call each other by our names/whatever we have asked to be called. A lot of us have had to break the same habit to be successful here, too, so I wanted to share this feedback and offer to help with tips or advice on breaking this habit if you need it.”

            3. Snark

              I would not accept “how I was raised” as an explanation beyond the first time I was asked and if it was repetitive despite my requests to not do it, I would be annoyed and maybe insulted.

              This is like not using someone’s nickname, or calling everyone by their surname, or not using contractions, or any other behavior that is generally regarded as formal to the point of offputting in the modern world.

          2. Tiger Snake

            But following that argument; Why is it that Thor’s ‘How I was raised’ to automatically and persistently use Sir/Ma’am trumps MY ‘How I was raised’ to automatically go “What the heck are you on about you fusspot jerk?” when he does so?

            ‘How I was raised’, was that addressing someone very formally (sir, ma’am) is… well, ‘rude and unfriendly’ is the best way I can summarise. Its not a thing Australians do, save for very exceptional circumstances (basically, to military officials when you’re a soldier only), and is pretty much a universal culture-thing for us. We barely even use Mr/Mrs; even the Prime Minister gets called ‘Scott’ rather than ‘Mr Morrison’ by everyone.

            If you call me ma’am, I’m going to conclude that you really, really don’t like me, that I possibly ran over your dog, and that you’re being rude by having me on.

        2. X. Trapnel

          YES!! I’m British, 54 and although saying “sir” or “ma’am” to my elders is not a UK thing, using someone’s title – Mr Odin, Mrs Odin instead of Odie and Freya – to an older person, was ingrained into me by the aid of a good walloping as a child and I still feel uneasy calling anyone older than myself Bob or Evelyn instead of by their title. I automatically default to formality in any social or work situation until told otherwise and I can (gulp!) manage first names, but as a twenty-something, it just made me deeply uncomfortable and confused, so I’d avoid calling them anything. This guy is still young. Things pummelled into you as a kid take a looonnnggg time to move out of your brain.

      2. Working Mom Having It All

        “I’m just being polite” is soooooooo a Southern thing. I run into it a lot when I try to explain to friends and family members that it’s rude to ask people about their racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds, or to ask a woman when she’s planning on having kids (or when she’s planning on having another, why she doesn’t have kids, etc) etc. The stock answer is “I’m just being polite”, as if there’s no component of politeness that actually takes the other person’s feelings into account.

        As a Southerner, I find it all extremely disturbing.

        1. Cobol

          Eh it’s a certain type of person too. My mother-in-law is notorious for this, and was raised in Oregon.
          I think it has to do with a strict Catholic upbringing, where there are specific right and wrong ways to do things.

        2. Sutemi

          Also: Men who insist on holding doors for women, and on not going through doors women hold for them, in professional spaces because “that is how they were raised and they are just being polite”!

          1. RUKiddingMe

            Ugh yup. My reply to that is “this is not a social situation, this is how we do things in this office. How you were raised does not apply.”

        3. Batman

          It’s weird that they say that because none of those things (asking “people about their racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds, or to ask a woman when she’s planning on having kids”) is actually polite. It’s considered rude and intrusive by many, probably most people. In the US, at least.

    2. Will "scifantasy" Frank

      I feel like Thor had a chance to point that out, and instead, fell back on “it’s polite.” And as has been said, it isn’t polite to call someone differently than they have asked you to call them.

      (Let’s also not leave out that, on the list of things that one might be more conscious of now than in prior generations, “sir” and “ma’am” carry a gender label, and for some people, it’s far from impolite, it’s actually a problem, to make that call.)

      1. Morte

        Personally I don’t feel comfortable revealing that something is an ingrained habit because of childhood abuse. Which is a very common reason for this particular behaviour. Parents who demand this level of “respect” usually use corporal punishment to enforce the behaviour.

        1. Person from the Resume

          But Thor could say, “I’m sorry. It’s a habit I am having a very hard time breaking.” without going into TMI. Thor has not said that; Thor has said that he thing it’s polite so he’s going to keep doing it.

          1. dawnsname

            Some people don’t accept that. Usually people who have no “bad habits”. They believe that since something is easy for them, it is easy for everyone. And it was beaten into me because “it’s polite”.
            I’m not excusing Thor, I’m just wondering if he has a similar story.

          2. Anna

            Let’s say he was suffering from a habit instilled due to abuse. He doesn’t actually owe anyone any sort of excuse. All he really owes them is an attempt to change the behavior. He’s not making that change, which is a problem, but I’m not sure it’s the end of the world problem people other than those who are being misgendered are making it out to be.

        2. MysteryFan

          I am from the south (true confession) and i have to confess that i DO say Yess’um even to coworkers on occasions.. It just “comes out!”

          1. whingedrinking

            I briefly worked in a call centre where we took calls from all over North America, and I got called “ma’am” more times in three months than in the entire rest of my life (I thought it was utterly delightful how Southerners dropped it all over the place, though I can definitely understand finding it annoying from someone I worked with on a daily basis).
            The regional differences were really fascinating; the one that sticks in my mind was a woman from the Midwest who called in to say her package had been damaged. I wish I could remember the exact word she used to describe it – I’d never heard it before and out of context I’d have had no idea what it meant. It was something like “hornswoggled” or “FUBAR’ed”, and she used it completely without irony or self-consciousness. It must have been a really specific regionalism and I thought it was awesome.

            1. Mari M

              So, storytime: I was raised speaking All The Englishes and bits of many other languages, including sizable chunks of Yiddish that fell into my family’s German. :D As a result, I am that person who will drop a “ferkakte” here or, actually, a “FUBAR” there (military brat life!) and totally not care. Language is beautiful and colorful and I’m so glad there are people like you who appreciate that.

          2. TardyTardis

            The first time I was called ma’am I was a newly-minted 2nd Lt, and I looked around to see who this nice young man was actually addressing…I was only 22 at the time!

          1. pancakes

            I can see how that would happen, but it doesn’t seem at all fair to foist the standards of a strict religious environment, an abusive environment, and/or a militaristic environment on civilian coworkers. If reproducing those environments elsewhere feels compulsive, therapy is probably a good idea.

        3. Emily K

          Parents who demand this level of “respect” usually use corporal punishment to enforce the behaviour.

          I don’t know how true this is. I have a southern upbringing and was taught to call my elders sir and ma’am out of respect, but I was never beaten and my parents used corporal punishment (spanking) very rarely when I was a toddler and not at all once I was speaking in full sentences. I knew plenty of other families who did not use corporal punishment to enforce day-to-day manners, which is how this was presented to me growing up – no different than saying please and thank you.

          I was only ever taught that it was something a child calls an adult, though, and I don’t remember having any particular difficulty transitioning out of using the terms when I became an adult myself. I do sometimes say “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” in response to a request from a friend or boyfriend, but that’s a more casual/light-hearted way, the same way I might sometimes say, “Aye aye!” or “Roger that!” Sometimes accompanied by a sloppy I-was-never-in-the-military salute.

          1. Clisby

            Fellow southerner who agrees with you. I graduated from college in 1974 (I was 20) and went to work for a small-town newspaper in South Carolina. I did not call people sir or ma’am in the workplace, nor was I expected to. I think some people here are mixing up what they learned to do in social situations, and what professionals do at work.

    3. Ellen

      Personally, this “sir/ma’am” thos tends to be filler until I can put a name to a face. I’m REALLY BAD AT IT. I try to remember, but it has taken me 3 years and counting to consistently get David, David, Mike, Rick. John, Bill, Nate, and Chris right. If I suspect I’m going to screw up (early morning, end of shift dashing around) the odds run 50/50 on a Sir happening. Ditto on the twenty or so women that I work with. I AM trying, I’m just very bad at names and faces. No one has called me on it, yet.

      1. Clisby

        But how often would you say “Yes, David” vs. “Yes, sir”? Why not just “Yes”? I grew up in the south, was taught to say sir/ma’am, and by the time I got out of college 45 years ago I had absorbed the idea that this was not professional behavior. It was still fine for my parents’ 80-year-old friends, but not at work.

        1. General Ginger

          Yeah, I am trying to think of when I last used a coworker’s name instead of just saying, “good morning” or “hi, y’all” or “thanks” or “hey, could you please pass me that stapler”, and I think it was in the context of “Y’all, is Bob here today, his phone’s blowing up.”

        2. The Blue Marble

          On the other side of this discussion, I moved to Alabama from Michigan in the 4th grade. During class the teacher asked a yes/no question. I answered “Yes” and teacher’s response was “Yes, what?” So I replied, “The answer is yes?” He was not happy. So I tried “Yes, and repeating the question.” I seriously had NO IDEA what he wanted from me! He ultimately sent me to the principal’s office. When the principal asked me why I was sent to him, I had to reply, “I have no idea.” So they called my mother and she had to come get me. But I did get to hear her rant to the principal that the use of “Sir and Ma’am” was an “archaic southern custom” that would never be expected from her children and don’t ever call her again for this. Still such a fond memory…

          1. Clisby

            I hadn’t thought about this in years, but I was in 7th grade (in SC) before I ever attended school with black kids. I remember one black girl would not say “Yes, ma’am” to the teacher – just “Yes”. The (white) teacher at least knew the racial context of this, and told her, “It’s yes ma’am. Or Yes, Mrs. Johnson.” So she switched to “Yes, Mrs. Johnson.”

          2. Anonymousaurus Rex

            I literally have the same story (only for me it was a move from New York to South Carolina in 6th grade). I ended up with detention, and I had no idea why. The teacher told me I was being insolent when I answered with just “Yes”.

          3. Username Can't Be Blank

            MI to VA transplant here and had a very similar situation! Ugh! Not only did I not add “Ma’am”, but I also said “Yeah” instead of “Yes”. This was near the end of my 7th grade year, the first year I was in VA. I’d shown myself to be a good student, and I think my honest tears when the teacher was reprimanding me in the hall made her feel a little bad (but not bad enough LOL) as she allowed me to go to the restroom to wipe my tears. I think I told my mom about it but not Dad. Years later I told him, and he said he wished he’d known about it when it happened so that he could have given the school a piece of his mind. I do kinda wish I’d said something to him…

            I think part of why I didn’t make a big deal about it at home was because even my seventh-grade self could tell that it was such an utterly stupid thing for her to get mad about. She’d flown off the handle at other kids throughout the year so I thought she was ridiculous anyway.

      2. Ahoy Hoy

        The use of sir/ma’am as filler is totally me as well, especially with people I know as a group but have less than 100% confidence in my knowledge of every individual’s name. It’s a similar tone to “howdy, neighbor!” as opposed to deference or obeisance. If someone expressed they did not like it, I would make an effort to stop saying it to them in particular.

        I realize it is gendered and do not use in situations where I do not know the person’s PGPs.

    4. Working Mom Having It All

      As someone who grew up in the South, but whose parents did not do this, it’s really one of the aspects of my upbringing that most prepared me for life outside certain extremely traditional circles in that one insular part of the US. In addition to finding it distasteful (and I still know people my own age who, in 2019, will hit their kids for not saying sir or ma’am!), it’s just not a useful unshakeable impulse to have!

      Not to mention that, in the North, calling someone “ma’am” can come off as an insult depending on the circumstances.

      1. Clisby

        Yeah, I went to college with a girl from Kentucky who found out her California MIL-to-be thought she was making fun of her when she called her “ma’am.”

        1. Working Mom Having It All

          I lived in New York for a long time, where generally people see it as an ageist insult, as if you were saying old hag rather than ma’am.

          1. Dreamer

            I grew up in New York and I can confirm this connotation. Heck if you call my never-left-New-york grandfather sir he says something along the lines of “I’m not sir, that is my father.” It is so very not done in New York.

            1. Mari M

              Except in my corner of New York, apparently, it is done to my dad, who is 68 and looks it, and every time, he rolls out “I am free, over 21, and not an officer in the United States Army, don’t CALL me sir!”

          2. Jane

            I’m from California, in my early thirties, and to me it is an insult. I had health issues sporadically in my early and mid twenties, and how healthy and attractive I looked determined whether I was “Ma’am” or “Miss”. I crossed the line back and forth several times depending on health, weight, and quantity of makeup, and it has left a nasty taste. Now in my early twenties and slightly over weight I am always “Ma’am”, unless I wear red lipstick.

          3. Oxford Comma

            Early aughts. Somewhere in a small city in the mid-Atlantic region. I’m at my first librarian job. Phone call. I called the patron “ma’am” because well, I had a retail background and calling customers “ma’am” and “sir” was ingrained. Patron pretty much reams me up and down for calling her this. I apologize because well, she’s really upset and I had no desire to offend her. She actually demanded to speak to my supervisor, who had to spend 15 minutes placating her.

            My supervisor thought the woman was crazy, but after that I tried really hard never to call anyone “ma’am” again.

      2. Astrid

        Southern Indiana checking in here – you know, the place people from the north think is south and people from the south think is north.

        Ma’am and Sir pop out of my mouth very easily- it is very ingrained. I also work in a school and will not address the other teachers by first name unless they give me permission to use it. I work with one person who I call her first name and the rest are all ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mr.’ I’m not sure anyone’s even noticed.

        Mostly I go with whatever I feel like is polite/respectful until I am told otherwise, at which point I switch to what they prefer.

    5. PhyllisB

      I can so relate. I wasn’t beaten, but did get in trouble for forgetting the sirs and ma’ams. (Mississippi Southerner here.) I was taught that anyone in a position of authority over you was ALWAYS addressed this way, and it didn’t matter what age they were. Boss, minister, ect. It’s been a very hard habit to break, but now that I’m so much older than my bosses and co-workers I have made a real effort to quit. Now I have to remember not to say sweetie, honey, ect. :-)
      I wonder if your employee was raised the same way. Even in my day there were people who preferred not to be addressed that way, but I was told by parents, “I don’t CARE what they tell you. If I hear you not saying Sir or Ma’am, you will have me to answer to!!”

      1. Blue Bunny

        Even in my day there were people who preferred not to be addressed that way, but I was told by parents, “I don’t CARE what they tell you. If I hear you not saying Sir or Ma’am, you will have me to answer to!!”

        What kind of mental gymnastics does it take to teach a child that they should disregard the identity wishes of an adult in favor of a name their own parent decided? SMH

        1. Iris Eyes

          The very simple gymnastics of polite (false) refusal.

          A: “Would you like some pie?”
          B: “Oh no, I’m full to bursting.”
          A: “Are you sure not just one little piece?”
          B: “No I really shouldn’t”
          A: “Well ok if you insist”
          B: “I suppose I could have just a tiny slice.”
          B proceeds to take 1/6 of the pie

          1. Jessen

            I wondered about that. I definitely have been in areas where “Oh I’m not ma’am!” might mean “I am engaging in socially expected protest but definitely want to be called ma’am.”

            1. EH

              Right, but being told very seriously by your superior and multiple coworkers to stop is not the same as a polite refusal.

        2. Lissa

          Reminds me a lot of guys who go “it’s how I was raised/my mother would never forgive me” after doing some gendered politeness for a woman even when the woman says she prefers not or finds it inconvenient (for instance insisting on opening a car door for a woman and not “letting” her to do it herself, or insisting on a woman getting out of an elevator first even though it would make way more sense for him to.) For a lot of people “polite” is such a huge part of their identity it is more important than the preferences of the other person. “Courtesy theatre”.

          1. Maria

            Oh my god, I had a boss who always insisted in being the last person to enter and to exit an elevador! It created really awkward situations when we were in a crowded elevator and he was closest to the door (because he entered last) and insisted that everyone went around him (sometimes having to contort oneself) to exit. He insisted he was being polite, and dismissed my concerns because I was twenty years younger

            1. Jasper

              People who are last in the elevator and want to continue on higher bloody well need to exit the elevator to let people pass and then reboard if they’re blocking the way.

            2. Batman

              I HATE this. Years ago I had a coworker who did this and it just baffled me.
              Now that I’m in my 30s I feel more comfortable pushing back on it. I was recently in an elevator and someone who had gotten on after me was trying to let me go first, but I couldn’t really because he was in my way so I said “no, you go ahead.” Then I paused, debated in my head whether to say it and said “you’re in my way anyway.”
              For context, I’m a woman, this person was a man and there were one or two other men in the elevator and it was people who worked in my company. Luckily they all just laughed and were like, yeah, you’re right.

            3. Allonge

              Oh, I hate this. Dude, I am fat and have several bags in my hands, I know you can see that, we are on the top floor this elevator goes to and I know you are getting out, just get the eff out of my way so I can get out of here, instead of squeezing past you, bumping into you or the elevator door etc. There is polite and there is “no situational awareness”. You are not winning any points, here.

          2. Observer

            On the other hand, for a lot of people it’s the protest that is the courtesy theater. At least that’s what they have seen or been brought up to believe. It’s not that they think that the people they are dealing with are hypocrites but they have been brought up with “You never say yes to the first offer of food or the first offer of help unless you are DESPERATE.”

            1. pancakes

              It feels like these comments are becoming more and more rigid the further I read. Having been brought up to believe something or other isn’t a mandate to keep believing it forever and never has been! It’s a bit distressing to see so many people more or less declare that they’re trapped in childhood forever, and abdicate choices concerning their own beliefs and behavior to hectoring schoolmarms and tyrannical parents.

          3. Countess Boochie Flagrante

            UGH, I hate this courtesy theatre with such a burning passion. There’s an epidemic of it at my office. Combine that with being a heavily male environment, and it serves to make me feel extremely called-out and out of place as an AFAB person.

          4. Librarian of SHIELD

            I LOVE courtesy theatre as a term. It’s a fantastic way to describe this phenomenon. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the receiving end of politeness or chivalry that actually made matters much more complicated, all because the person performing the action was more concerned with displaying courteous behavior than with actually being courteous. (The man who tried to hold open a door for me while standing in the doorway and blocking the way so it was impossible for me to actually walk through springs to mind…)

            1. Windchime

              This is the exact scenario I thought of when the term “courtesy theatre” was mentioned above. It’s not courteous to push the door open and stand in the doorway so I have to brush up against you to get through. In fact, it’s the opposite. So is protesting that you don’t want a cookie when you really do, and making someone ask you multiple times before you finally admit that yes, you would like a cookie. It all just seems like a weird act to me.

              Signed, Lifelong Northerner

            2. I AM a lawyer

              I had this happen last week. I tried to hold a door for a man coming into Starbucks while I was leaving, and instead of just walking through the door, he came straight up to me and put his hand above my head on the door (which I was holding with my body) so he could hold it for me. I had to duck under him. It was so inconvenient and weird, and he could have just walked through the door and made it easier on both of us!

            3. Bagpuss

              And there is the added problem that some of thesethings are not even ‘just’ courtesy theatre.
              I used to work with a man who would do the thing of insisting on holding open doorshowever inappriate and inconvenient, and would do it so you were forced to brush against him to get through the door.

              Fortunately I had sufficient clout to be able to tell him to stop doing it (and then had to have aanother conversation where I had to explain he needed to stop doing it to all of the women in the office, not just me., and to explicitly tell him that regardless of what he might claim regarding it being ‘polite’ , to the women he was doing it to it was both rude, and sexual harassment, and that that was how it would be dealt with if he continued. )
              I have had a similar vibe from other men who insist on very inconveient ways of being ‘polite’

          5. Lydia

            Your last sentence hit the nail on the head for me. I wish I had read this a month ago. I woman I “matrix manage” and I had a long discussion because her insistence on calling her coworkers “sweetie” and other terms of endearment was rubbing some of them the wrong way. She was deeply offended at their offense and repeatedly argued that this is about respect and even if they don’t like it, she’ll keep doing it because she’s respectful. We never came on an agreement about it and she got a new manager shortly thereafter anyway… but it really bugged me. She was so committed to her self concept as a “respectful” person that she wouldn’t consider how other people might like to be treated.

        3. Asenath

          Probably nothing more than the parents wanting their children to use polite language regardless of what others do or say – either/and because they firmly believed in that type of courtesy, or they lived in an area in which it was very common, and not using it was likely to get the child in trouble more often than not. And, of course, titles weren’t seen as “identity wishes” of the people to whom they were applied until fairly recently.

        4. PhyllisB

          No mental gymnastics required, Blue Bunny. Just be reared by Traditional Southerners. :-) I taught my own children to say Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Sir and Ma’am, but if the adult said they would prefer not to be addressed that way, I would allow them to make an exception for THAT PERSON. With my grand-children I have taught them to say sir and ma’am too, but at the very least to say yes and no, NOT yeah, or naww. That sets my teeth on edge. So I’m toning down, and if young ones don’t say it to me I don’t clutch my pearls as long as they are using a respectful tone.

        5. EnfysNest

          My youngest brother is still in high school and there’s one teacher who always tells her students to call her only by her last name. Between my siblings and me, my military parents have had a student in her class for at least 6 years, but they still get upset when my brother just calls her “Lincoln”. They’ll *always* immediately reply with “It’s MS. Lincoln!” (They thankfully don’t try to correct my adult siblings and me anymore since we graduated, although you can tell by their expressions that they don’t like it, but they do still correct my minor-aged brother.)

          They know she tells the students to call her “Lincoln” and corrects them in class if they use “Ms.”, they know 100% of the students who are or have ever been in her class there just call her Lincoln, they even know her reasoning that she explained to my class when she first changed her name (not that she needs a reason, but she changed her last name back to her birth name after getting out of a bad marriage and she’s an only child, so she wanted to keep the “Lincoln” name alive and it’s very important to her).

          And yet, my parents continue to insist that it’s never appropriate for a child to call an adult by only their last name. They say it’s disrespectful, despite all of us arguing that it’s disregarding her name preferences that would be disrespectful. They just won’t get past their lifelong cultural and military training that titles and ma’am/sir are to be used for anyone of a higher “rank” or authority. (And neither of them is from the South, either.)

          It boggles my mind, because they’re fine with name preferences elsewhere – they easily switched to my brother’s preferred nickname when he was 5 years old, we had a friend who exclusively went by the chosen name “Tree”, etc., but as soon as they feel that the authority heirarchy is not being addressed the way they were trained, they just refuse to allow for any variation in what’s “proper”.

          1. Dahlia

            My best friend had that happen a lot when they were seeking medical care, with bonus misgendering.

      2. Iris Eyes

        This is an important part of this. While many would define polite as the intention of being nice and sociable for others it is a set of habits/rules and the point isn’t how anyone feels about them but that they are done. Add the “I don’t care what they want this is expected” coupled with the false “no” and it can be difficult for you to communicate about it.

        Maybe think of it like tipping conventions. For some people its ALWAYS tip XX%/$X and they won’t take no for an answer. That makes it awkward for people where the company policy makes the receiving of gifts a discipline-able offense.

          1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

            Depends on the law/customs/norms.

            (This whole question gets that answer.)

          2. Iris Eyes

            Because that’s how the company defines it. Tipping isn’t generally mandatory (other than in the court of public opinion) so yes it is a gift. When you want to reward a waiter or cab driver for a job well done you give them a tip, when its your kid’s teacher you give them a gift. At the end of the day they are the same thing, a token of appreciation for a job they get paid to do.

            1. Catleesi

              Tips are counted as wages, so I don’t think I would consider them a gift or compare it to providing a gift to a child’s teacher. If a company had a policy against tipping I would have serious, serious issues with that especially considering what some servers in the U.S. are paid. Outside of the U.S. obviously this changes.

              1. Observer

                Most companies that have tipping policies ALSO pay different wages.

                Also, tipping is not just for servers.

                In any case, the bottom line is that if you are used to tipping, and your service person (regardless of role) is forbidden from taking that tip, DO NOT PUSH IT.

                1. professor

                  actually, push a little- when I worked at a supermarket, we weren’t allowed to take a tip (like for helping someone out with groceries)…unless they insisted (since it would be rude to keep declining….kinda insane, but some places have those kinds of policies…

                2. Classic Rando

                  In retail, most of the time they’re not allowed to receive tips, but if you pass them one on the sly the employees will absolutely appreciate it. If you ask, do it quietly, and if you do tip, be subtle.

                  The best one I ever got was also the most clever. We had a rack of gift cards on the counter, and the customer was fiddling with it while I worked on my computer. Then one card “fell” behind my monitor, and when I looked at it, I could see the corner of a folded bill poking out from between the card and its cardboard backing, so I just nodded subtly to him to confirm I saw it and thank him. After he left I picked the card up and slid the bill directly into my pocket, where it stayed until I had a chance to get away from the security cameras. He left me $100, I almost cried!

              2. Iris Eyes

                “Gifts” that you give to someone specifically because they are providing you a service are taxable whether you call them a tip, gratuity, or gift. Whether its teaching a child well, delivering pie, hauling your stuff upstairs, or directing you to a good book if you are given something as part of your role at a business it is arguably taxable.

                Here again the language used is less relevant than the intention and implications.

                1. PhyllisB

                  The grocery store I patronize does not allow employees to accept tips. One time I left my purse in the grocery cart with a lot of cash in it. As soon as I got home, I got a call from the grocery store telling me it had been turned in. When I went to retrieve it, I asked them if they knew who turned it in so I could thank them. It was one of the young men who work there. I went to the manager and told him what happened and how grateful I was and asked if I could give him a tip. He gave permission for this one time. I gave him $10.00 along with my heart-felt gratitude and he was thrilled.

              3. TootsNYC

                many companies have anti-tipping policies because they do not want their customers to end up uncomfortable with figuring out whether they were supposed to tip or not.

              4. LJay

                I’ve worked plenty of places that have forbidden accepting tips.

                Grocery stores where we brought stuff out to people’s cars. Seasonal amusement park. Pet store where we brought stuff out to people’s cars. Most people I know violated the rule and took the tip anyway. I would always refuse once and tell them it was against policy, and then accept it if they insisted.

                I’ve never heard of it at an actual restaurant though. If they did that legally they could not pay the staff the tipped minimum wage and would have to pay them actual minimum wage so I can’t see why a company would.

                1. Ariaflame

                  I believe it has been tried in the USA with living wages but rare. Some customers got angry that they couldn’t use tip as leverage or means of humiliating staff.

          3. Librarian of SHIELD

            As a librarian, I sometimes have to take payment from people for late fees or printing or office supplies (we sell things like headphones and flash drives for people who forgot theirs). And Every now and again I get people who tell me to keep the change as a tip for the service I’m providing. But as a government employee, I’m not allowed to accept monetary gifts from citizens, so I always have to say “I’m not allowed to accept a tip, but if you’re not interested in keeping your change you’re welcome to put it in the donation box out front.” Most people get it right away, but not everybody. One guy actually started yelling about how the library was infringing on his right to give his money to whoever he wants.

            People are weird, y’all.

            1. PurpleMonster

              This sometimes happened in a library I worked in. We used to just keep the change but code it separately so it didn’t get mixed in with the other takings. Then we’d use it to make up change for the float or to balance the previous day if it was under or over. Every so often when it got over a certain amount we’d bank it.

              Donation boxes are a great idea too! We had them occasionally for charities, but not for our own library because it was funded through rates.

      3. JDR

        Yes, thank you. I read this after I posted a comment below. This has been my experience, as well..

      4. iglwif

        Even in my day there were people who preferred not to be addressed that way, but I was told by parents, “I don’t CARE what they tell you. If I hear you not saying Sir or Ma’am, you will have me to answer to!!”

        I had a friend in elementary school whose parents required her to call adults Mr/Mrs/Miss Lastname. It didn’t matter how close the relationship was, how long she’d known them, or what their preferences were (in our somewhat hippy-dippy faculty-brat circle, the preference was almost always first names, except when it was Auntie/Uncle Firstname). We met in kindergarten, we knew each other until she moved away when we were 14, and she called my mom “Mrs Lastname” the ENTIRE TIME … even after my parents got divorced and my mom reeeaallly did not like being called “Mrs” anymore.

        I of course called her parents Mr & Mrs Lastname, too, because my mom’s rule was “call people what they want to be called” and that’s what they wanted to be called. But whenever this friend heard me address an adult or refer to them as Firstname or Auntie/Uncle Firstname, she would be SHOCKED and tell me how RUDE I was being.

        To this day, people who insist that their version of polite / their version of What Is Right / How It Has Always Been should and will override everyone else’s preferences cheese me off, and this is where it started.

    6. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)

      Makes me remember when my dad’s aunt and uncle were shocked and concerned because I called my parents “mommy” and “daddy”. Years later I learnt they lived in an area really popular among retired military personnel and conservatives

      1. Army Brat

        I’m confused – I grew up in a military household, conservative, and called my parents Mommy and Daddy for years. I’m not sure what the distinction is.

        1. Anna

          I grew up around military and I know there were some families where “mommy” and “daddy” were not okay, it was only Ma’am and Sir when speaking to parents. Which feels so cold and distant to me.

          1. Army Brat

            Oh, I did the Sir and Ma’am too. It all depended on the situation. I’m at the half century mark and I will still call my mom Ma’am when it’s called for.

            1. Emily K

              Same here! Ma’am is for a specific context where you’ve been given instructions and are acknowledging them. If I was trying to get my mom’s attention I’d just call her “Mom.”

          2. Alienor

            I had a childhood friend who was from a very large, very strict, very Catholic family, and even as a kid myself, it freaked me out to be over at their house and see two-year-olds in diapers and footie pjs lining up to say “Goodnight ma’am, goodnight sir” to their parents at bedtime.

      2. bluephone

        My brother’s MIL constantly berates me for calling my parents “mommy” and “daddy” because “[you’re] an adult woman, WHO DOES THAT???!!”. It’s gotten to the point that my brother’s kids have started making comments about it too* (so I guess once my brother’s kids hit age 10, they’re expected to call their parents “mother” and “father” or what-the-heck-ever??)

        I just really don’t get the self-righteousness and arrogance needed to care that much about what grown adults call their own parents. It’s weird and rude and one of the reasons why I’m no longer so readily available for events at my brother’s house b/c I don’t relish spending an entire Sunday being insulted by people :-/

        *One of my nephews even chastised my mother for referring to a school event as “Mommy and Me” and my mom was so fed up, she was like “you know, my mother has been dead for 40-odd years and I’d give anything to see her one more time, let alone call her ‘Mom’ or ‘Mommy’.” She felt bad about reprimanding my nephew but I feel like she saved him from a friend or date being on the receiving end of a “don’t ever call your mom ‘mommy’ WTF is wrong with you???” lecture in the future and going *off* on my nephew (with far less charity b/c they’re not my nephew’s grandmother).

        1. Lissa

          I admit I’d find it unusual to hear an adult refer to their parents as mommy and daddy – where I’m from, typically it’s mommy/daddy till puberty-ish, then by high school it’s always Mom and Dad. My instinctive reaction would be to wonder what’s up with that, but I would never dream of saying anything and when it turned out that behaviour wasn’t an “adult child” thing but just how they addressed their parents I’m sure I’d stop noticing.

          1. shep

            Now that I think of it, my mom and grandmother both refer to their fathers as “Daddy.” I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that they’ve passed or (more probably) that they just continued calling their fathers “Daddy” and it stuck, but it is interesting. In contrast, my grandmother called her mother “Mother.” She managed to do it in such a way that it seemed affectionate and sweet rather than super-formal, but it is interesting to reflect on.

            Also, not QUITE relatedly, I’m realizing that my baby brother still calls me “Sis,” even though I’m in my early thirties now and he’s in his early twenties.

            To be fair, he tried to call me by my name a few times like ten years ago, because I guess he felt he was getting too old to keep saying “Sis,” but I was like, “Dude, that sounds really weird. Please stop.” And bless him, he did. Now I need to text him and see if he resents me for it…

            1. Joielle

              I call my parents mom and dad (I’m 30) but my mom (mid 60s) calls her parents mama and daddy. I guess I never… noticed? But it is interesting now that I think about it. Some sort of generational difference I guess.

          2. iglwif

            I still call my mom “mommy” pretty often (pronounced the American way, not the Canadian way, because she’s American). My teenager daughter often calls me that, too. ::shrug::

        2. Observer

          yeah, your mother did the kid a favor. That’s just incredibly rude on his part.

          1. TootsNYC

            yeah, I think that kids have a right to this sort of feedback from other grownups.

        3. mcr-red

          My two teenage daughters still call me Mommy sometimes. I’d say its half the time Mommy and half the time Mom, though I notice when they’re annoyed it’s always MOM, lol. My husband thought it was odd too and I told him my aunt referred to her father as Daddy until the day he died. I started pointing out to him every time some adult on TV called a parent Mommy/Daddy. It DOES happen.

      3. dealing with dragons

        my pappy’s “woman” called her parents mommy and daddy and they were all 60+ at least.

      4. Blarg

        I was allowed “daddy.” But my mother hated the word “mommy.” We could say mom or mama. But if we called her mommy, she’d say “there’s no mommy here” and then sit in silence until we addressed her differently. Interestingly, she still refers to her dad as daddy decades after he died, and, well, she does “daddy issues.”

    7. bluephone

      Does Thor moonlight as a karate instructor and/or student by any chance? Because *everyone* at my niece’s karate school calls **everyone** by “sir/ma’am” regardless of age. The parents of kid students, adult students, other instructors, anyone who stays for their kid’s class, random spectators at the karate tournaments if they stop by to talk, etc. They’re all “sir/ma’am” as far as the instructors are concerned (who range in ages from high school to middle-aged). We’re in the mid-atlantic region of the U.S., outside a major metropolitan area that’s not really known for addressing everyone as “sir” or “ma’am,” but this is just something that the karate school does.

      I mean, your office is right to feel weirded out and want him to stop but it would just be weird/funny if Thor is an Action Karate graduate

      1. Flor

        This sounds SO WEIRD to me. I’ve trained at several dojos in both Canada and the UK and I’ve never come across this behaviour (maybe it’s a US thing? Or maybe it’s just your niece’s dojo). We call instructors Sensei or Sempai, but only when we’d otherwise address them by name.

        What’s SUPER weird is that this only applies in class/at dojo events, so when we go to the pub after class people start calling my sensei (who I’ve known as “Sensei” since elementary school) by his first name. I just avoid addressing him then because his first name feels weird, but no one else is saying “Sensei, can you pass the ketchup?” XD

        1. Perpal

          I’ve trained at a lot of dojos/styles and it varies heavily. Some emphasize the “martial” aspect a lot, some the “art”, and some it’s very much more a sport than either
          I definitely started saying sir/mam a lot to strangers after a few years at one dojo, to the point i was asked if i was in the military a few times. Didn’t realize i was doing it either until i was asked that.

      2. Sandan Librarian

        I’ve been thinking about this as I read, because in addition to librarian-ing, I work as a karate instructor and at the dojo we have a culture where every adult is “sir” or “ma’am,” and any blackbelt, regardless of age is Mr. Lastname (or Miss or Mrs, obviously). As a librarian, however, I try not to use either phrase because of the implied assumption of binary genders that doing so carries, so there’s always a bit of a linguistic code switch for me between jobs. That said, Thor really will have to learn to perform that same code switch if he wants to fit in somewhere OUTSIDE the dojo.

    8. TangoFoxtrot

      I grew up in an extremely violent household and some habits I just can’t shake, especially when I’m on edge—things like speaking in low tones, lowering my gaze around authority figures, walking a little behind them, and of course, overuse of “sir/ma’am.” Even when I catch myself, I find that constantly apologizing makes it more of A Thing, and raises the odds that sooner or later someone is going to ask very painful questions. To me, it seems possible that “I’m being polite” is the keep-it-light version of “This is what makes me feel safe.”

      Thor could also be a huge jerk, though! Who knows?

    9. Former Professional Computer Geek

      Waaay back around 1980 I was going to college in the middle of nowhere in the northern mid-west US. I had an on-campus job and the boss was this kind, older guy named Bob, who was in his 60s. Bob had “been to the city a few times” — the city being a small city of about 200,000 people, about 2 hours away — but otherwise didn’t know much outside of the area. Bob had about 8 students working for him…

      One student was from The South (of the US) who simply refused to call Bob, well, “Bob.” The closest the kid would do was to call him “Mister Bob,” which Bob found amusing.

      The best part was when Bob’s wife, Annette, stopped by the office. The Southern kid refused to call her Annette, or even Mrs Annette. No, she was “Mrs Bob.”

      After that, the rest of us still called Bob “Bob” but his wife was eternally “Mrs Bob” (which she also found amusing).

    10. Blarg

      I am really sorry that you experienced this in your childhood. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I had a similar upbringing with a Vietnam vet, police officer dad. When we moved North, I got smacked every time I said something with a Southern accent so that I didn’t sound “stupid.” <3 to you, sir or ma’am.

    11. Puggles

      Me too. This blog has taught me to not comment on coworkers new hairdos and to not call them sir/ma’am.

  2. The Man, Becky Lynch

    I have to scoff at the idea he dug his heels in and thinks it’s “polite” to continue to refer to you as something you’ve asked him not to do. That’s rude and not polite at all. This is a big ol’ personality difference in the end and I just internally roll my eyes at it, since you’ve already addressed it.

    1. Czhorat

      My thought exactly. You’re not being polite by directly ignoring someone’s stated preferences. Quite the opposite.

      “Sir/Ma’am” is also not only formal but a distant; I’ve never had a workplace in which that was even appropriate for a supervisor, or even the grandboss. I’ve called literally the guy whose name is on the letterhead by his first name.

      IT’s also a changing world; my children’s friends call my wife and I by our first names. “Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr” is weird in not only personal but most professional settings in which I’ve worked.

      1. UKDancer

        Agreed. I worked with a US counterpart who called me “Ma’am” despite my clearly expressed wish to the contrary and it was like nails on a chalkboard after a while. It didn’t feel respectful or appropriate and the more he did it, the more it annoyed me. It felt annoying because that isn’t a title I’ve ever used. We were equals so I wanted him to call me by my name and he just wouldn’t.

        Then again I work in a fairly informal setting. Like Czhorat I call the chap who owns the company I work for (who incidentally has a knighthood and could be called Sir) by his first name. He’d get some fairly odd looks and a degree of ridicule from the rest of us if he tried to use the title at work as that would constitute “putting on airs” in our environment.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood

          (I spent many years of weekends in a medeival history club and when you said knight hood it took a beat that you are in the UK and you mean a _REAL WORLD_ knighthood. Not “Order of the Chivalry” in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Speaking of which you want to know an even less unhelpful verbal form of address? Coming off a 2-week medieval-ish camping trip and finding myself saying “my lord” and “my lady” in the modern world. Yeeeeah the next time I went on that trip I came back a couple days early.)

          1. UKDancer

            I don’t know what Society for Creative Anachronism means but yes,I’m in the UK and my then boss has a real world knighthood. It’s not that uncommon for people who run things to get honours and apart from getting tables at restaurants sometimes, it’s not that useful.

            That said we all still called him by name, because we’re an irreverent lot and don’t want him getting delusions of grandeur. He always looks slightly awkward when people remind him of the title, in any event.

            LOL at the “my lord” thing, I can imagine that would be slightly awkward.

            1. EH

              The SCA is kind of like a Renaissance Faire but without tourists. Everybody is in medieval clothing, and almost everyone adopts at least vaguely medieval language. There’s a whole complex social structure, various awards and titles, and so on. It’s pretty cool. (I grew up in it but haven’t been to an event in at least a decade, so it’s possible things are a bit different, but I doubt it.)

              1. Mari M

                I joined six years ago. Nobody’s really using medieval language these days, but the rest is accurate! I’ve not been beaten down for forgetting who’s an Excellency, a Majesty, a Highness, or a Grace. Since gender is also not a given, I default to “good gentle” when dealing with people whose preferred mode of address is unknown. Personally, since my path is service and I definitely don’t think of my persona as noble enough for a title, I rarely even introduce myself as “Lady Ellisif”. “Hey, you in the yellow belt” is fine. ;)

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch

        It’s not even your kid’s generation that it started changing in, my parents are very much the “My name is Doreen, my MIL was Mrs JibberishJibberJabber.” kind. Hippies, man.

        I had a lot of issues growing up where they taught me “formal” stuff in school and my parents were like “question authority, always.” Then I ended up working with execs and business owners who would not be pleased with being called “Sir” or “Ma’am” needless to say. So yeah, it’s certainly been a world evolving faster and faster it seems!

        1. Bagpuss

          It’s not even a ‘hippie’ thing.

          Eveyone on my mother’s side of the family was known by a name or nickname, not a title. My grandmother (born 1919) called her parents by their names, at their wish…

          I’ve never called my parents or any of my mother’s family by any title, but some relatives on my dad’s sideof the fmaily were kniown by titles becuase that was what they preferred.

          I do lean strongly to the view that it is, generally, rude to ignore peole’s wishes about how they are addressed

      3. Liz

        While I 100% agree that people should be addressed the way they want, I don’t think that everyone interprets Sir/Ma’am as being overly distant or formal. When I worked a grocery store counter in college, I had customers say Yes/No Ma’am to me almost as often as I’d say sir/ma’am to them.

        I don’t say it every time I speak to someone at work, but I will at times use it with Supervisors (even those I’m very casual with), subordinates, customers, the guy that’s here to fix the AC, etc. I think a lot of it has to do with how exactly you are phrasing things (are you making it seemed forced and formal, or just like how you normally talk?), but I was raised that it shows respect to someone in a general “I respect your time/effort/help/you as another human being.” I don’t think that people who DON’T use sir/ma’am are rude, and if someone asked me to stop, I would try, but I do think that people who weren’t raised in an atmosphere where it’s VERY common would realize how hard this can be to stop doing. I might have an easier time learning to not say “ya’ll” then to not sir/ma’am people from time to time :)

    2. Jadelyn

      Yes. Though I do think even as a coworker, OP has standing to reply to the next “I’m being polite!” with a very mildly-said “Is it really politeness to keep doing something to someone when they’ve asked you to stop doing it?” and see if reframing it that way shakes him out of it. I wouldn’t recommend doing the “deep dive” conversation Alison described, I agree that’s a supervisor thing, but I don’t think a single “hmm, have you thought of it this way?” sort of response would be out of line for a coworker.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        Oh I certainly agree.

        I don’t think that just because someone are “peers” that you don’t have a standing to keep pushing it back at him. It’s just about staying civil in the whole thing. “I said I don’t like it when you call me Ma’am” “I’m being polite!” “It’s not polite to keep doing something I said I don’t like.” is absolutely acceptable. “Stop standing on my foot.” “I was taught to stand here though!” “Yeah but you need to get off my foot.” comes to mind.

    3. Allison

      I think a lot of people view manners as a very rigid code of behavior that we must adhere to no matter what, rather than a flexible set of guidelines we follow when in doubt, while taking into account the preferences and boundaries of the people we’re interacting with.

      1. Jerry

        +1.
        Taboos are cultural. The way I was raised, I struggled hard adapting to the less formal environment of my first job. Not calling ‘superiors’ or relative strangers by the appropriate honorific (Sir, Ma’am, Ms. Mr.) felt like the FILTHIEST of curse words. I recognize if you’re raised in a more flexible environment switching is Not a Big Deal, and I recognize that respect is treating people the way they want to be treated, but some social norms are coded a little harder than others. For weeks in my first job I would literally feel guilty and a little dirty from “cursing” so flamboyantly.

        1. Sleve McDichael

          It’s amazing what culture will do to language. I’m not from the US, and where I live Sir/Ma’am coming from anyone other than a shop clerk or waitstaff is seen as heavily sarcastic. Coming from a colleague this would be funny once as a response to a request, but all the time would be extremely rude. I’m reading all these comments and they make me want to laugh and cringe at the mental image of all these people wandering around being so bitingly sarcastic to their friends, family and colleagues (I know they’re not, but still).

        2. Coyote Tango

          Ditto to this. I was raised to call nearly everyone sir or ma’am depending upon the context (obviously) and that included people younger than me, people that were my juniors in the workplace, etc. It was a sign of respect. I remember being scolded for not saying ma’am to a McDonald’s employee who brought us extra napkins because she was helping us and you should always be most polite to people who are serving you.

    4. ArtK

      I don’t scoff at all. Sadly, the prevailing culture favors form over substance and that can be very difficult to break free from. For this person (and quite a few others), using the specified words is what is polite. Nothing is taught around respecting people for themselves. I’ve run into a few people who were shocked at my sons’ school. There everyone is addressed by their first name. Students, faculty and staff from the janitor to the headmaster. Without the formality there was still plenty of respect, but it went in all directions, not just up.

      1. Marzipan

        Which reminds me of that thing about, some people use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treat me like an authority figure’ and some people use it to mean ‘treat me like a person’. And in some contexts, a person saying ‘if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you’ is really saying ‘if you don’t treat me like an authority figure, I won’t treat you like a person’.

        (I fall into the ‘treat me like a person’ camp, myself. I never really got the whole authority thing.)

        1. Jasper

          And it happens the other way around as well: if you won’t treat me like a person, I will not treat you like a figure of authority. Especially when you actually aren’t.

      2. Windchime

        My youngest son graduated high school in 2006 or so. He was big into band, and the band teacher was a really young, cool guy who was maybe 22 or 23 years old. The kids in pep band all called him by his last name, “Charleston” instead of “Mr. Charleston” as they would any other teacher. He didn’t seem to mind and I don’t think the kids were being disrespectful; it was more a sign of affection and all being in the band together or something. I always thought it was a little weird, but then my band teacher was an older man (but still cool and kind) who would NOT have liked hearing , “Hey, Johnson!”. RIP, Mr. Johnson.

      3. Enter_the_Dragonfly

        Is it possible he’s just terrible at names and trying to cover that up?

  3. curious george

    Is he from a military background? I’ve had friends who were trained to say this from a young age, and they aren’t even conscious of saying it sir or ma’am at this point.

    1. beagle mama

      I was about to comment on this. In my previous role I worked with a lot of people who came out of the military. It was just the way you addressed people in their “world”.

      1. Loki

        Hi! OP here—
        He’s not from a military background—if he was, I definitely wouldn’t find it as odd!

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          Well, now, hang on. He’s presumably from a culture where that’s how people are addressed–i.e., “it’s just the way he addressed people in his ‘world.'” It shouldn’t really matter what the culture was that instilled it in him, what matters is that it’s out of place in your office. I’m not sure if you’re truly meaning to say it’s an odd habit if you weren’t in the military but not odd if you were, but I don’t think there’s any point in saying it’s understandable if it’s based in being in one culture but not if it comes from a different culture. It’s understandable and not odd at all odd for it to be an ingrained habit if he’s from a culture where that’s instilled in people, but he still needs to change no matter where it comes from.

          1. mamma mia

            I’m confused by your comment. All Loki was saying was that being in the military would have easily explained the “ma’am” and “sir” thing. Which is objectively true even if you don’t see the point in mentioning it. No one said that it matters in terms of correcting the behavior.

            1. JB (not in Houston)

              It’s that the OP said they “wouldn’t find it as odd”–meaning that they find the coworker’s habit odd but wouldn’t think that way so much if it the reason for it was a military background. So essentially saying it’s not odd if it comes from one particular background but odd if it comes from any other. There’s no real reason to make that kind of background/possibly unconscious judgment of why they do it. Whatever the reason for it, the coworker should change because it doesn’t match the norms of the office.

    2. ExceptionToTheRule

      The only thing about former military is that you don’t call enlisted persons “sir” or “ma’am” – that’s a great way to spend your entire enlistment doing push-ups or running until you puke with the refrain “don’t call me sir (or ma’am) I work for gd living” running through your brain.

      1. Kesnit

        I was a military officer, then several years after getting out of the military, went to law school. When I first started practicing, I caught myself calling judges “sir” or “ma’am.” Although those are acceptable forms of address, “your honor” is much more typical.

        So if someone has a background where such things are normal, it can be a hard habit to break.

  4. Kamatari

    OP, this could be a thing that he’s been taught since birth. My mom tells me stories about how she used to get whacked in the back of the head for not referring to someone as sir or ma’am. She says she still feels the whack if she didn’t say it!

    1. Clisby

      It’s still high time he broke the habit. I was taught this from birth too (I’m now 65) – although I was never taught to say ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ to someone within a few years of my own age – that’s really strange. ‘Sir’ and ‘ma’am’ were for considerably older people.) By the time I finished college at 20, I had abandoned it for anyone other than close family/friends who were at least as old as my parents, and I never used it in the workplace. Maybe I’ve just lost track of how people are raising the young’uns these days. I didn’t like the sir/ma’am thing, and my Ohio-born husband just thought it was odd, so we never taught them to say it.

    2. Kelly O

      It’s not just military though. It is ingrained in me. I say “ma’am” and “sir” all the time. It’s just part of how I address people. No offense meant. And I’ve tried to stop but it keeps coming out, so I figure if you have a problem with me being polite, that’s on you, not me.

      1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

        I figure if you have a problem with me being polite, that’s on you, not me.

        Once you’ve been asked not to use a term of address for a person, it’s not polite. And saying “I’m just being polite, it’s your problem if you can’t handle it” is even less so.

        1. General Ginger

          This. Once you’ve been asked (repeatedly!) to stop calling people XYZ, you’re no longer being polite by insisting on doing it. You’re being the opposite of that, and strangely combative about it, to boot.

      2. Washi

        There’s a difference between polite and deferential. Thor is being deferential (in situations when that’s not even appropriate!) But he is not being polite.

        1. Sunny-dee

          Not necessarily. I’m from the rural south, and this isn’t an unusual verbal tic AT ALL, even for people in the same age group. It really is just a casual courtesy.

          1. Minocho

            I moved from the Midwest to the South as an adult, and adding sir or ma’am, while very much NOT how I was raised, has smoothed things over for me in the South quite a bit. I would have no habit to break if it was requested that I not use it, however.

          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            Sure! The problem isn’t that he’s doing it. Like I said above, the problem is that he’s saying he sees no need to try to stop, despite being asked.

      3. Clisby

        If you mean a random stranger whose preferences you don’t know, I tend to agree. If you mean people who have explicitly told you they prefer not to be addressed that way, then you’re not being polite; you’re being rude.

      4. Lynn Marie

        But if offense is taken, it is on you and you’re being rude to continue. At least apologise when you slip and let people know you’re trying to stop it.

      5. Spencer Hastings

        if you have a problem with me being polite

        Hmm, that seems to imply that there is one true way to be polite. I’m inclined to dispute the accuracy of that.

      6. Jadelyn

        People don’t “have a problem with you being polite”, because it’s NOT politeness if you’ve been asked to stop. They might have a problem with you being inflexible, but that’s a different question, and shrugging off people who don’t want to be called what you’re calling them with “you just have a problem with me being polite” is…not a great look tbh.

        1. JenRN

          “If you have a problem with me being polite”
          I’m a transman and a feminist. Trust me when I say you are not being polite to me either way

      7. Iris Eyes

        I think I kinda get what you are saying.

        There are a lot of people who put WAY too much baggage on a word. A lot of it seems to have something to do with aging in which case yeah get over it you are getting old happens to everyone lucky enough to get there. If you have some sort of peter pan complex that’s between you and a therapist.

        Just as you have a responsibility to understand that some people don’t like this and to avoid using it, they have the responsibility to understand that however they feel about it you meant to be polite. Conversation is a two way street and requires good faith effort from both parties.

      8. Snark

        No, it’s really more on you. I don’t mean to be aggressive about it, but I don’t have a problem with being polite, I have a problem with people treating an offputting-verging-on-weird form of overly formal address as an immutable feature of one’s personal relations even when I ask them to cut it out.

      9. Katya Ivanovna Lobkova

        Here’s something to noodle on:

        “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

        Girlfriend, you need to learn how to code-switch, darlin’. I was born a Yankee, went to elementary school down south, moved back up north, went to college in a different part of my home state, lived overseas in a culture where the language differentiates between casual vs. non-casual relationships, and now I live in Texas. YOU need to let go of what’s ingrained in you. It took exactly one time for me to stop referring to carbonated beverages as “pop” where I went to college. It was “soda” there. And it’s “Coke” in Texas.

        It amazes me that someone could be so rigid. I never use “ma’am” and “sir” here unless the situation requires it. All it takes is a few seconds of observational/aural skills. The only things that were ingrained in me that I refuse to compromise on are the use of the word “ain’t” (not going to happen), racial slurs (I’d definitely get beaten for doing that), and that the Confederate flag is not OK.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

          Plus one to code-switching. Some things that are appropriate for everyday life are not appropriate for the office. I was brought up speaking a jargon that refers frequently to God, and while I still talk that way at home with my family, you better believe that not a bit of it slips past my lips at work!

          1. EH

            This! Weren’t we just talking in the comments to another post about speaking “Work-ish” rather than English? Context is everything.

      10. Glitsy Gus

        If someone tells you they don’t like it, then it’s not polite. If someone is trans or prefers “they” pronouns and you are misgendering them by defaulting to gendered address you are not being polite.

        Sure, someone flipping out on you for doing it once isn’t all that great, but when someone tells you that something makes them uncomfortable, you should listen. Just like if you called someone Michael, and they said “I prefer Mike.” and you answered “OK, Michael.” That is not polite, even if you argue, “but Michael is his ‘real’ name and I was raised to use people’s real names because it’s polite.”

        1. Pescadero

          A lot of this comes down to the definition of “polite”.

          polite:
          1) showing or characterized by *correct social usage*
          2) marked by an *appearance of* consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy

          Definition two is in line with “do what someone requests” – although it is referencing “appearance”.
          Definition one is all about what SOCIETY wants – not what the individual being addressed desires.

          So while addressing people in ways they don’t like may not be respectful or considerate, under definition 1 it may very well be polite if that is the social norm.

      11. Allonge

        Oh dear.
        My entire country had to switch from semi-feudalistic “your excellency, your grace, sir/madame etc.” to “comrade” and then from “comrade” to “sir/madame” within the space of 50 years. Everyone managed. Plenty of people managed twice. In fact, no one does the comrade thing any more, even tough millions of people were taught it to be the polite way of addressing others growing up. It is very much possible.

    1. Lance

      OP is saying he isn’t from a different cultural background, so assuming that to be the case, that’s rather unlikely (maybe his family would be? but who knows; either way, I agree with Alison that a direct approach wouldn’t be a bad thing to try).

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, I asked about cultural/racial differences, and they’re not in play here. (I asked because if Thor was, for example, African American and the others were largely white, there’s a cultural context that would change the feel of this and the way I’d urge the OP to look at it.)

      1. Legal Beagle

        That would make me even more uncomfortable than if everyone was the same race. To my ear, there’s something so servile about sir and ma’am – maybe because I associate it with an upstairs/downstairs type of relationship, like a butler or a maid. Obviously this is all super subjective based on upbringing, etc. The general rule should always be what you said – address people how they want to be addressed! It’s not “more polite” to call someone by an honorific they don’t want.

      2. Clisby

        Yes. This is one of the reasons I didn’t raise my children to ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ people. I clearly remember when every single African-American around, even if 80 or 90, was expected to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ to my much younger white parents. My parents where never expected to say that to any African-American. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I abandoned it. Fortunately, my husband grew up in an area where the custom was just foreign, so we weren’t at odds about this when we had our own children.

        At work this just seems way out of place. Heck, when I started college in 1971, we students didn’t address professors as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ – that would have been peculiar at the wildly leftist University of South Carolina.

      3. Jackalope

        I will add that although this is probably not the case, there could be a “hidden” cultural difference. I am a white US citizen and spent most of my childhood here but did live in a more formal European culture for part of my childhood and then for about 25% of my adulthood to date (two separate cultures). Once I lost the accent people couldn’t believe that I was not 100% culturally American; I mean, after all, I’m from here, right? But both of those other cultures are more formal. One of them has at least SIX different words for “you” and multiple words for he/she depending on the formality of the relationship, closeness, and other details (for example there’s a mildly formal “you” for your parents, grandparents, etc. that recognizes the respect they are due as your elder and the close warm relationship you have with them. For just one example.) You also treat anyone older than you (even just 5 years or so) with great deference. Since I have returned I have found that I’m more comfortable with, say, a military boss who doesn’t mind that I use honorifics. I try to honor what people ask me to say (i.e. not using sir or ma’am when they don’t want me to), but if I’m tired or not thinking about it they still pop out all the time. I wasn’t disciplined with corporal punishment for not using the culturally appropriate terms but I got several nasty tongue lashings and a lot of earnest lectures, so it’s really hard to overcome. And most people can’t understand that I have a different cultural background because of the above reasons. Not saying this is what is happening with Thor, but there could be a hidden story like this.

        1. whingedrinking

          Yes, this. My second language has different forms of address and I *still* struggle with which to use in which situation. And such a small thing can make a big difference. I once slipped and used the more formal ones with a coworker who was a native speaker, and she burst out laughing because to her ear it sounded so stiff and serious and not like my actual personality at all. A friend of mine was making a gift for his girlfriend and wanted to write something on it in this language, and I told him he had to change the pronouns because otherwise it heavily implied that they were teacher/student, boss/employee (and rather strict and old-fashioned teacher or boss at that), or possibly dominant/submissive.

  5. Abe Froman

    I have occasionally responded to a request or question with a “yes, ma’am/sir” in sort of a light-hearted way, but this sounds way beyond that. It is odd that Thor has continued to do so even after being told to stop. I think Allison’s suggestion of a direct conversation from his boss is the only thing likely to make a difference, but it seems like a lost cause at this point and just a weird quirk of his.

    1. Federal Middle Manager

      This was my thought. Most commenters are assuming this is habit or culturally ingrained. For a twenty-something in a professional environment I’d be more likely to suspect that it’s cheeky or ironic, like wearing a bow tie. I’d assume he wants to be the “sir/ma’am” guy.

      1. Clisby

        You could be right. I’m a 65-year old living in the supposedly polite city of Charleston, SC, and I cannot remember the last time a 20-something who wasn’t a waitperson in a restaurant addressed me as “ma’am.” I’d be really taken aback to encounter it in a work situation.

  6. Sleepytime Tea

    I think that perhaps the key is explaining to him that he is actually achieving the *opposite* of his desired effect, being polite, by continuing to do it. Perhaps the best way to explain it would be to liken it to calling someone by a name they don’t want to go by. For example, say “So let’s say my name is Barbara and I really hate being called Barb. If someone insisted on calling me Barb, after I told them that I dislike it, that would be incredibly rude. This is the same thing. I (and others) have told you that we do not want to be addressed as sir/ma’am and you’ve continued doing it, and instead of it coming off as polite or respectful, it’s now coming off as rude because you’re refusing to call people by what they’ve told you they want to be called.”

    As someone who hates being called by a common nickname, and has people insist on calling me it after I’ve directly told them and asked politely that they not, I consider it incredibly disrespectful. Perhaps the analogy would be useful to him.

    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

      I came here to say something similar but you put it better than I could!

    2. EH

      I feel you. I have an unusual first name that lends itself to diminutive nicknames, and as a child I had to be REALLY INTENSE about it to keep people (especially some adults, omg) from calling me by nicknames I didn’t like (which was all of them. Call me my name, dammit).

      Address people how they want to be addressed. At least *try*. Otherwise you’re being a condescending jerk, pretending you know better than they do what they are to be called. It’s rude af.

    3. Kris

      I’m a Southerner who, like other commenters, was raised to say sir and ma’am under threat of corporal punishment. But when I went to college in the Northeast I quickly realized that sir and ma’am were received and interpreted differently. This was an important lesson for me that what is “polite” depends on context. I am back in the South and have worked in the legal professional in a large Southern city for over 25 years. In every workplace I have worked, sir and ma’am were not used between colleagues, even between supervisory and subordinate colleagues. I now frequently work with law student interns and one of the first things I tell them, in no uncertain terms, is that we expect to be called by our first names and not by sir or ma’am. I tell them that I recognize it may be an ingrained habit that is hard to break, that using first names might make them feel uncomfortable, and that they might feel that they are impolite, but I stress that this is the office expectation and culture and that if they use sir and ma’am it may cause others in the office not to view them as a professional. I also stress that workplaces differ on this, and that as they move on into other workplaces they should try to get a sense of the office culture on using names and honorifics because being out of step with the workplace culture will absolutely hold someone back in our field. I have seen it happen, most specifically years ago when I was a summer associate (intern) at a big law firm. Another student refused to stop calling the attorneys sir and ma’am despite being asked and then directly instructed by his supervisors not to do it, and he gave as his reason the fact that he was “polite,” insinuating that others were not polite. He did not get a job offer at the end of that summer, and I have no doubt that this was one of the reasons.

      1. Clisby

        This is really important for younger people entering the workplace to understand. Some places might be fine with first names, others might prefer Ms. X and Mr. Y. It’s hard for me to believe that many professional workplaces expect ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. I get that the norms likely are different in customer service – I feel like I’m “ma’am’ed” to death when I have to navigate some call center brigade. Just get me the information I need and I’ll give you 100 Get-Out-Of-Ma’am-Free’ cards!

      2. Anonybus

        Yeah, I kind of wonder if “Thor’s” goal here is to get other people to adopt the “polite” behavior (using sir/ma’m, or whatever).

        Which, no. Most people will not respond well to a self-appointed manners “tutor”.

    4. Nessun

      Absolutely agree. I have a “friend” who mispronounced my name when we first met, and then proceeded to deliberately keep mispronouncing it as a misguided attempt at standing out and being unusual. (My name is not a way to define your individuality, please grow up!!) My name is not an easy one to pronounce, and I’ve had to coach people for years when they are trying their hardest to get it right. Someone who chooses to ignore it in favour of a nickname, or never try to get it right? I’d find that deeply disrespectful, and I’d have to work very hard not to have it colour my interactions with them.

    5. Seeking Second Childhood

      If OP turns it on its head, it’ll increase the analogy of inappropriate formality. Let’s imagine a manager whose business card even says Deb and someone insists on calling her Deborah for weeks….it begins to sound like an insult.

    6. Sleve McDichael

      Sleepytime Tea I can really sympathise with you about the common nickname! People would not stop using it, and then didn’t understand why I would get upset or angry. It got so bad that I decided to legally change my name to use my middle name and forced everyone to switch.

    7. Tom & Johnny

      I think that perhaps the key is explaining to him that he is actually achieving the *opposite* of his desired effect, being polite, by continuing to do it.

      Yes, this.

      I used to reject compliments. They made me uncomfortable and I’d push back on them. Cutely, or annoyingly, or whatever. It wasn’t great.

      But I didn’t stop until someone sat me down and explained that by rejecting a compliment I was *insulting* the person who gave me the compliment. I was achieving the opposite of my intended effect (whatever my intended effect was, I’m not even sure).

      THAT got my attention. And ONLY that.

      It wasn’t until someone gently accused me of doing the exact opposite of what I thought I was doing, albeit unintentionally, that it got through my thick skull to quit.

      It’s not polite to reject compliments. You accept them politely, whether you agree with them or not. (When they are well meant from well-intentioned people, not jerks, that’s an entirely different thread.)

      It’s not polite to call people ma’am and sir when they’ve directly asked you not to. It’s actually an insult to them.

      I bet that would get his attention right quick. And if done carefully, would not cause damage.

  7. Eda

    Because Thor is in his early to mid 20s, I’m assuming this is an early-career/entry level job. It might be helpful for someone to bring up that in addressing everyone as “ma’am” and “sir” he’s positioning himself as a subordinate/intern rather than an equal professional.

    1. Rebecca1

      Eh, depends on the part of the south. Where I live, people call equals and even subordinates and children “ma’am” and “sir,” just less often than superiors. It’s kind of adorable— instead of saying “no, we don’t do that” to their toddlers, parents and teachers will say “no ma’am, we don’t do that.”

      1. Clorinda

        I think it’s pretty common to use highly formal terms to catch a child’s attention and warn them they’re about to be in trouble. Young lady/gentleman, miss or missy, and the dreaded middle name are all examples of this. It’s a sign of parental seriousness and escalation.

        1. Clisby

          Yes – this is way different from actually deferring to a child with “Yes sir” or “Yes ma’am”. I’m reminded of Miss Manners’ saying that the definition of “young lady” is a female child who has just done something awful.

      2. Jen

        Huh. That does sound adorable. I didn’t realize that ma’am didn’t imply age. I live in the midwest, and I think some of the opposition to “ma’am” comes from the fact that it makes a woman feel old. Up to a certain point, you’re a “miss” and it’s usually not a good feeling when you realize everyone has switched to using “ma’am” for you. But if even toddlers are called “ma’am”, then I guess it would be less of a disappointment!

  8. Celeste

    For whatever reason, it seems ingrained in him. I think that until he sees it’s costing him somehow, this is just the way it’s going to be with him. I hope his work is good; maybe the thing to do in your time with him is just focus on that.

  9. Marzipan

    Yeah, Thor is probably fortunate he doesn’t work with me, because he and I would have had words very early on about his weird insistence on using gendered forms of address in the workplace not being something I consider at all polite. Knock that crap off, god of thunder.

    1. chickadee

      This. What if someone was non-binary? Would he just continue to misgender them one way or the other?

      1. Jadelyn

        Seriously! Some days I don’t mind “ma’am”, but there are some days where it sends my shoulders straight up to my ears and makes me grind my teeth. If this kid pulled that on me on one of the NOPE days, we’d have had Words about it.

      2. General Ginger

        Yeah, I’m wondering what Thor would default to when unsure about someone’s gender? Just pick one and go with it? That wouldn’t be great.

      3. ArbitrarySoutherner

        Speaking as someone who’s tried to look for common nonbinary/genderqueer alternatives to “sir”/”ma’am”, I would certainly hope not. That said, the most common answer I’ve seen for said nonbinary/genderqueer alternatives amounts to “sir/ma’am is generally offensive, you probably shouldn’t use it to begin with”, so Thor might have a bit of a hard time finding an appropriate solution that meshes with his apparently strong preferences for “sir”/”ma’am” sorts of honorifics.

        In such situations, I have generally assumed that I should start with “xir” or “zir” and work from there on an individual basis. That “work from there” could include just dropping such “sir”/”ma’am”-analogous honorifics altogether if requested, which appears to be recommended in the aforementioned online sources. However, given that where I am from it is not unusual to call people substantially younger than yourself “sir” or “ma’am” in a completely serious manner (even my girlfriend and I refer to each other at times with “sir”/”ma’am”, again in non-joke contexts), I would be hesitant to deny such formalities to nonbinary/genderqueer individuals without them explicitly requesting it — hence why I would start out with “xir” or “zir”.

        I would like to think that the formality and deference is the point of “sir”/”ma’am”, rather than the gendering, and hence would prefer such alternatives as “xir” or “zir” — however, anecdotes make for bad generalizations, so I cannot say how this works outside of my small (and, I’ll acknowledge, fairly liberal) pocket of experience.

        1. ArbitrarySoutherner

          Since I apparently deleted it and forgot to reintroduce it to my above post, and cannot to my knowledge edit my above post:

          I have not ended up having to use such a protocol yet, but at some point I imagine it will come up with a nonbinary or genderqueer friend of mine, so I’ll update my thoughts accordingly based on what they think. I’d also like to invite suggestions from nonbinary/genderqueer/(I’m sure I’m forgetting folks by just using those two labels collectively as a catchall, so other folks in this situation too, with my apologies) who have been in contexts wherein “sir”/”ma’am” honorifics are common. How do y’all like to be treated in these contexts? Do you and your friends/coworkers/whomever have a gender-neutral version of “sir”/”ma’am” that you’ve decided on? Did y’all end up dropping them altogether? It’s entirely possible that you think I (and other folks who use “sir”/”ma’am” regularly) are beyond saving, and I certainly don’t want to take your time just to explain the difficulties of being nonbinary/genderqueer/all folks in this situation to annoying people on the internet for the umpteenth time, but I (and others, I think) would happily accept whatever wisdom and perspective you have on the situation if you are interested in sharing.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood

            I’m a science fiction fan… and there are many future settings where every officer is Sir regardless of their gender or orientation. Problem would be getting people to STOP using Miss, Mrs, and Ma’am…. I’m remembering how hard it is for me to stop using my nephew’s childhood nickname that he stopped using at least 15 year ago.

            1. Sophie before she was cool

              I referee sports in my spare time, and there’s a significant subset of athletes who use “sir” to address referees of all genders. I really don’t mind being called “sir” precisely *because* I am a feminine-presenting woman and I’m quite sure that anyone who calls me “sir” is trying to be equitable in calling everyone “sir” and isn’t actually mis-gendering me. If I were trans or otherwise more sensitive to being labeled masculine, I’d have a real problem with it.

              All of which is to say, this is a fine solution in the abstract, but for the individual who doesn’t want to be identified as masculine, it’s just as bad as the accepted gender binary.

            2. Asenath

              I suppose someone has written a science fiction novel in which all people in authority are addressed as ma’am!

              1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

                Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie uses female pronouns/coded words (“sister” is “sibling”) as gender neutral, so it has that basic effect.

              2. Marzipan

                Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ is really interesting – all but one of the characters don’t have a fixed gender, but when she wrote it she went with using male pronouns for them (in nearly all cases, anyway). And then later, she addressed this and said she’d been wrong to do that – it had affected how readers perceived the characters, and she should have used a neutral term instead. (Still a great book, though!)

                1. Koala dreams

                  I haven’t read that book, but I read a short story by the same author set in the same world, where she was used as the gender neutral pronoun instead. It was explained in a footnote, I think.

          2. PugLife

            I’m nonbinary. I’m AFAB and not out at work. I work in the Midwest/South but grew up in New England. I get ma’am from customers and coworkers. I don’t like it, especially when men use it – it feels more threatening from them, especially when I’m dressed masc. (Shout-out to the one guy who called me sir twice, once after I opened my mouth. You’re the real MVP).

            I don’t have a solution for sir/maam in reference to enby people. My solution is just not to use it, and to substitute with an extra friendly smile if I feel like it’s necessary. I don’t use sir/ma’am at all. I use they pronouns and try to use gender neutral language whenever possible (“That person in the blue shirt on the bench” vs “That guy on the bench”).

            For personal honorifics, I like Mx (as in, Mx. PugLife) , but I wouldn’t default to using Mx for every person until they defined their pronouns for me. It’s tricky! I don’t have an answer for you, but wanted to share my experience.

          3. JenRN

            I’m with Mx. Puglife and would just not use it. I was once getting on business class on the train (Ontario, Canada so ma’am/sir only used by obsequious service people in a class-based way). The attendant called me sir based on my presentation and stature then was *horrified* to realize his mistake. To be clear: I was not horrified. He made everything a hundred times worse by being horrified, apologizing profusely, and pointedly calling me ma’am. To his credit he took my “it’s fine, I don’t like either so don’t use either for me (he respected this over the course of the trip), and if Via (the Canadian Amtrak) makes you say sir or ma’am you should ask your leadership what to do with trans clients”. So yay, eternal Trans 101 learning moments, Le sigh.

        2. Dahlia

          “Xir” and “zir” aren’t alternatives to “sir/ma’am”. They’re pronouns. So saying “yes, zir” is like saying “yes, she”. It doesn’t make sense.

      4. Just wondering (pronouns: she/her)

        This was my first thought. And even for people who are cisgender, it can be grating to be constantly referred to by gendered terms when they aren’t necessary.

        I’m a woman, born a woman. And I find it annoying when people insist on incorporating gender towards me when it isn’t relevant. This includes being called “ma’am” and definitely includes men who insist on opening the door for me AND refuse to walk through it when I hold it for them. That last part is especially rude.

        As an aside, I think it’s also problematic to be using “sir” and “ma’am” toward people who are older. The LW mentioned it’s jarring to be called these terms by someone of a similar age. I think it would also be frustrating to be called this by someone much younger because, like gender, age should not be affecting how people are treated in the workplace. And verbalizing guesses about people’s age and gender is just so problematic.

    2. Joielle

      Yes! I had words with a coworker a while ago who kept addressing emails to a group of women with “Hi ladies.” I told him I understood he didn’t mean anything by it but it was unprofessional to address coworkers by gender and I’d appreciate it if he could use gender-neutral forms of address for all of us. I’m sure he thinks I’m a feminist killjoy (which I am) and complete loon (debatable) but he stopped using “ladies,” so I consider it a win.

    3. Elitist Semicolon

      I have nothing to add to the discussion but I laughed so hard at “Knock that crap off, god of thunder” that my co-workers now think I’m up to something.

  10. Kyrius

    I wonder if it would help if you said matter of factly, “It makes me feel like you don’t respect me when you keep calling me ma’am when i have asked you to stop.” Or even tell him it offends you. But who knows. He seems rather invested in it.

  11. ZiggyStardust

    I’m 29 and work with college students. I’m a priest (I do not use Mother ZiggyStardust/Rev/Pastor) and introduce myself with my first name. I’m in AL, and have had to stop fighting the ma’am factor—some students set it down, others it is a straight-up reflex!

    1. AES

      Are you a chaplain or similar? If so, I think there’s a different dynamic between student/chaplain and co-worker/co-worker. The first, despite all intentions of equality, is still an authority-figure role where it makes sense that students might default to “ma’am,” while the second is a relationship between peers.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

        Agreed to what AES said. Further, as a Catholic, I can’t image not referring to a priest as Father/Sir.

        1. UKDancer

          On the other hand as a lapsed Methodist I always called the minister by her first name from an early age because that was what everyone did. I found it rather odd when I went to a high Anglican church with a family friend where the vicar wanted to be called Father Luke. I think whether you use a title for a religious minister depends on what you’re used to. The Methodist church I went to had a fairly strong first name culture at all levels.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy

            On the other other hand, I grew up Methodist and from the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, the minister was Pastor Joe. (And I also went to school with his kids, and he was Pastor Joe to all the youth of the church outside of church context too.)

          2. londonedit

            I’m not religious but like a lot of people in the UK I went to a Church of England-affiliated primary school, and that meant we did quite a bit of church stuff. A lot of C of E churches are very ‘low church’ and informal, it’s mainly tea and cake and a few nice hymns. Most people in my village called the vicar either by his first name, or as children we were encouraged to call him Reverend Smith, just as we’d call our teachers Mrs/Miss/Ms/Mr and their surname. Some vicars (like the Reverend Kate Bottley, who is a TV and radio personality over here) go by Reverend and their first name – so she’s often called Reverend Kate.

        2. Catleesi

          Agreed. I tend to be very casual when speaking with others regardless of age (from the upper midwest), but I was raised Catholic and the idea of calling a priest anything but Father is almost unthinkable.

          Now for ministers/pastors/etc of other denominations, I wouldn’t have the same issue.

        3. Ana Gram

          I’m Catholic and feel the same way but my Pentecostal husband absolutely refuses to call my priest “Father” or “Father Killian”, so he just doesn’t call him anything which seems like a decent compromise. It wasn’t until I first mentioned “Father” and I clearly wasn’t talking about my dad that I realized how strange it might seem to non-Catholic ears. We’re a weird bunch, man.

    2. Academic Addie

      I’m a college professor in a part of the south where “ma’am” meets “Miss FirstName” as how you refer to women. So I hear both. I try to be firm, and just “Oh, Dr. LastName is fine.” For some of them, it takes a good long while. I’ve been surprised at how deeply-rooted naming conventions seem to be. I would never want a student to feel ashamed of how they were raised, but it is a habit they need to break, especially if they go out of state.

      1. professor

        oh boy, that is actually more grating than being called Miss LastName, which I HATE with a boiling passion only matched by my hatred of being called Mrs. LastName. I’ll take Ms (socially), but only Prof/Dr. at work. And honestly the whole let’s identify you by which man you belong to as started to annoy me enough that I am staring to correct people to “Dr” outside work, which is a gender neutral title I actually earned….

      2. Jason

        But you are the person who is from out of state. Why shouldn’t you adapt to the in-state norms, too?

    3. Ryan Howard’s White Suit

      My husband is also a priest (also in Alabama!) and his issue is the opposite: the mandatory use of sir and ma’am he got growing up is so ingrained that he still uses them on a not infrequent basis. He’s had parishioners directly tell him that he shouldn’t use it (even though this is the Deep South and they’d expect it from others!) because they see it as him putting them in a position of authority when they look to him as an authority. He’s almost 40 and looks younger, so this is definitely an issue in other areas like job searching. The OP made me glad that I don’t insist on honorifics like that from our children; I’d rather they learn to be selective about saying it like I did.

  12. I GOTS TO KNOW!

    If you have a good relationship with his manager, I would suggest to her that she talk to Thor about this in very direct terms. Exactly as Alison stated.

    I’d likely sit him down and say something like, “This is going to hold you back professionally. You claim it is your way of being polite, but it is not polite to refuse to address someone the way they have repeatedly requested. You are being rude and showcasing a stubbornness that calls your judgement into question. If you want to succeed here, you need to show that you can adapt. Stop using sir/ma’am. No excuses, no “buts” – stop.” And see what happens.

    If you want to go the petty, passive-aggressive route, when my friends’ kids refused to use honorifics that people wanted (Aunt, etc.) she started calling them by the wrong name on purpose to teach them a lesson about respecting how people want to be addressed. It worked. They started addressing people correctly. If Thor is gonna act like a child, you could school him like one.

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

      I don’t actually think you should do the petty thing, but it is fun to daydream online ;)

      1. Christine

        I got good traction with the petty route once! A boss accidentally kept calling me ChristinA rather than ChristinE, so I finally called my boss by her name with one wrong vowel. It took about one time and she never made the mistake again.

    2. Moray

      You can also add to your explanation that he shouldn’t want this to be the most memorable thing about him–he should want the impression he makes to be about the quality of his work, not an annoying quirk of address that he refuses to stop.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

        Excellent point. His rigidity on this is going to overshadow any good work he does

      2. Lynn Whitehat

        Somehow this reminds me of a guy I was on an online forum with. He would sign every single post with “Later Taters, SparkDog”. The forum visually looked kind of like these comments, with people’s username at the top of each post. A decade after I’ve forgotten every other thing about him, I still remember his stupid pointless signature at the bottom of all his posts.

    3. hbc

      I have no problem with “petty” if it makes the point. He’d be getting a “you’re welcome, your Honor” or “thanks, Thorina” every time he addressed me that way. Heck, if he starts the conversation with “ma’am,” I would be situationally deaf until he rephrased.

      1. Helena

        I’d just be calling him sir back.

        All. The. Time.

        “Hey Sir, I’m getting coffee, do you want one?”

        “Bob, pass these papers over to Sir”

        “Oh I think Sir’s dealing with that. Sir, can I pass this call over to you?”

        Change nothing else in your interactions. Be perfectly friendly and polite like you are with everyone else. Just change his name to “Sir”. After all, it’s polite.

  13. Anonymeece

    Maybe it would help to specifically tell Thor what you mentioned here: that being polite can mean respecting someone’s wishes to not be called “ma’am” or “sir”, and that by continuing to do it after being asked not to, he’s actually coming across as impolite. I think a lot of people don’t get that. They think that one rule fits all, which is not the case with etiquette.

  14. Zena N

    Something else to consider is that he may have a genuine learning issue with names. This could be sub-conscious, he may not know what/that he’s doing this because of it. He maybe also trying to compensate for this issue and he isn’t willing to share it directly with you as a reason. I would try to remain exceedingly friendly towards him. If it’s a professional comfort level issue (like he has indicated) he’s not going to get over it by you all being angry with him about it. You could try to generally help him in case it’s a name learning thing, “Hey Thor! It’s Sally, non ma’am, ok?” and smile. No jokes, just pleasant directness.

    I’ve personally struggled with downgrading my formal tone at work. it takes time. My upper-most manager had to tell me, “Please call me John, not Mr. Smith, ok?” in front of others twice before I would do it. Saying it in front of others helps re-enforce that it’s actually okay with everyone, so he doesn’t feel disrespectful to him.

    I agree that you should nicely explain that you understand that he’s doing it to be respectful, but it’s actually making him not fit in and having the opposite effect at this specific job. Enforce that you’re not trying to change his general politeness policy, but at this job he should act this way, and that it’s a life skill he’ll need, to listen to his bosses. Approach it like a mentoring style performance review. if he is a good employee he will understand that its a component of his job to listen to his bosses and peers when asked to address them a specific way.

    1. OhNo

      The name thing may be a legitimate concern, but there are other ways around that if it’s at the root of the insistence on honorifics. It couldn’t hurt to float it if the manager/supervisor was meeting with Thor about it, though. If he’s early in his career, it might not have occurred to him that his default coping mechanism is making him look bad.

  15. AliceBD

    It’s hard but it can be done! I definitely had to stop doing it with coworkers when I started in an office environment. But it is odd to me that he is still doing it with peers in age and position — I still have trouble not doing it to say the CEO but it is natural not to do it with my peers and that was an easy adjustment to make. And this is different from someone my age calling me ma’am when they are a customer service rep addressing me, or me calling someone sir even if he is my age if I am doing customer service. (I cannot do customer service with saying ma’am and sir basically every sentence.) Or even friends jokingly saying it (which I started getting in middle school).

    Side note: anyone have good options for ma’am/sir for non-binary people? I think it’s a super important word missing from the conversations I’ve seen.

    1. Southerner

      One non-binary person in my office prefers “mx” pronounced “mix.” They asked folks who sir/ma’am to use “yes, mx!”

      1. Ange

        Ok, but Mx is the equivalent of Mr/Mrs/Ms, not sir/ma’am. As a non-binary person myself, I haven’t
        found an equivalent.

        1. PugLife

          Same here. I’m fine with nothing, but I’m not a very formal person. I was actually pretty annoyed when I got my wedding invites in the mail and discovered that the printer had changed the wording from “July 8, 2017” to “The Eighth of July, Two Thousand and Seventeen” so…
          I agree that there has to be something, but I don’t know if anyone’s come up with it yet. And I’m not sure if one would work – I’m a they/them enby, but would a gender-neutral honorific apply equally to ze/zem or hir pronoun users?

        2. Jennifer Thneed

          But for Southerner’s colleague, Mx *is* their equivalent of Sir/Ma’am. Please don’t disrespect their specific choices. It’s like telling someone that they’re spelling their own name wrong.

    2. Alex the Alchemist

      I always accept “Your Highness” as a gender-neutral alternative :)

      But being serious, I agree with going with Mx., or if they’re someone you have a close enough relationship where you would feel comfortable, just ask them what they’d prefer.

    3. AutolycusinExile

      I’ve found that the person’s title is a good workaround (Officer, Captain, Doctor, etc.). If that wouldn’t be appropriate in context then you can usually skip the honorific altogether, in my experience, and not call them anything specific at all. Obviously this is culturally dependent but I really have found that if there isn’t an associated title you can use instead then no one notices the ‘lack’.

  16. Classic Rando

    You probably shouldn’t do this, but I’d be MIGHTY TEMPTED to up the ante and start calling him something comically formal, like m’lord or your eminence.

    But again, that’s probably not a good idea :)

    1. Kelly O

      NO. It is not a good idea. Two wrongs don’t make a right y’all. Especially when the “wrong” is just someone being polite. Geez.

      1. Moray

        But it might be worth using “my lord” and “my lady” as examples to point out that just because something sounds respectful doesn’t mean it isn’t weird and off-putting.

      2. Cass

        No. It is actually impolite to ignore someone’s preference for how they’re called.

      3. AnotherAlison

        Hmmm. But in your comment below you said people shouldn’t get worked up over being called sir and ma’am because historically they were considered polite ways to address people. Calling people m’lord was once a polite way to address someone. What is considered polite changes over time. The work rule shouldn’t be to follow what an individual thinks is polite. It should be to follow the social norms of the office. If people were from cultures that swear non-stop (like many of the new male interns, who are coming from living with a bunch of college age guys who do talk that way), we would say they need to break that habit at work–and they do! Thor’s habit can be stopped. He can choose to continue, if that’s his preference, but like the knitting employee yesterday, I don’t think one does oneself a favor professionally by not conforming at work.

      4. Classic Rando

        But it’s not polite if you’ve been asked not to say it. If I say “please don’t call me that,” the polite thing to do is make an effort to stop, not double down about how “polite” you’re being by calling me something I don’t like.

        I understand that rote phrases like that are hard to break the habit of, but I expect my coworkers to at least try to get that right. I don’t care if a rando on the street or a retail employee calls me ma’am, they don’t know my name and it’s not important to the interaction, but a coworker should absolutely make an effort to call people by their known preferences.

      5. SarahTheEntwife

        Using formal terms of politeness in a context where you’re expected to use first names isn’t polite — it’s distancing and can end up being really rude.

      6. Foreign Octopus

        It’s not polite to keep calling someone by a name/title that they’ve asked not to be called. At this point, Thor is being rude. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but rude nonetheless.

      7. I GOTS TO KNOW!

        But it isn’t polite. It is wrong. When someone has told you repeatedly “don’t do this” and your response is “I have been doing this for years so I am not even going to try to stop” that is not polite. That is rude as f*ck.

        1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

          If you are making a concerted effort and you slip and apologize – we’re good. If I have told you several times to stop and you don’t even try and shrug off my feelings, you are not polite. You are rigid and rude.

          1. Classic Rando

            Same, I don’t expect someone to change an ingrained habit overnight, and would be fine with mid-sentence corrections and slips. But I do expect them to make a mental note of my stated preference and an effort to use it.

            1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

              I don’t get what is so hard about this concept to grasp for so many here.

              The problem isn’t that he is continuing to say it occasionally. The problem is that he is refusing to attempt to stop saying it.

              There is a difference between:
              A) being told “hey, don’t do this” and working hard to stop doing something that has become second nature, occasionally slipping, apologizing and moving forward

              and

              B) Insisting what you are being told not to do is fine and literally everyone else in the office has to just deal with you.

              Scenario A is fine. LW would likely not have written in if A were the case. Because Thor would be trying. But A isn’t the case. The case is B – he doesn’t care what other people want and is refusing to attempt to adapt. That is problematic.

      8. Samwise

        Except that Thor is not being polite — he’s being rude by refusing to call people by what they prefer.

      9. Snark

        It’s not polite. It’s just deferential. There’s a difference.

        And given how ludicrous “ma’am” and “sir” are in the modern world, kicking it up a notch sounds pretty amusing!

      10. jeannie

        The use of formal language does not automatically equal politeness. If you were to tell me I’m a fat disgusting slob who will never amount to anything in her life, it would not be made polite by sticking a “ma’am” on either end of it.

    2. Delta Delta

      I’d be tempted to call him “jerkface” or something similarly mature until he stops calling me Ma’am.

  17. voyager1

    I worked somewhere before that ma’am and sir were part of the culture especially with superiors. Where I am now it isn’t and it is a incredibly hard habit to break. My manager hates ma’am and I really try to mindful but sometimes one slips out.

  18. I'm that person

    I’m 54 and while I wasn’t raised to say ma’am and sir, but ex-wife is from the south and she was and I picked it up and we raised our daughters to say it. I say it to people who are both older and younger than I am it’s just being polite. Yes I have gotten, “I”m not old enough to be a sir/ma’am,” but people soon realize that it’s just another one of my lovable quirks. ;-)

    The only problem that I have had with it was when one of my daughters got in trouble for saying “Yes ma’am” to one of her teachers and the teacher decided that she was being rude and sarcastic. A quick trip to the school where we explained that, “Yes we did teach are daughter manners and no, she is not going to be punished for being polite.”

    1. Clisby

      Although, tone matters. As someone born and raised in the south, I can absolutely imagine “yes ma’am” coming across as sarcastic and rude.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD

        Oh yeah, there are definitely ways to say “yes, ma’am” that make it sound more like “I think you’re the biggest idiot I’ve ever encountered.”

    2. Close Bracket

      “people soon realize that it’s just another one of my lovable quirks. ;-)”

      Yeah, I see this as a quirk. I had a coworker who called everybody “boss.” That’s everybody, not just bosses. “Hey Joe, would you do this thing?” “Sure thing, boss!”

      1. hbc

        Ugh, calling everyone “boss” was a huge sign of a former employee not fitting into our collaborative culture. If I ask what you think about reorganizing the grocery store by alphabetical order, you need to tell me that you don’t think it’s a great idea, not give me a “Sure thing, boss” and start shelving the bread, broccoli, and butter together.

        I’ve never met a “yessir” or “okay, boss” person who didn’t read their managers questions as suggestions and suggestions as commands.

      2. Former Retail Manager

        HA! Do you work with my co-worker? He will also periodically substitute in “el jefe” instead of boss. Very comical. Not sure anyone else but him could pull it off.

    3. JJ Bittenbinder

      Have you taught your daughters anything about non-binary people? How do or will they address someone who identifies that way?

      I’m also interested to know if you would continue using ma’am and sir if someone asked you not to? (And I mean that I’m genuinely interested; not trying to “gotcha”)

      I agree with others that polite is in the eyes of the beholder/recipient.

      1. I'm that person

        Both of my daughters have friends who identify as non-binary. And friends who are gay, queer and trans. They address people based on how they want to be addressed. It’s really that simple.

        I use ma’am or sir based on the gender that the person presents. If they ask to be addressed as a different gender, or none at all, I would do that happily, although to be honest, aside from some of my daughters’ friends, I have never interacted with someone who uses non-standard pronouns.

        To be honest I like honorifics. I was in the SCA for years. I also have colleagues in Japan, and am eternally frustrated that I only ever get to use ‘san’ when addressing them.

    4. neeko

      Not everyone falls into the gender binary though. It wouldn’t be a “loveable quirk” to someone who didn’t identify as you perceived.

      1. PugLife

        Yes, exactly. Im nonbinary, live in the south, work in a public-fscing position, and alternate dressing femme and androgynous/masc. When my chest is bound and I’m in men’s clothes and someone calls me ma’am? That’s not politeness. That’s a threat.

        1. I'm that person

          I would address you based on the gender that you are presenting. Assuming that you were in a customer facing roll, a loan officer at a bank for example, and I brought you my mortgage papers and you asked if I had signed them I would say yes ma’am or yes sir based on how you presented. In a case like this it would be a one time interaction and I feel that asking how you wanted to be addressed would be more intrusive than addressing you. If we worked in a cube farm together and interacted on a regular basis and I saw that you presented differently on different days then I might ask you how you wanted to be addressed, or a might wait for you to tell me.

          1. Dahlia

            Can you please not do that? Like that’s… kind of really messed up. Presentation does not equal gender, and you do not get to decide someone’s gender by looking at them. You can be a sir if you wear dresses, you can be a ma’am who has a beard, and you can be neither (seriously, what would you do if someone was neither???) with both.

            Not to mention, frankly, cis people are really bad at reading trans people.

    5. Lauren

      But it’s not polite in the north to use ma’am/sir for people whose names you know and who you have a relationship with. So you weren’t “being polite.” Sir/ma’am to someone you know personally reads as snark in the north.

      1. Jen

        Yeah, I typically only hear it used to get a stranger’s attention (i.e. “Sir! You forgot your umbrella”. “Ma’am! Did you drop this?”). Even with strangers, it’s pretty rare to hear it when they already have my attention, like at the end of a transaction. It’s usually just “Have a good day!” and not “Have a good day, ma’am.”

        1. Helena

          Even then there’s no need to use sir/madam.

          “Excuse me! Excuse me! Oi, man in the blue coat! You dropped this!”

  19. Princess prissypants

    Yes, you’ve been direct. But not direct enough.

    “Thor, it’s actually *incredibly* RUDE to continue to disregard someone’s wishes in how you address them. You need to stop calling me X and start calling me Y. I cannot have you being this rude to me.”

  20. mcr-red

    Ha ha! If not for the fact that Thor is in his early 20s, I would swear it was my ex! He did that all the time to people, and wouldn’t stop. However, it couldn’t possibly be for politeness, because he is very rude otherwise – telling off-color jokes, making fun of people to their face, flirting with women at the workplace, etc.

    Just…be careful around Thor, OP.

  21. animaniactoo

    Thor is more than usually wed to the rules of his childhood. That may be a matter of nature or nurture (strong likelihood that it’s the latter), but combatting it will take more than just stating “I don’t like that” or “It makes me feel uncomfortable”.

    He has a defined set of actions that he has been taught are polite – to combat it, that somebody is going to have to have an in-depth conversation with him about varying norms and “When in Rome”. Learning how to code-switch for the situation that he’s in. That politeness is an underpinning of etiquette, but etiquette of the particular culture determines what counts as politeness.

    So in his FOO (family of origin) Sir/Ma’am may be polite, but in other families, other areas of the state/country/world, it is not necessarily polite. He’s going to need some other ways to evaluate politeness, but one that is generally clear is that you call people what they want you to call them. Sir/Ma’am works in his FOO, because that’s what the people want to be called, to show respect. Here, people do NOT want to be called that, so it does not work when the intent is to be polite and show respect. It doesn’t mean that he can never use Sir/Ma’am again – if it’s what works for his FOO, that’s what he should do when with them. But in this workplace environment, he needs to adapt and codeswitch to what is desired here.

    All of it needs to be laid out that explicitly – because he has almost certainly been trained never to question it, and never to vary from it. He likely will simply never get it without having it explicitly explained to him why he was trained that way and why his FOO training is not the end of the line when it comes to interacting with others in broader areas of life.

    1. fposte

      Right. He can never be sent abroad, or even to different areas of the country, for work unless he grasps that there are different ways of doing things, and his refusal to comply with some basic office culture is a bad sign.

      If he has a hard time breaking a habit, cool, people are pretty forgiving of somebody who only gets it sometimes and apologizes when they slip up. But he’s not slipping up–he thinks he’s holding up standards. He’s missing that he’s operating by different standards and he’s failing at them. That’s key 21st century knowledge there.

      1. animaniactoo

        Not even just can’t be sent – likely cannot be the go-to contact for somebody from those areas even if he never travels.

    2. Aleta

      Very much this. Sir/ma’am wasn’t a Thing growing up for me, but Mr./Mrs. was, and the idea that it’s more rude to call someone Mr./Mrs. when they’ve asked you not to would have been completely and utterly foreign to me as a child, because it literally would never have come up. There was no situation, ever, where I would ever speak an adult’s name without a title attached. It would never even have occurred to me that calling someone by their first name was even on the table.

      Obviously, I learned to code switch, but someone had to explain it to me first!

      1. Aleta

        Also, I was 100000% raised to believe that Being Polite trumped peoples’ wishes each and every time, and if your intention is to Be Polite, or Be Nice, or Be Loving, or whatever, then someone complaining about your behavior is being selfish and close-minded, and yes I fight with my mother about this regularly.

  22. MuseumChick

    I think this line in your letter, “but honestly I think it’s not polite to keep addressing people in a manner they find off-putting after being informed multiple times (by boss and colleagues) to stop doing it.” is how you should approach this. Take him aside and explain that while you know his intention is to be polite it’s having the opposite effect.

  23. Kelly O

    So I don’t understand the assumption that this is gendered rudeness.

    This jumping to extreme conclusions and getting offended about every last little thing is one reason I don’t come into comments much anymore.

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, I was raised to say “sir” and “ma’am” – it is not meant to be gender-anything. It is just being polite.

    At some point, your problem with another person reflects more on you than it does that person. If “Thor” addressing you in a way that is historically considered to be polite, and you have a problem with that, and that problem makes you unable to work with Thor, I think that says a whole lot more about you than it does Thor.

    Or company culture perhaps. Either way, I feel bad for this guy, because it is such an ingrained part of my behavior, I don’t know that I could stop if someone asked. To be honest I wouldn’t want to.

    1. EPLawyer

      Ma’am or Sir can be said very rudely. So can informal interactions with first names. Let’s concentrate on his tone and actions rather than the format of them.

      I say sir and ma’am all the time. Because it’s politer than “hey you.” We are asked to overlook a lot more in an office than saying ma’am or sir. To me this would only be a problem if someone did not identify with the title Thor was using. Otherwise, it’s just a quirk and not that big of a deal.

      1. LaurenB

        You are saying sir / ma’am (instead of hey you) to people who are strangers. Which is why it is a distancing form of address. There is a huge difference in the north between using sir to get the attention of the waiter and using sir to address your father or coworker.

          1. LCH

            i just looked this up and got the suggestion to call everyone “comrade” as that is a gender neutral honorific :)

            1. Wantonseedstitch

              I like “Citizen,” myself! Though that comes with potential problems in dealing with people who are not citizens of the country where they are located.

            2. OhNo

              I’ll admit, I love the idea of calling everyone comrade. It would be even more fun if I worked in a obviously capitalist sector like retail sales, but I may bust it out now and then regardless. :)

        1. Dragoning

          Mx. is usually a replacement for Mr./Ms., though, not typically “ma’am/sir”

          1. Close Bracket

            That is true, but as there is no gender-neutral equivalent for ma’am/sir, I would use Mx. In the absence of a perfect honorific, use an imperfect honorific.

      1. Kelly O

        I have never encountered this that I am aware of, and to be fair I have personal beliefs regarding the concept of “non-binary” that would probably be considered offensive, especially to the current crop of commenters here on AAM. They are not meant to be that way, it’s just something I cannot get my head around, and I don’t encounter it, so I don’t think too much about it.

        I have yet to meet anyone who reacted strongly to being called sir or ma’am. Probably because I have always lived in the South, and in fairly conservative areas where it’s generally accepted (and my LGBT friends go on rants about the “kids these days” and adding the Q to that string of letters being totally against what they’ve fought for and all that stuff. M will tell you he is a grouchy old man about the Q word.)

        Point being, I’m reasonably open-minded. I try to be kind to everyone. But I say “sir” and “ma’am” out of reflex. They’re not derogatory. They’re not sexist, racist, facist, populist, communist, anything except a way of addressing a person. I’ll climb on my soapbox about people saying “the girls” in the office, or having a drink with “the boys.” I’ll climb on my soapbox about n-words, and r-words, and words that have proven to be hurtful or derogatory to others.

        But honest to god, never in my life until this thread have I heard people get upset over “sir” and “ma’am.” And it bothered me that so many people are so quick to jump on this guy for something that, for once, I could see myself doing without realizing it. If you have not been raised (or smacked in the face) for not saying it, you probably don’t understand.

        But then again, as I said previously, expressly highlights why I don’t frequent comments anymore. It’s not that I want an echo chamber, I just don’t want to see people crucified for being human.

        1. Dahlia

          Not to be rude but… the fact that you have “beliefs” about nonbinary people is probably a factor in why you don’t know about possibly nonbinary people in your life.

    2. Cube Ninja

      The last line of your response is exactly the problem here, though. He’s been directly asked NOT to do it, but has continued to do so.

      This is not so different from a Thomas being called Tom and asking people not to do so or a Susan being called Sue. If someone can’t be bothered to address you in the manner you prefer, that shows not only a shocking lack of care afforded to coworkers, but it would make me wonder how they’ll react to any other feedback about their work.

      1. SarahTheEntwife

        In a way, it’s even more directly analogous to a Tom being called Thomas because that’s more formal and “polite”, even when he repeatedly explains that he only ever goes by Tom and nobody but government offices calls him Thomas.

        1. Lis

          Or when his given name is Tom legally but the coworker insists on calling him Thomas because “It’s more polite”

      2. MuseumChick

        This exactly. Once someone ask, you to not use a particular phrase (be in Sir, Ma’am, a shorter version of your name, a nickname, etc). Your *intention* is no longer valid and it’s rude to continue.

      3. Close Bracket

        It is different, though, bc Sir and Ma’am are not names. You are not misnaming someone when you call them Sir or Ma’am.

        1. MuseumChick

          It’s the same principle. You are addressing someone in away that they have specifically asked you not to. That’s rude. Thor’s intention to be polite is backfiring.

            1. Cube Ninja

              Would you care to elaborate as to why you disagree?

              If I ask you to call me Thomas instead of Tom because that’s my preference, I’d hope we agree that’s completely reasonable.

              If I ask you not to call me “sir” because that’s my preference, why is that unreasonable?

              1. MuseumChick

                @Cube Ninja, this exactly. There is no different here. I find it so strange that so many people are feel deeply offended at being asked to not use particular titles.

              2. Jasnah

                I can see an argument that it is unreasonable to be rude to people, even if they request you to do it or say it’s OK.

                Let’s say you meet a new acquaintance Tom, who informs you that everyone calls him Fatso, so please call him Fatso. Your mutual friend assures you that it’s his actual nickname and he is OK with it, and even his family calls him Fatso. There’s no other cultural or linguistic meaning, it’s just a running joke from when he was fat as a child.

                Would you call him Fatso? Even though you know that it’s a pejorative term, and it stems from fatshaming and other attitudes you don’t want to propagate? Or would you call him Tom, against his expressed wishes and preference? At what point does your judgment of “what is polite” supersede his preference? And if that point varies by societal norms, what societal norms are those?

                FWIW I would respect people’s expressed preferences, but I don’t think it’s inherently wrong or rude to default to ma’am/sir.

                1. Jen

                  I think this is a really helpful framing! I guess for Thor it’s probably like working in an office in a foreign country where everyone’s name is like a swear word in your language.

    3. Clorinda

      Sir and ma’am can be seen as gendered rudeness in various.
      1. They assume and reinforce the duality of gender. Is there a gender-neutral equivalent term of respect? No, there is not. Now, the duality is deeply entrenched, and sometimes we’re stuck with it, as with Mr/Ms, which also does not have a gender-neutral equivalent. But sir and ma’am are far more optional than Mr/Ms.
      2. Thor’s choice of sir or ma’am for a particular individual means that he has looked at that person and assigned a gender in his own mind. What if he’s wrong? It does happen that people innocently misgender other people, but sir and ma’am raise the odds of it happening.
      Mainly, though, he’s been told to stop and he hasn’t stopped. I’m not sure if that’s gendered, but it’s definitely rude.

      1. Close Bracket

        Most names are gendered, so calling people by their name does not removed the gendered aspect.

        1. Clorinda

          People can and do change their names to reflect their gender identity, wherever that might happen to lie along the spectrum. And once they have done so, it is terribly rude to call them by the old gendered name even if you’ve known them by the old name their whole life.

          1. Close Bracket

            And that’s not whats happening here. That’s quite the slippery slope to go from “Ma’am and Sir are gendered” to “you are deadnaming people when you use them.”

            1. DreamingInPurple

              That particular slippery slope is also not what’s happening. Clorinda was explaining why your point about names doesn’t hold up, not trying to say that using ma’am and sir is equivalent to deadnaming someone. Also, for ma’am in specific there is a ton of gender- and age-based loadedness (because usually before someone is a “ma’am” she is a “miss”) that is really, *really* not necessary to bring into a workplace conversation for no reason. I absolutely detest being called ma’am repeatedly, because to me the implications are that 1. my name isn’t worth trying to remember and 2. I am a woman to you first, before anything else that is actually pertinent in the workplace.

            2. PVR

              But they are gendered! By definition! Sir=male and Ma’am=female. I am somewhat aghast and completely confused that multiple people are arguing otherwise. Can someone explain how they are NOT gendered?

        1. neeko

          That is probably specific to the military. I don’t think most civilians would see Sir as being gender neutral.

        2. Wantonseedstitch

          Not in the U.S. Army. I’ve generally heard soldiers call their superior female officers “ma’am.”

        3. Countess Boochie Flagrante

          I doubt the vast majority of people would hear ‘sir’ as gender-neutral. It’s not even universal in the military.

        4. Fed

          As a U.S. military veteran, I have to ask what country? The U.S. military uses Sir/Ma’am.

        5. mum

          This is not true, and I think you are thinking of sci-fi shows set in the future where Sir is used gender-neutrally. The two major English-speaking militaries (UK & USA) both use sir and ma’m.

    4. Will "scifantasy" Frank

      It’s not an assumption that this is gendered rudeness…but your response seems to be that because there isn’t any rudeness intended, it’s totally fine, even overriding the stated request of the addressee.

      And that carries with it a lot of baggage and assumptions, primarily, that your sense of what is polite–or what you’ve called here “historically considered to be polite”–overrides someone else’s in addressing them.

      1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

        (Your response above to “m’lord” and “your eminence” kind of deepens this point. That’s also “historically considered to be polite,” surely…so why is that a “wrong” that’s somehow worse than this one?)

    5. Marzipan

      It’s… literally assigning a gender label to people, every time you speak to them? I mean, unless I’m radically misunderstanding how the words are used, you use ‘Sir’ when you’re talking to a man, and ‘Ma’am’ when you’re talking to a woman, right?

      Or, in practice, you use them depending on your perception of gender – which could be wrong.

      Genuine, non-sarcastic question – how do you personally utilise this language when addressing a gender non-binary person?

      And, you know, lots of things were historically considered to be polite that would very definitely not be considered polite today, so I don’t think that’s a reasonable fallback position.

      I have a lot of sympathy for this being an ingrained habit which is hard to break. I can totally accept that there are contexts in which this language would be considered polite, and that’s absolutely fine and cool. But if someone politely tells you that they aren’t comfortable being referred to by one (or either) of those words, and asks you to stop doing it, it’s weapons-grade rudeness to continue doing it on purpose.

      1. Yeah that's gonna be a no for me dawg.

        Weapons-grade rudeness? Give me an absolute freaking break. I’ll take one ticket to the fantasy land you’re living in.

    6. amanda

      You might not intend to be saying anything about gender when you use “sir” and “ma’am,” but you are – you’re literally addressing someone based on your perception of their gender. When you get that wrong (and you will, eventually, if you use those terms frequently), you could really hurt someone who’s frustrated with the way their gender is perceived.

      That’s not the only issue, though – I’m a cis woman and I’d be incredibly frustrated with someone calling me “ma’am” at work. I work in a pretty male-dominated, aggressive industry and having my gender pointed at like that would be really undermining. Your intentions don’t cancel out the actual effects of your words on other people.

      1. DreamingInPurple

        YES. Continually pointing out “look, a woman!” in forms like “ma’am” or “our female engineer” is actually really harmful to women, because it contributes to one of the huge problems we’re already fighting – us being seen as our gender first, and as people/contributors second (if ever).

        1. Curious

          I think there’s a big difference between ma’am and female engineer. The problem with “female engineer” is that the person saying it almost certainly does not refer to anyone as a “male engineer”; the men usually just get “engineer”. This guy is using both “sir” and “ma’am” so I think that falls into a different category.

          1. DreamingInPurple

            “Sir” is a lot less marked than “ma’am” in terms of how loaded it is; it’s disingenuous to say that just because he uses both, the two words have the same effect. I don’t think he necessarily has any ill intent, but effect is equally as or more important than intent, and many women are likely to bristle at this.

    7. The Man, Becky Lynch

      It’s embedded in a time in society where superiority and classes were a “thing” that were taken very seriously. It was taught to people as “manners” and “polite” so that you didn’t step out of line and didn’t “offend” a person who is seen as a higher person than yourself. It’s also to keep a chilly distance so that your “privacy” of your “good name” is preserved.

      Please. We grow out of a lot of things. You want to talk about how offensive words have not always been seen as “offensive” while we’re going down this obscene rabbit hole of yours? Just to get really into the whole “Man, I was raised that way and therefore leave me alone to my inappropriate, dated way of speaking.”

      1. Jennifer

        People still teach their kids to do this now. It’s not embedded in any past time. It’s regional.

      2. Czhorat

        Yes, there’s a fair bit more to it than “just a verbal tick”, or even “just being polite” (which many of us has said is not the case; it’s in fact the opposite of polite to keep using an honorific when explicitly told not to).

        1) There is a strong class element: using “sir” or “ma’am” implies hierarchy. Using it with a peer is odd.
        2) It creates distance. It lacks connotations of warmth, camaraderie, and mutual respect.
        3) There is a gendered issue: “sir” comes from “sire”, meaning patriarch or ruler. There’s really not this connotation with “ma’am”.
        4) Both connote age, particularly ma’am. It is unusual to address ones junior that way.

        In some contexts (military, slightly formal service positions) it might be appropriate. Otherwise it’s not a good fit in most workplaces and social situations in which I’ve found myself.

        That said, if it fits YOUR situation and others speak that way then, by all means, go ahead. This is one of those cases in which one should at least somewhat conform to norms.

    8. Alfonzo Mango

      “because it is such an ingrained part of my behavior, I don’t know that I could stop if someone asked”

      no, that’s YOUR problem. You’re at work, you’re told to stop, you hate to. That’s on you.

    9. Temperance

      So, besides the fact that not everyone fits within the gender binary, “sir” and “ma’am” are inherently gendered, and can easily be used to misgender someone.

        1. Temperance

          No, but I was responding to the point about it not being gendered. It absolutely is.

        2. Marzipan

          Yet.

          I mean, for me personally, Thor would probably not misgender me. He’d basically insist on addressing me in a way that says “WOMAN! THIS IS A WOMAN!” and that would roundly piss me off because I don’t see how it’s relevant to whatever he came to say, and that in itself is an issue, but it’s not one of misgendering.

          But just because it’s unlikely to happen to me personally, doesn’t mean I don’t care about the potential for it to happen. I certainly know – and, indeed, manage – people who Thor could greatly upset with a casual ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’. Why wait for that to happen?

          1. Jennifer

            But that’s beyond ma’am and sir, that would include all of the gendered pronouns. I’m not trying to be insensitive. I just don’t know how someone would know that a person prefers neutral pronouns unless they were told that. People still seem to use she/her or his/him unless they are told differently.

            That’s why I think the misgendering issue is too broad to apply to this discussion.

    10. EBStarr

      It’s not “gendered” rudeness in the sense that it’s directed at women over men or anything, but it could definitely be cis-gendered rudeness. I.e., it could cause a lot of distress if the person mis-genders a colleague (if the colleague is non-binary, or if they do have a binary gender but Thor guesses wrong — this could happen to trans people or cis people who don’t present in the way Thor expects).

      If all that weren’t a factor, it would still be garden-variety, non-gendered rudeness. People have asked him to call them something different, and he refuses.

      You say “I don’t know that I could stop if someone asked” — but if Thor were apologetic and said he was trying to stop but couldn’t break the habit, I don’t think everyone would feel as negatively towards the situation. It’s the fact that he’s basically decided his way is the “polite” way and that he doesn’t need to respect what anyone else has told them about how they prefer to be addressed. It is not only rude but also kind of silly — in real life, if your coworker told you “hey, please don’t refer to me as Vicky, my name is Victoria,” you would just… do it, presumably. If “Vicky” slipped out once or twice, you would apologize and the coworker would hopefully be gracious about it. It should be the same with “I’m not ‘sir,’ I’m Fergus,” really.

    11. MayLou

      It’s rudeness because he has been directly asked to stop calling people sir/ma’am and he’s ignored them. It’s gendered because sir and ma’am are gendered terms, and that means it’s calling attention to people’s perceived gender which can be uncomfortable for anyone who is perceived as a gender different from the one they identify with, or as neither male or female.

      “Historically considered to be polite” isn’t a very good argument for something being appropriate in a specific case. I’m sure you can think of a lot of situations where historical politeness is no longer viewed as being appropriate. Traditional treatment of women (poor delicate dainty creatures that we are), such as in Jane Austen novels for example, was polite at the time but is wholly inappropriate in a workplace.

      I can see that it might be a hard habit to break. The fact that you say you wouldn’t want to is concerning though – you’re saying that your own perception of yourself as a polite person, and of your behaviour as being part of a definitive standard for politeness, is more important than other people’s expressed preferences. You (and Thor) are setting yourselves up as the ultimate arbitrators on what is polite.

    12. AES

      the assumption that this is gendered rudeness comes from the fact that “ma’am” and “sir” are both terms that, in English, are historically used only for women and for men respectively. However, as our understanding of gender has evolved, these terms and their associated gender assumptions may not be desired by folks who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, or who are uncomfortable with the gendered underpinnings that accompany them. To use these terms, especially in contexts where you are not familiar with someone’s gender identity (so, for example, in situations where someone who has not clarified that their preferred pronouns are she/her/hers or he/him/his, although even someone who uses one of those sets of pronouns may be uncomfortable with ma’am in the one case or sir in the other) means that you are making assumptions about someone’s gender in ways that may make them deeply uncomfortable.

    13. Lynn Marie

      In my area of the country, sir and ma’am is used only for strangers or to be sarcastic or to let someone know you are annoyed to the point of being enraged with them. So, no, it’s not actually universally polite, just because you keep insisting it is. I’d be happy to call you ma’am but you’d better be aware if I do that I’m not being polite.

    14. I GOTS TO KNOW!

      Nothing you have said comes from a place of politeness. If you really wanted to be polite, you would address people the way they ask. If you would refuse to try and change that, you aren’t saying the words to be polite. You are saying them because you want to. If you can’t see that….

    15. Sarah N

      If it’s not meant to be gender-anything, then do you randomly assign “Sir” or “Ma’am” to people regardless of gender? I’m having a hard time understanding how these terms are not gendered. Also, what would you call a non-binary person?

    16. fposte

      Kelly! Hi, I love you, and I don’t agree :-).

      I don’t think it’s sexist, if that’s where you’re going with the gendered thing, but I also don’t think it’s polite, because it’s up to the office to say what’s polite there, and it’s made its standards of address clear. I think this is a really hard one for people because for a lot of us politeness is really important and what it means, as you say, is really ingrained in us. It is hard to teach yourself to behave in ways that feel rude; it feels like you’re lowering yourself or betraying yourself.

      But it’s also really important to understand that politeness is a group construct, and that just because I was raised to believe that something is polite doesn’t mean that I get a pass for continuing to do it in groups that have asked me to stop. He, and maybe you, are thinking of this as being, say, somebody who opens doors for people even though other people in the company don’t. But it’s more like this: an anthropologist colleague works in an area of Kenya where the friendly greeting is “Have you pooped?” It would be rude to insist on keeping that greeting in a U.S. office, however much it made the speaker feel like a polite person.

      1. LCH

        i wish this forum had the heart eye emoji. “have you pooped?” is a fantastic example.

      2. CM

        Yes — and politeness is more than a group construct, the whole point of politeness and etiquette is to make other people feel respected and comfortable. Saying, “I’m going to be polite to you whether you like it or not” doesn’t make sense.

    17. General Ginger

      Please help me understand, how are two explicitly gendered terms not meant to be gendered?

    18. animaniactoo

      FWIW, it has also historically been considered an issue in many areas for a long time. So it’s not as simple as “something that has always been considered to be polite”.

      While you might not WANT to stop – because it goes so against everything that you have been trained to consider polite – you probably would be able to if you tried hard enough. The question is: What would it take to convince you that it was NOT polite in the culture you were in (Workplace, school, geographical, familial, etc.), regardless of the culture you were raised in?

    19. Czhorat

      You said:

      [[If “Thor” addressing you in a way that is historically considered to be polite, and you have a problem with that, and that problem makes you unable to work with Thor, I think that says a whole lot more about you than it does Thor.]]

      “Historically polite” is not the same as “polite in this context” or even “currently polite”.

    20. pleaset

      “So I don’t understand the assumption that this is gendered rudeness. ”

      Calling people different things by gender (gendered) + calling people things they don’t want to be called (rudeness).

      ” I was raised to say “sir” and “ma’am” – it is not meant to be gender-anything. ”
      They literally are gender labels.

      1. Windchime

        Yes, this. And unless you are calling some men “ma’am” and some women “sir”, then you are indeed using those terms in a gender-specific way.

        1. Blarg

          I *think* what (some) people mean when they say ma’am and sir aren’t gendered is not that they don’t signal gender, but that the users consistently call all people either ma’am or sir. They don’t say “yes, sir” to men but only “yes” to women. And they aren’t considering that they could ever be “wrong” about their presumptions of gender identity and language preferences.

          As a person who was raised in ma’am and sir, but weaned myself, I think it is a limitation of our language that there isn’t an inclusive term that denotes respect. The examples suggested above, like “citizen” made me think of a dystopian novel. We created Ms. to stop defining women by their marital status; perhaps we can do the same for ma’am and sir.

    21. Librarian of SHIELD

      Calling someone sir or ma’am isn’t any more rude than calling someone Sam. But when the Sam in question has told you repeatedly that she’d rather be called Samantha, calling her Sam becomes rude. In the same way, when a person has said “please don’t call me sir, I would rather you just use my name,” continuing to disregard their request and call them a thing you know they don’t like is incredibly rude, and I hope that’s not what you do in your everyday life.

    22. Billerie

      Speaking of things that “reflect more on you” than the other person: I’ve noticed that anyone who takes great umbrage with people “getting offended about every last thing” are people who are upset that the pushback on the offensive things they want to say or have said is finally getting recognition. Please note that those of us who “get offended about every last thing” were always offended by your [insert category here: racist / sexist / homophobic / transphobic / etc] comment; you’re just mad that there’s a little resistance now.

      Are you going to respond to any of the comments or questions on your post? Or you just wanted to jump this in, run away, and forever complain about how terrible we are?

    23. fhqwhgads

      Nope. The issue isn’t “historically considered”. The issue is when I say “please don’t do that, it bothers me” and you say “I’m going to keep doing it because it’s historically polite, deal with it” you’re rude.

    24. pancakes

      Irony alert: It’s quite arguably extremist in itself to say that commenters have been “jumping to extreme conclusions” on this topic, likewise to say that they’ve been “getting offended about every last little thing” by responding as they have. This letter and the comments about it are about a very particular thing, not “every last little thing,” and I don’t think it’s at all unfair for commenters to conclude that a coworker who pointedly ignores requests as to how others in the office want to be addressed is being rude. I don’t think they’ve “jumped” to this conclusion in an unreasonably hasty way, either — it’s perfectly reasonable to form an opinion about someone’s ability to get along well with their coworkers and with office culture by considering whether they take notice of or steamroll over what the people they work with daily want to be called.

  24. Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced Bouquet!)

    Oof. I was this person. It was an automatic reflex I had picked up as a way to acknowledge that I had understood and would complete something.
    “Hyacinth, can you handle the Flobberworm account?” “Yes ma’am!” I would always say it warmly with a smile, not in a barking, militaristic manner.
    I got asked to stop by one person, and it was really hard to unlearn the habit. It still pops up every once in a while, especially when I’m feeling vulnerable or insecure at work.

  25. AnotherAlison

    Any linguists who could weigh in on how difficult it is to break an ingrained verbal habit? I mean, we’re not all walking around saying “not” or “wazzzuppp” like it’s the 90s. My kids go through phases of saying certain phrases, and then they drop it. I notice I pick up the specific jargon of my managers I’m working with. One of my managers currently says “socialize” in the context of vetting a particular idea with others, and I’m trying hard not to pick that up. It really seems like it should be easy to drop the “sir” and “ma’am” habit if you aren’t around people who say it.

    1. SarahTheEntwife

      It can be really hard to break, especially with something like sir/ma’am that Thor might have been punished by parents or teachers for not using. But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t put in the effort! And you’re right that over time he’s likely to pick up the speech patterns of people around him even if he’s not actively trying.

    2. Moray

      I got “ain’t” out of my workplace vocabulary completely. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth doing.

      In my first retail job my boss told that “would you like” sounds better than “do you want” and I managed to make that change too, even though “do you want” was totally automatic.

    3. Samwise

      People who grew up using racist terms can learn to stop, for example, and that can be very “ingrained”. My grandmother, for instance, was able to change to the correct terms after decades of using racist words. But that’s because she cared to change the words she was using and made a real effort.

      If Thor wants to stop saying sir/ma’am, he can do it if he puts in the effort. Clearly he does not want to change and in fact thinks he doesn’t have to.

      1. Pommette!

        I’ve made both of those linguistic changes in my life (ditching hateful/hurtful terms and jettisoning what I was taught were “polite” forms of address), and the process is really different.

        Dropping a word that is racist/sexist/ableist takes practice and effort, but it isn’t distressing. Once you understand why that a term is derogatory or hurtful, making the choice to use a better word feels really good, every time. The only guilt comes when you accidentally use a word that you are trying to give up. Your feelings push you in the right direction.

        With polite gestures and terms of address, it’s a different story: your body and emotions are working against your intellectual understanding of the situation, making change harder. I’m french. I grew up in a place where the pronoun “vous” is used to show respect; it’s how you would address adults that aren’t close friends or family members. Historically, not using “vous” was a classist way of dismissing certain groups of people. I moved to a place where “vous” is not used that way; it’s use is seen as quaintly outdated at best or aggressively distancing at worse, and can annoy and offend people. Rationally, I understood that to show respect, I should speak to people in the way they want to be spoken to. And yet for a really long time, not saying “vous” felt really wrong – to the point that it was actually physically unpleasant. I’m a lot better now, but the linguistic habit was incredibly hard to break, and it’s one that I haven’t fully broken.

        All of which is to say that I have a lot of sympathy for Thor in this situation, even though I think that he is in the wrong for not trying to change.

    4. Jennifer

      It took several months for me to finally break the habit.

      If I have kids, I won’t teach them this. I will teach them to address adults as Mr. or Mrs. unless they tell them otherwise, and tell them it’s okay to address people by their first names if they are at the same level.

      1. Czhorat

        I thought the same thing, but that’s culturally odd now. My peers expect my kids and others to use first names, and I have come to accept the same (FWIW, my kids are 12 and 8. It’s been this way for at least five years now, if not longer).

        1. Jennifer

          It depends on what part of the country you live in. It’s still taught in some parts of the South.

    5. Watry

      I’m taking OP’s word that there’s not a cultural background thing here, but for those of us where there is, it’s a lot harder to drop things taught to you from a very young age (sometimes with threats of punishment, scoldings, or spanking) and which your culture/subculture expects from you, and a slang term dropped by the entire continent at roughly the same time. I also know some….conservatively-raised people, shall we say, who were directly taught that not using an honorific was not allowed regardless of what the other person wanted, though they’ve learned otherwise by now.

      From an anthroplogical standpoint, the thing about picking up other’s speech habits is usually about subconsciously wanting to be seen as part of the group/ and is totally normal.

    6. hbc

      It varies hugely from person to person. I pick up accents by accident, to the point that I had a twang after spending just a couple of days in the panhandle, but it went away by the time I got back to my home airport. My speech patterns are totally conformist.

      I’ve seen others legitimately struggle for years to break habits of particular words or speech patterns. Even something as simple as calling a French guy named Daniel by his preferred pronunciation (close to Danielle), where all the sounds are there for you in English, you just have to…use them. But if you can’t even admit that it’s okay to call a man a name that sounds girly to you, you definitely aren’t going to succeed.

    7. Snark

      I mean, it sounds like the recurring explanation is that people were physically abused into compliance with the practice early in life, so maybe the answer is some intense therapy? But for those of us not walloped every time we fail to employ outdatedly formal language, yeah, it should be an easy enough request to honor, if you’re actually inclined to honor it and understand why you should.

  26. saby

    Oh, god. I’m in my early 30s and if an entry level coworker called me ma’am it would make me feel like a shriveled, agèd crone. (I very much live in a non ma’am/sir culture though.)

    Maybe you can try “sir” ing him back and see how he reacts to it? It might make him realize that it’s creating an interpersonal distance when he does it to others. But otherwise, if his boss has talked to him about it and it had no effect, you might just have to chalk it up to “Thor’s little quirk”.

    1. animaniactoo

      If he’s calling people in his age/peer range sir, calling him sir would likely be completely fine for him.

      1. Jen

        Yeah, he’d probably feel like he was finally rubbing off on his coworkers and teaching them some manners.

  27. Close Bracket

    it’s legitimately off-putting to have someone refuse to address you the way you’ve repeatedly requested

    If he were calling people by the wrong name, I would agree. I disagree that calling somebody ma’am or sir in an informal environment when he does it to everybody rises to the level of rudeness. I think this is a quirk of Thor’s that people should just accept. Not everything that causes A Feeling is something that needs to change.

    1. AnotherAlison

      It would be fine if they hadn’t asked him to stop. It’s not inherently rude to call me Ali, either, but if I ask you to call me Alison, then it’s rude to call me Ali.

    2. Just Visiting

      Agreed. I don’t like being called ma’am and prefer a more casual atmosphere but you know, if that’s the biggest problem I have that day I’m doing pretty good. Presumably the co-workers would have been able to deal with it or tune it out if he were from a different cultural background, so just apply the same “rules” here.

    3. Pink Peonies

      I agree I don’t see this as rude, this is not the hill to die on they need to let it go.

      1. neeko

        I don’t understand why people feel like they can dictate what is a big deal and what isn’t. It’s clearly a big deal to some people. It’s not wild to ask someone to stop calling you something and get annoyed when they don’t.

    4. Will "scifantasy" Frank

      Why is it that the people who are expressing their preferences are being told to just “get over it” because somehow not respecting their preferences is polite?

      1. Classic Rando

        I also think it’s odd that “this isn’t the hill to die on” is being directed at the office and not Thor. When literally everyone else is saying “please stop”, the person who insists on continuing is the one choosing a hilly death, no?

    5. Snark

      Why is it always the rest of us that need to accept the quirky/offputting/rude person, rather than the other way around?

  28. Seven If You Count Bad John

    So, if Thor is “being polite” by calling everyone in the office sir or ma’am, then by extension, he’s suggesting that literally everyone else in the office is being rude to everyone else. (Himself included, presumably. Is he hinting that he’d prefer to be called sir and he’s quietly seething with resentment at how disrespectful everyone else is around him?)
    It might help to point that out.

    1. Close Bracket

      OK, That is quite the leap of logic. A implies B *is not* the same as not A implies not B.

      1. biobotb

        What exactly is A and B here, and what is not-A and not-B? I would have thought there was just two options–[sir/madam] (a.k.a. A) and (not)[sir/madam] (a.k.a. not A). How are you seeing four scenarios?

        And if he’s refusing to do not-A because A is polite, then yes, that implies that not-A is rude. Otherwise, he could be do not-A and be just as polite, and there’s no reason to use politeness to continue adhering to A when not-A has been requested.

      2. Aleta

        I mean….. yes? I was definitely taught to believe that growing up. I wasn’t taught to *act* on that besides “not descending to their level,” but privately judge? Absolutely.

  29. ResuMAYDAY

    I don’t see this being much different than if it were a formal environment where underlings call the uppers Sir and Ma’am, with him insisting on calling them by their first name.
    This goes beyond how he was raised. I’d watch him down the road; he might have control issues.

  30. Wantonseedstitch

    Have you tried saying to him, “I know you want to be polite, but it’s a lot MORE polite to address people AS THEY WANT TO BE ADDRESSED rather than insisting on giving them a label that makes them uncomfortable?” If it weirds him out to use people’s names all the time when acknowledging things (e.g., “Can you do X?” “Yes, Jane!” or if he has a hard time remembering names, he can switch to “yes, absolutely,” “yes, I can do that!” or similar.

    1. Classic Rando

      Other cheerful alternatives:
      Sure thing!
      Right-o!
      Okilly dokilly, neighborino!

  31. Temperance

    One of my interns (who is coincidentally one of my all-time least favorites) will not. stop. calling me ma’am. She’s older than I am, FFS.

  32. Josie

    He probably sucks at names (like I do), and he’s trying to cover that!
    I don’t the big deal. Sorry.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I’m curious what names have to do with this?

      If I forget someone’s name, I don’t default to “sir” or “ma’am”. I just get someone’s attention without using a name/filler and just say “Thank you for this!” or “Here’s your report you asked for!”, you don’t need to add “Thank you, Jane!” that’s just as awkward as “Thank you, ma’am” as far as I’m concerned. It’s overly formal and unnecessary, which seems to be the case here.

      1. NW Mossy

        I think names do play a part here! I was thinking through other terms that are less formal than sir/ma’am (like champ, sport, kiddo, sweetie, and honey) and why those don’t feel like they’re any better.

        In conjuring the mental image of the sort of person who calls everyone by one of these terms, I get a vibe of a person who doesn’t think of people as distinct individuals, but more like a school of seemingly identical fish. I can see pretty clearly why people are put off by that. It doesn’t feel nice to be seen as one of an interchangeable crowd, and we like to be appreciated for what we as individuals bring to the table. Sir/ma’am could very well be triggering the same sort of feeling – that you’re not noticeable enough to them to have a distinct identity in their mind, so you get washed together with all the other nameless strangers in their world.

      2. OhNo

        If it is an issue with remembering names (or connecting them with faces, or similar issues), there are other ways around it. It’s not an excuse to call people something they’ve expressly asked not to be called.

        I’ve had long conversations with people, in contexts varying from casual to super-formal, in which I never use their name or sir/ma’am/mister/miss at all. For every sentence that might conceivably have sir/ma’am in it, there is another sentence that can convey the exact same thing using a combination of wording and a respectful, friendly tone.

  33. softcastle mccormick

    Hey! So, I was sort of a Thor when I first started here in my first big-kid office job, but it wasn’t for referring to people as “Sir” or “Ma’am”–it was announcing whenever I was going to take my break or run to the restroom. I did it because I’d come from a retail background, and asking permission to leave your post was Very Much Sacred, and if you didn’t, you could be seriously written up! My coworkers joked about it at first, but our supervisor back then took me aside during my 90-day review and told me very kindly that it not only wasn’t necessary, but wasn’t part of our office culture and looked unprofessional and weird. I was embarrassed, of course (it was a natural reflex!), but her having that very direct conversation and asking me pointedly to stop was super helpful to make expectations crystal clear.

  34. (Mr.) Cajun2core

    I grew up in Louisiana and I currently live in Alabama. I don’t use sir/ma’am after every sentence like I used. However, when someone says “Hey Cajun”, I generally reply with either a “Sir?” or a “Ma’am?” (tone does reflect question). To me it is better than saying “Yo”, “What”, “Huh” or “Yeeessss” (Frank Nelson-ish). I realize I could switch to just a general simple “yes” but so far I haven’t had the need to.

    Once I explain it to my co-workers, they understand why I am doing it.

    Yes, I do it to people of all ages.

    1. Where’s My Coffee?

      I worked with someone who did this. I found it charming. Apparently others find it a crime against humanity, however.

      1. pancakes

        No, they don’t. You’re using hyperbole to nourish a sense of self-pity about other people not being charmed by the same things that charm you.

  35. Where's that?

    I grew up in an area of the country where people ask, “Where’s that at?” My college roommate informed me the “at” was grammatically incorrect. She would would remind me every time I said it. I stopped saying it and now – more than two decades later – it sounds so odd to me when I hear it. The point being that I don’t care how ingrained it is for Thor to use ma’am/sir; he can stop. Particularly if he’s been repeatedly and directly asked to. It’s not “polite” to refer to someone in a way they’ve specifically asked not to be referred to; and to repeat, what would Thor do if there was someone who used they/theirs/them pronouns?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Oh man, grammar though, that roommate is pretty awful to ride you like that about something so petty. I’m glad it turned out that you could change your speech to fit her demands you speak grammatically correct, which is pretty controlling to say the least. I have a speech impediment the speech therapy only did so much for me, plus my parents have it themselves due to hill-folk dialect, so I truly learned to say things incorrectly and my mouth does not form or speak like some people wish I could. I’ve had people try to “coach” me with words and it’s driven me to tears and suicidal thoughts, no joke.

      1. Where's that?

        I was glad she pointed it out! I would rather speak proper English than not. It’s the same reason I was thankful when someone pointed out I said “guys” a lot. As in, “Do you guys want to…?” I don’t say that anymore either; now it’s “What do you all think?” I see it as self-improvement!

        1. Spargle

          Grammar police erase regionalisms when they nitpick spoken English. It’s a shame; our language is ever evolving, and I hate the thought of everyone sounding exactly the same when they speak.

          Signed, a woman who often says “I used to could”, “fixin’ to”, and yes – “where’s it at”. They don’t make it in my professional writing, but they’re also tied to my childhood region and I will give them up upon death only. Maybe.

    2. Marzipan

      Ha! Where I now live, it’s ‘Where’s it to?’

      And I have absolutely picked it up in casual use. (Although, I did once have to explain to one of the porters at work that it’s very, very regional and that was why the person he was talking to didn’t understand what he meant. He did not entirely believe me…)

      1. Nessun

        I once (long, long ago) worked with a Newfoundlander who always used “where’s it to”! The first few times, I wasn’t even sure what he meant – but I figured it out and it just became part of his personality to me.

        1. Marzipan

          And now I have learned that there are language links between West Country English and Newfoundland English! That’s cool, I had no idea!

    3. Chaotic Neutral

      The correct answer if you’re not sure of pronouns is something like Yes’erm or No’a. Kinda just a mumble after the word, so that you don’t offend someone guessing wrong. (I’m really not being a smart ass- this is actually what I was taught when I was little.)

    4. pleaset

      A: “Where is Widener Library at?”

      B: “It’s not correct to end a sentence with a preposition.”

      A: “OK, where is Widener Library at, asshole?”

    5. Kindly One

      I hope someone let your college roommate know that they don’t have standing to “correct” other peoples’ grammar outside of some very specific contexts. (And “being their roommate” isn’t one of them.)

  36. Southerner

    I was raised to “sir” and “ma’am” by my very southern-very military family. It is a hard habit to break. This person may also be military-raised or ex-military himself and has it ingrained. A little understanding on both sides can go a long way.

    But really…is being polite such a problem?

    1. General Ginger

      But politeness isn’t universal. What’s polite to one culture/region/group isn’t necessarily polite across the board. And it stops being politeness when it repeatedly contradicts the office’s stated preferences.

      1. fposte

        Exactly. I get that this can be hard to process (and it’s generally a good thing that our behavior is deeply internalized), but it stops being polite when it’s not welcomed by the people you’re with.

        It’s funny how gender is rippling through the comments, in that usually this question comes up about outright gendered behavior, like men apologizing to women for swearing or, I dunno, pulling out chairs or whatever. A lot of politeness we’ve been inculcated with in youth is a real problem in workplaces. It may be easier to see with the overtly gendered behavior, but just because it’s not sexist doesn’t mean it’s effectively polite in the workplace. All the workplace needs is to say this isn’t how we do things here, and boom, it’s not polite there.

        1. General Ginger

          Heck, in my former country, people went from using Comrade/Citizen/Just Person’s Last Name to the equivalent or Sir/Madame/Mr Last Name/ M-me Last Name, and somehow, they managed.

          1. General Ginger

            (this is not at all to hold them up as a paragon of non-sexism, just that these things are completely possible to change)

      2. Aleta

        Also TBH, he might need to be told this directly, because I WAS taught growing up that politeness was universal. It was a pretty big paradigm shift when I went ~out into the world~!

    2. neeko

      If I tell you to stop calling me something and you continue to call me that, it is NOT polite.

    3. Windchime

      Apparently being polite is a problem for those who insist on calling others “Ma’am” after being asked not to. Their insistence on doing so, despite the discomfort of the other person, is the exact opposite of polite.

  37. El Esteban

    I’m a Midwesterner who’s lived in a Southern state since college (over a decade). By now, “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” are ingrained into my vocabulary, along with “y’all”. Not sure how hard it’ll be to quit should I move back north.

  38. Nope, not today

    I moved to the south when I was about 12 and resisted the ‘sir’ and ‘maam’ thing so much. I finally had to begin doing it when I went to work in a CPA firm – our clients expected it. But not other jobs I held there. I really really REALLY hate the word ma’am…. my kids would occasionally “yes ma’am” me, resulting in a lecture. Now my youngest will occasionally give me a ‘yessir’ which I vastly prefer lol

  39. KR

    My coworkers call me ma’am sometimes. I’m not at a different seniority level – it’s very much field work vs office work. I support them & have to ask them to do things at times or give them instructions. I try to joke with them & call them “dude” and say things like “hey man” to stress that we’re all on the same level, but also sometimes I think it’s their way of conveying respect or in a “10-4” “got it” “yes ma’am” sense. Just musing here. Most of my team is from the south and I am the only one from the northeast so I try to roll with it

  40. Jennifer

    Please, please, please give Thor the benefit of the doubt. I am Southern and it is drilled into a lot of us kids from birth practically that this is the proper way to address someone respectfully. I have been called ma’am since I was a teenager probably. It has nothing to do with how old you think someone is in many cases.

    Imagine my surprise when I grew up and entered the workforce in my hometown, a place where a good number of the people that live here are not from the South, and find out that what I’d been taught was correct my entire life was actually offensive to people. It was EXTREMELY difficult to unlearn this. I did eventually, but not before being yelled at by a few of my managers in retail jobs who were from up north. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s probably working on it but in the meantime, let it go. You are taking offense at something that is meant to be respectful. He’s from a different culture than you.

    1. Cube Ninja

      Apart from where the letter explicitly says that’s not the case, this is still not valid.

      He has been directly asked to stop doing something in a professional setting that is off-putting to coworkers and he’s refused to do so.

      1. Jennifer

        And what I’m saying is that it’s not as easy a habit to break as some people are making it sound.

        As someone said above, if this is your worst problem your life is pretty good. Who cares? I seriously don’t understand why people think this is such a big deal. Imagine being a 20-year-old at your first job like I was and being screamed at for doing something you were always taught was simply polite. Everyone is worrying about this minor nonsense instead of what life must be like for this kid. I feel for him. He will learn eventually.

        1. Seacalliope

          What a wild mischaracterization of the letter.

          He probably will learn eventually and the reason he’ll learn is because he is currently in the wrong regarding a relatively low stakes issue that is annoying to his coworkers. The LW has the opportunity to speed that along to lessen her annoyance and help him be someone other than the guy annoying his coworkers. As far as hills to die on go, defending Thor’s behavior really is not one.

        2. fposte

          I think that’s going a little far. There’s no indication that anybody screaming at him; they’re asking him to try to change a habit. People get asked to change all kinds of habits when they start in the work world; that’s pretty standard.

          The issue here to the OP and, I think, to most of us, isn’t simply that he does this, it’s that when he’s been asked to try to change, he doesn’t. That’s the kiss of office death, whether what you’re doing is hugging people in reception or saving documents as PDFs instead of Word.

    2. I GOTS TO KNOW!

      But he very clearly isn’t working on it. He is doubling down on it being polite, when continuing to do it after being asked not to is rude – not polite at all.

      If he were making an effort and apologizing when he slipped it would be different. But he isn’t.

      If you won’t attempt to change something you are doing that is bothering someone else, you weren’t raised to be polite. You were raised to recite words by rote based on outdated norms. Being polite is adjusting based on who you are interacting with.

      1. Jennifer

        “If he were making an effort and apologizing when he slipped it would be different. But he isn’t.” I don’t think that’s a big deal.

        1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

          It very clearly is. He isn’t even trying. He was asked repeatedly to stop and isn’t even trying to. That isn’t polite. That’s rude. He is being rude. Your stance here is rude.

          1. Just Visiting

            Removed. You can’t be rude to people here. You’re welcome to post a new comment without the name-calling. – Alison

            1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

              Ya, what an outdated position to have, that people should make an effort to respect how others wish to be addressed. What an old biddy I am, wanting people to be respected in how they are addressed!

              1. Just Visiting

                Nah, the biddiness comes from how you said it. (Oh noes, tone policing! If it matters, I’m female.) The constant emphasis on “rudeness” (interchangeable with “gross” or “problematic”), the nit-picking over minor language offenses, saying “I’ve got some literature for you if you’d like to read more.” This kind of attitude is as exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t care to immerse themselves in it as religion talk is to non-believers. You don’t have to be a correct and proper practitioner of social justice to be a decent, non-racist, non-sexist person. I’d take Loki and his ma’am-ing over some of the people I’ve met on the “left” who superciliously lecture people while unintentionally (at least I hope so) perpetuating the wrongs they claim to want to vanquish.

                Like you all know it’s only middle-class white people who care about this stuff for the most part, right?

                1. biobotb

                  Wow, you brought in a lot that had nothing to do with I GOTS TO KNOW’s comment. (Literature to read? Huh?) Are you seriously suggesting that only middle-class white people care how they’re addressed? You know that’s totally untrue, right?

                2. Just Visiting

                  AAM herself in this very thread: “If you don’t realize that it is in fact systemic sexism, there’s lots of reading you can do to learn more.” So yeah, this is something that comes up quite a bit in progressive communities, you’re lucky if you haven’t seen it ad nauseam.

                  And that’s not what I meant and I think you know it. I meant that it’s mostly middle-class white people (and “middle-class” is the more important word here) who nitpick about language and use the word problematic. And I am far from the only person to notice this. Although perhaps this comment section wasn’t necessarily the most productive place to vent my spleen.

                3. Billerie

                  But, there really is a large amount of research and writing that is available on many topics. Is learning about systemic sexism via literature (as you reference below) such a bad thing? I’m not a white person, by the way.

                4. fhqwhgads

                  Just Visiting, either I’m misunderstand you or you’re deliberately misrepresenting AAM’s comment that you quoted. That was in response to a specific remark about Ms. vs Mrs. not the general topic of the letter: calling people Sir/Ma’am.

          2. Jennifer

            Is this the hill they want to die on? I don’t think it’s worth it. Which is why I said it’s not a big deal. If I introduce myself to you as Jennifer and you call me Jenny (which I hate) that’s very different from this situation. You haven’t known me for 20 years and gotten used to calling me one thing, only for me to pull a bait and switch. Thor has to get used to cultural norms where he lives now. Those things take time. The employees should be more patient. He truly believes he is being polite.

            I swear I don’t get why people are so upset about this.

            1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

              If he was trying, there would be patience to have. The LW says he isn’t trying. He is digging his heels in. He isn’t being polite. You cannot have patience with someone who isn’t attempting to do better. You want LW and coworkers to have patience? Thor needs to make an effort. He isn’t.

            2. The Man, Becky Lynch

              You don’t think it’s a big deal because you were “raised” to think it was the “correct” way and had to change to stop getting yelled at by managers. You’re clearly biased here, so yeah of course you don’t get it.

              1. Jennifer

                Everyone has biases that inform their opinions. People that disagree with me vehemently clearly do as well. I don’t think it’s a hill worth dying on. If you’d go to war with someone that was your peer at work over this, I’d find that very strange indeed.

                Why did you put the word raised in quotation marks as though I made that part up?

                1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

                  You’re certainly repeating a lot how unimportant this is in the face of people who say this is important…if this isn’t a hill worth dying on, why are you defending it?

                2. Jennifer

                  @Will I know what a difficult habit it is to break and it annoyed me when people commenting kept saying “just stop doing it.” I feel for Thor. I know what he’s going through. But yes, if he’s going to dig his heels in, he’s going to have problems. When I was trying to change, I did apologize when I screwed up.

                3. Will "scifantasy" Frank

                  Of course breaking a habit like that, for whatever reason it’s ingrained, is not easy. But Thor isn’t apologizing, showing signs of working on it, or indicating that he even comprehends that he might not be entirely in the right here.

                  In fact, what he’s saying is, I don’t think that’s a big deal.You are taking offense at something that is meant to be respectful.

            3. fposte

              But they’re not going to die on this hill; he will. He’s the one with the least amount of power who’s refusing to adopt to the requested practice of his office.

              1. Jennifer

                He does need to change and hopefully, he will. I just know what a difficult habit it is to break.

                1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

                  The point everybody is coming back to is that he isn’t showing any signs of it.

                  Or any desire to.

                  What he’s showing is that he thinks it’s polite and therefore he shouldn’t have to change.

                2. Jennifer

                  @Will I get it. I’m just saying it’s not as easy as everyone seems to think it is to just stop. But he should show that he is putting in the effort.

                3. fposte

                  I get that. Do you think what’s happening is that he’s too inexperienced to realize that he needs to articulate that this is a challenge for him? I think my clarifying question is what you (or Kelly O., or others) would say if he were the one writing in. Would you say “Of course it’s polite and they should get used to it?” Or would you say “I understand how hard a habit that is to break! But you need to try, and you need to tell people you’re trying.”

                  You could also say your own words and ideas entirely :-). I’m just trying to figure out whether you sir/ma’amers are thinking he doesn’t need to change, or just that you guys are so intimately familiar with how ingrained this address is that that’s a big part of your response even though you think he should still try to change.

                  (BTW, I love sir/ma’am and use it, but it wasn’t ingrained in me the way it is others–it was something I picked up when I was older.)

                4. Jennifer

                  @fposte Lol! Yes, I think he lacks the maturity to just say, “I’m struggling here. Please bear with me,” or something along those lines, so he’s just digging his heels in. He doesn’t know how to handle it. That’s why I still feel sorry for him and think people are being a bit too harsh, even though I admit he is not handling this the right way.

                  When I dealt with my meanie bosses back in the day, I just kind of meekly nodded and did my best to change. Maybe it would have been less offensive to them had I explained why I said ma’am and sir, in addition to making the effort to change, who knows.

                5. fposte

                  @Jennifer–it is unfortunate that the people most likely to cling desperately to ma’am and sir are the least equipped to realize they should say “Okay, I’m trying, but this is hard.”

                6. biobotb

                  Whether breaking this habit is hard or not is immaterial right now–he’s not trying to break it.

                7. Jennifer

                  @biobotb Yes, I know. Many people have said the same and I conceded that point. I still think a little more understanding on both sides, not just his, is needed.

              2. I GOTS TO KNOW!

                Also, no one is dying on this hill. He isn’t being put on a PIP or being screamed at. The LW clearly states they are polite and genial in tone when addressing this with him. No one is suggesting he be fired.

                Saying he needs to have a more stern and direct talking to isn’t’ dying on a hill. It is… how things are dealt with in offices.

                Dying on a hill is threatening to quit if management doesn’t make him stop. That is not what is happening here.

              1. TassieTiger

                Ooo! Fposte, Would you be comfortable expanding on that thought? I would love to know your ideas and thought process on this. What do you mean when you say that the people who cling most desperately to saying sir and ma’am are also leads to quit to let people know they’re struggling to change a habit?

                1. fposte

                  People, and I’m thinking mostly of young people, without much experience in the diverse ways of the world also often don’t realize what it makes sense to communicate at work. So the learning curve is both about what you have to do and what you say to people about the curve itself.

            4. Wilde87

              “You haven’t known me for 20 years and gotten used to calling me one thing, only for me to pull a bait and switch”

              It’s funny you should mention this, because trans people and their friends and family deal with this all the time. If someone is Mike, then changes her name to Susan, then you call her Susan. Only real jerks insist on their right to call her Mike forever. It’s just basic kindness, and the kind of politeness that has real value.

    3. JJ Bittenbinder

      He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s probably working on it but in the meantime, let it go.

      How is “refusing to stop calling people ‘sir’ and ma’am’, even when asked directly” working on it?

      And whether he means harm or not, he is causing harm. Impact>intent. It’s like when someone who is transgender transitions to their true identity. If I continue calling a transman “she” because I’ve known him as “she” for 20 years and it’s not something I deem important enough to work on, I might not mean harm, but I sure am causing it.

    4. Loki

      Hi, OP here!

      I understand where you are coming from about giving Thor the benefit of the doubt, but I will say that Thor comes from the same background as almost everyone else that works at the Company. Almost everyone is sympathetic to growing up and being taught that this polite—however, the cultural norm at our office is calling people by first names unless they specifically ask to be addressed otherwise. Thor’s refusal to listen when we have asked him to please stop is the real issue. Furthermore, I think it is causing people to look down on him in the office (since it comes off rather subservient).

  41. mark132

    I would also wonder about a military background as well. The military can be very picky about that. I sometimes respond the way some of my Sergeants did. “Why are you calling me sir? I work for a living”.

  42. You can call me flower, if you want to

    It is rude to continue to call someone by a name/title they don’t like. Full stop. This is not hard. Ignoring what I wish to be called is about doing what you think is “best” and not about showing me respect.

    Sorry names/titles really get me.
    If one more person calls me Mrs. not Ms or my first name I am going to lose my mind. I hyphenated so I wouldn’t have to hear Mrs. But here we are. I know I’m way too heated about this but just call people what they want to be called.

    1. Death by Allergies

      This is too much, the getting upset over the distinction between Mrs. and Ms. It has to be as exhausting getting upset over this as it is to hear about it.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

        If it is exhausting to hear about it, stop doing it.

        I am married but I am not defined by my marriage. I have no desire to be called Mrs and if I ask you not to do it, you are being rude by continuing to do so.

        1. Death by Allergies

          Unless we are close or friends that I call you Mrs. or Ms. or Sir or Ma’am should not be of any matter. The majority of people are not saying these things to be rude, they are acknowledging you as politely as possible its unreasonable to get this upset over something this minute.

          1. mcr-red

            From grammarly:

            People began to use “Ms.” in the 1950s as a title of respect. Unlike “Miss” or “Mrs.”, it doesn’t indicate a woman’s marital status. The title became popular during the women’s movement of the 1970s because “Ms.” seemed a suitable equivalent of “Mister,” a title of respect for both unmarried and married men.

          2. Cube Ninja

            It is absolutely NOT unreasonable, and I’ll tell you why.

            My wife’s name is not Mrs. Cube Ninja. She has her own name, and she didn’t change it when she got married. I take issue with anyone referring to her as Mrs. Cube Ninja *including* my mother in law, because she is her own person and I certainly do not own her. My wife is not defined by the fact we are married.

            Unreasonable is insisting on referring to someone in a manner they’ve directly asked you not to use and insisting it’s polite.

            1. Wilde87

              As a non-binary person, working with Thor would suck so much. Being relentlessly “ma’am”ed would be like a paper cut with lemon juice every time.

              I’m also now thinking of the way, as a child, the neighbors’ kids would address my mom as “Mrs. Smith.” This was both much more formal than the norm and, more importantly, Smith was not my mother’s name. She had kept her original name when she married. But the neighbors were fundamentalist, “the man is master of the house” Christians, so I’m sure the parents thought it was polite to get her name wrong.

          3. biobotb

            I am an entity totally separate from my husband, so calling me “Mrs.” is not polite.

          4. PVR

            That’s not what’s happening here though. This is a greeting between passerbys—these are repeated interactions with coworkers who are close enough that they have asked him to stop. Repeatedly. He should respect that. If you call me Mrs PVR when we first meet, I won’t think twice about it, but I will ask you to call me by my first name. If you insist on calling me Mrs PVR after that—particularly in multiple interactions daily, yeah, I’m going to start to get annoyed.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Please don’t tell people here (or anywhere) that they’re “exhausting” for speaking out against systemic sexism.

        If you don’t realize that it is in fact systemic sexism, there’s lots of reading you can do to learn more.

      3. mcr-red

        I am NOT married to my father. Mrs. Red is my mother. I kept my birth name, even though I am married.

        I would honestly rather people call me Mrs. Blue (my husband’s last name) than Mrs. Red. I am NOT Mrs. Red!

    2. Samwise

      Oh yeah, me too. When my students call me Mrs. Samwise, I say, nope, that’s my mother! (Then we have a teachable moment in which they learn that not all married people have the same last name as their spouse.)

    3. mcr-red

      I feel you. I like Ms. Red, because I didn’t change my last name when I got married. Mrs. Red is my mother.

      I will get work correspondence from complete strangers that refer to me as Mrs. Red or Miss Red. Why??? I swear the Mrs. makes me the maddest of all. Why did you assume I was married? I mean, I am, but you didn’t know that! Why do you not default to Ms.? But mostly, why do you not just say, “Dear Mcr Red?”

    4. CommanderBanana

      My mother kept her maiden name, so there was no such person as Mrs. Momfirstname Dadlastname. There was only Ms. Momfirstname Momlastname.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I get it. I know a lot of women who never took their husband’s name. So I engage side-eye immediately when it’s assumed, despite my mom having changed her name, it’s still very real to me that it’s not the “norm” and that everyone gets to choose this for themselves. I’ll hyphenate for two reasons, I want to do it and I want to watch people cry themselves to sleep when they have to write out “Rumpelstiltskin-Smith”, it’s gonna be sooooooooo long and I’m gonna cackle inside every time. Not enough room on that form, ha ha ha ha ha ha *lighting strikes*

      1. DreamingInPurple

        I “came with” a hyphen from my parents, and so did my spouse. Neither of us legally changed our names when we got married, but it has been fun threatening to create a quadruple-barreled name!!

  43. Chaotic Neutral

    Oh. I’m Thor. I was raised in the south with the ma’am/sir habit and it is so ingrained I don’t think I’d be able to stop it. I feel for the kid.

    1. TheRedCoat

      Same. I moved North to go to college and I got so much crap for how I talked. (Lots of comments about how low class I sounded, my accent made me sound “dumb”, getting yelled at for mocking? a customer when all I had said was ‘yes, ma’am, it’s right here’.) I eventually went to a dialect coach to get rid of my accent/regionalisms.

  44. Spargle

    Just a quick comment that not all southern parents or military parents beat their children for forgetting to say “sir” or “ma’am”. I’m seeing it a lot in the comments, and while I don’t want to diminish those experiences, they aren’t the default parental reaction in this part of the country or in military families.

    As for Thor – he’ll probably stop doing it eventually. Or not? Either way, unless someone is offended or hurt by it, I’d let it go.

    1. Jennifer

      I wasn’t beaten for not saying sir or ma’am but I was definitely corrected every time I forgot. People aren’t getting what it’s like to be taught something for 20 years and suddenly learn that it’s wrong. They need to get over themselves and use some empathy.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

        Funny you telling people to need empathy when your position lacks it entirely.

        It isn’t rude for people to expect to be referred to the way they prefer. It is rude to refuse to even try.

        Is it going to be hard to change? Yup. Is it impossible? Sure isn’t. Are you gonna slip up? Most definitely. Can you apologize and move on? Sure can.

        But to dig your heels in and say “THIS IS HOW I WAS RAISED WHY ARE YOU BEING SO MEAN TO ME” is stubborn, childish, and hella rude. There is nothing polite about insisting on using terms people don’t want used. Nothing.

        1. Jennifer

          Empathy for what? Occasionally hearing the words sir or ma’am? I have more empathy for Thor because I have been in his shoes.

          1. I GOTS TO KNOW!

            Is isn’t occasionally. That’s the whole point.

            I don’t get what is so hard about this concept for you to grasp.

            The problem isn’t that he is continuing to say it occasionally. The problem is that he is refusing to attempt to stop saying it and doing it frequently without concern for how that makes others feel or the norms of his office.

            There is a difference between:
            A) being told “hey, don’t do this” and working hard to stop doing something that has become second nature, occasionally slipping, apologizing and moving forward

            and

            B) Insisting what you are being told not to do is fine and literally everyone else in the office has to just deal with you, and continuing to do it constantly with no respect for your coworkers’ wishes

            Scenario A is fine. LW would likely not have written in if A were the case. Because Thor would be trying. But A isn’t the case. The case is B – he doesn’t care what other people want and is refusing to attempt to adapt. That is problematic.

            1. Jennifer

              I get it. There are people who would continue to be annoyed even if you were clearly trying to change – I know from experience. But you have to keep trying.

              1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

                You don’t get it. Because as far as anybody here can tell, Thor isn’t trying at all.

                1. Jennifer

                  Lol, I literally just said to you that if he digs his heels in, he’s going to have problems and that I kept trying even though I screwed up again and again. I’m trying to agree with you.

      2. Samwise

        Actually, I think a lot of us do know exactly what it’s like to be taught something for twenty years or more and then learn it’s wrong — what we’re saying is, sure it’s hard, but make an effort.

        For instance, I was taught (and corrected, and then *taught*) that “They” is plural. I was mid-50s when singular “they” started becoming important to use. It was hard to break 50-years of habit–50 years of ingrained understanding of grammar and usage, not only a social convention. But you know what? It’s important, so I made myself do it. Now it is second nature. That doesn’t mean I’m a hero — I means I thought it was important and I made an effort. Thor can do the same. He’s only got 20 years of habit to break, lol, easy peasy!

      3. Where's that?

        Did you read my comment? For twenty years I was taught to ask “Where’s that at?” It took me all of three months to drop the “at.” It can be done. Saying “oh, but it’s so hard” and “oh, but I’m just being polite” frankly, strikes me as excuses. There are many things in life that are hard; there are many things I’ve learned/unlearned because I was directed to do so. Thor has been directly told to not do this; he needs to make an effort to stop.

        1. Jennifer

          I’ve said here multiple times that he should show he’s making more of an effort. I just wish people were more understanding of how difficult it is. What wasn’t difficult for you may be difficult for someone else.

    2. Blarg

      There’s a significant difference between being taught something is proper and being literally physically assaulted if you failed to do the thing you were taught was proper.

      It does not mean Thor experienced this. It does not mean people who did are incapable of change.

      But there are a significant number of people in this comment section saying they did experience that. We talk a lot here about how toxic jobs and bosses skew what is normal and appropriate. So do toxic childhoods. Please don’t dismiss people’s experiences just because they weren’t your own.

      1. Spargle

        I literally said I wasn’t diminishing those experiences. LITERALLY said it. So enjoy your gold star for whatever you think your comment did, I guess.

  45. Not All

    I’d be tempted to send him some information (articles, talks, etc) on the importance of being able to code switch in both personal and professional lives. I’d have grave concerns about an employee who didn’t have that ability personally and it WOULD limit their opportunities.

  46. Steggy Saurus

    I’d go with let it go too.

    I work in a college where most of the guards (who are usually African American) are introduced to me (by their boss) and refer to me as Miss Saurus (I’m white). I’m uncomfortable with that for a couple reasons, one being that I always introduce myself as “Steggy” and the other being the pretty naked power imbalance created by having only African American co-workers calling me Miss Saurus.

    I tried bringing it up to one of them who I work with fairly often, and she said that she used the “miss” due to our age difference (of about 20 years). I tried to explain that I considered us colleagues and it wasn’t necessary, but she never did stop calling me “miss.”

    At that point, I just let it go because the awkwardness of repeatedly asking someone to use my first name just isn’t worth the little twinge I feel being called “Miss Saurus.”

    1. Close Bracket

      the pretty naked power imbalance created by having only African American co-workers calling me Miss Saurus.

      See now, THAT is an issue. As it stands, that is a clear division along marginalization lines. I guess if they called everybody who was older Miss (or whatever) including African Americans, the division would be less clear. OTOH, the security guards probably know better than me what it would actually be like for them to call me Close instead of Miss Close, so I would not push it once I issued the invitation.

      1. Steggy Saurus

        Yep, I really dislike it, especially since our college has very few black employees (it’s a niche field, not a big university, and the field itself is very white). I should talk to their manager about it, but their manager is a truly unpleasant person and I don’t think it would go over too well with her either.

        So instead I just try to make it clear by the way I talk to and treat the guards that I respect them and their work. Funnily enough, I have a question related to this that I’ve been waiting for Friday to ask!

        1. Danger: GUMPTION AHEAD

          I have been in the same situation and I solved it by also calling them Miss/Mr $Guard’sName. I have always found it helpful to just mirror how people address me

  47. Tachy IT Lady

    The comments are interesting because I didn’t realize how ma’am or sir would make people uncomfortable. I was raised in a military and Southern household- and it was FORCED upon me to use those titles, otherwise I would be severely punished. I call everyone ma’am or sir, regardless of their age, race, level of authority. But if someone did tell me to quit calling them that, I would try my best to turn it off (although it would be very difficult).

    1. CommanderBanana

      Military brat too, and although my parents didn’t do it, a LOT of other parents did. I was raised to call older people “Miss TheirFirstname” or “Mr. Theirfirstname” though, if they were closeish to our family but not related enough to have a title like Aunt or Uncle.

      I still refer to older people, especially older women, as “Miss Firstname.”

    2. Al

      I’ve been finding the comments interesting, too! One more bit of anecdata: I have a friend who despises being called “ma’am” with an irrational hatred. She hears it as snidely passive-agressive rather than polite, no matter who is saying it.

    3. Close Bracket

      The funny thing is that OP didn’t say anything about people feeling uncomfortable–just that they didn’t understand why he wouldn’t conform to the office norm. Alison jumped to uncomfortable, and the commentors ran with it.

    4. Nacho

      I have coworkers in other call centers that always address me as Honey or Sweetie. I hate it with a burning passion, but I talk to them so rarely that I never feel it’s something I need to make an issue of.

    5. londonedit

      In the UK we very much don’t have a sir/ma’am culture. Ma’am especially – the only people who are called that are the Queen (rhymes with jam) or top-level female police officers in TV detective programmes. In general as a culture we’re very uncomfortable with overt displays of deference. People would probably think you were being deeply facetious if you started calling people at work ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. I think the only time anyone would ever refer to me as ‘madam’ is if I’m checking in to a nice hotel, or eating at a nice restaurant. It’s a sort of performative ‘this is a posh establishment’ thing that some service industries do.

  48. Sonia

    Yankee relocated to the deep south here. Sir/Ma’am in enforced *relentlessly*. I’ve known kids punished at school for saying “yes, please” or “no thank you” instead of yes, ma’am or no ma’am to their teachers. My kids usually seem to get a pass because people in our fairly small town know they’re transplants. I think mine have learned to code switch. They don’t use ma’am/sir at home, but they may at school. I have stepped in when people [camp counselors etc] correct them for not saying ma’am. As long as my kids speak politely, use please/thank you, make eye contact I am content.

    I must say, as someone raised in a place without a ma’am/sir culture, I find the whole thing off-putting. It TO ME seems like a very ritualized performance of politeness that is very shallow. Having lived up and down the east coast, I do not find yankees any less polite. Just more direct and less circumspect. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I had been raised here.

    1. Steggy Saurus

      Reminds me of a Northerner/Southerner joke I heard once:

      A Southern woman and a Northern woman meet for the first time. The southern woman says, “Where are y’all from?” The northern woman replies, “I am from a place where we do not end our sentences in prepositions.” To which the southern woman responds, “Oh, pardon me! Where are y’all from, b*tch?!” :)

    2. Kris

      I was raised in the South and I learned to code-switch on this issue by the time I was a teenager. I think it’s an important skill to have.

    3. Snark

      I lived two years in a place that wasn’t quite the south, but was south adjacent, and man….I found it really hard to take, having grown up in a place where the communication culture was non-hierarchical, direct, and plainspoken and minding one’s own business was the default.

    4. Rikki Tikki Tarantula

      Dealing with all this social stuff and possibly fake/possibly real politeness sounds exhausting. I could never spend more than five minutes in the south for all the wondering if people are actually nice or just pretending.

  49. Donkey Hotey

    As an amusing sideline: Not so long ago, I was working with a young man to develop his resume. We sat down and during the pleasantries, he referred to me as “sir.” I told him that it wasn’t necessary. His reply, “Sir, I’m a Marine raised by two Marines. Your choices are ‘sir’ and ‘sh!tbag.’ I haven’t met you before, so I figured I’d lead with ‘sir.'”

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I smile when people bring up the military.

      My dad and his brothers were in the military, my grandfather was in the military too. Dad and the uncs hated it so much, they came home, grew their hair and beards out and would fight a person before they called them “sir”. Seriously, my dad is pushing 70 and only has started getting semi-regular haircuts without me having to pull the “Dad, it’s a special occasion and we’ll want pictures…” card.

      I would have said “I prefer sh*tbag then.” but that’s my upbringing after all.

      1. Donkey Hotey

        It can be a double-edged sword, for certain. I was in the Navy for 4 1/2 years and am by far and away the most liberal of my shipmates, then and now. I bristle when people lump us all in one category, too. AND I realize I had it pretty good, both in upbringing and in my career.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          I totally get it, it’s also part of being [blessed with the ability] to break the programming easily as well, in all honesty I joke but I understand that military conduct is often literally beaten into you in training.

    2. Will "scifantasy" Frank

      I’m with Becky Lynch. The appropriate response here is “Gotcha,” respecting the change in cultural positioning, and not “this is how I was raised, you’re just going to have to live with it.”

    3. Donkey Hotey

      And now that I’ve had a minute to think…

      Have you tried suggesting an alternative? Instead of a flat “don’t call me sir/ma’am” perhaps he might respond better to “Instead of sir/ma’am, please use X” where X is something respectful enough for Thor that doesn’t press buttons amongst the co-workers.

      1. SarahTheEntwife

        What would that alternate be? It sounds like this is a first-names office culture and “Ms/Mr Jones” is likely to be just as weird as sir and ma’am.

    4. Close Bracket

      I don’t care if people call me ma’am, but that response would get an eyeroll out of me. Like, I’m not a Marine, son. Then I’d call him shitbag.

  50. SB

    Something to maybe keep in mind is that there may be folks on your team who are nonbinary or agender but closeted at work – for these folks being addressed as “Sir” or “Ma’am” could be deeply distressing but they would be unable to speak up without outing themselves. <3

    1. Armchair Analyst

      This. I am a Southern Metropolitan Parent, and I’ve said “Excuse me, Ma’am” and had the “woman” with long hair turn around with a mustache, and I’ve said, “Excuse me, Sir,” and had the “man” with short hair turn around with lipstick on… and at that point, I decided I was just going to end the whole charade. “Excuse me, please” will have to do. My son is 10 and in 4th grade and I’ve let him know exactly why I don’t think ma’am/sir is a big deal… too easy to get wrong. If someone wants it, a teacher will ask for it… “No, thank you WHAT?!” “No, thank you, ma’am” “THAT’S BETTER.”

  51. Tiffany In Houston

    This is a fascinating discussion. I am a 45 year old black woman from Texas. I do indeed say sir and ma’am as well but I do call folks what they prefer to be called. However, I wouldn’t find this a hill to die on. However, I embrace being yes ma’am-ed and I do not want children to address by my first name. In the South, as the saying goes, kids “put a handle” on any adult name.

    1. Katya Ivanovna Lobkova

      As a white woman in Texas, I ALWAYS use “ma’am” and “sir” when talking to older black folks, or Mrs./Mr. if I know their last names. And/or both.

      Once I get to know them a little better, I seem to slip into “Ms. Lola” or “Mr. Robert”. But ONLY if I talk to them regularly. Am I making a faux pas?

      1. Tiffany In Houston

        Katya – I don’t think so because I would do the exact same thing you do! lol!!

    2. Jennifer

      I’m black and from the south as well. Maybe it’s more ingrained in black culture than just southern culture? I don’t know.

  52. FHT

    Genuine question: why is it that, with Thor, he’s being rude by addressing people in a way they don’t like (sir/ma’am), yet in the “my employee prefers to be called Mrs. Stark” letter linked at the end of this one, she was treated as weird and in the wrong for her preferences? (Yes, I realize she caved to peer pressure fairly quickly, but that’s beside the point I’m trying to get at here).

    It seems to me that if the polite thing to do is respect people’s preferences, then Thor listens to people about sir and ma’am AND Mrs Stark gets called Mrs Stark if that’s what makes her comfortable.

    If what you actually mean is informality is better than formality and the more formal person should just suck it up, then be that frank about it rather than couching it in (to my ear, at least) insincere concern about respecting people’s preferences.

    1. Will "scifantasy" Frank

      Both of those come from the same place: “this office culture has a different culture.” Or what you call “caving to peer pressure.” Which…talk about language revealing feelings. Given that Mrs. Stark shortly thereafter said “wow, my desire to be Mrs. Stark was really awkward and offputting in light of the culture!” I think “caving to peer pressure” is a bad way of framing it.

      Look, if someone was calling everybody by their first names when the office culture was “Mr.” and “Ms.” and “Mx.” we’d be suggesting that person change too.

    2. Czhorat

      The situations are both about one person trying to unilaterally opt out of the general level tone and level of formality in an office. There’s a continuum of distance and familiarity from “DUUUUDE” to “Yes, my lord”. To choose not to participate in the same conventions as the rest of the group is to make oneself an outlier, causing an imbalance.

      It would be the same if everyone else were “Mr/Mrs/Ms” and one person insisted on first names. In that case they should participate in the same (higher) level of formality.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

        Yes, this.

        As I recall, the upshot of the Mrs. Stark letter was that she should be addressed as Mrs. Stark if that’s what she wanted, but also have it made very clear to her that in doing so, she was out of step with the office norms and creating a lot of weirdness.

    3. Close Bracket

      If what you actually mean is informality is better than formality and the more formal person should just suck it up, then be that frank about it rather than couching it in (to my ear, at least) insincere concern about respecting people’s preferences.

      I don’t know that I would have put it so strongly, but there is a bit of a tone of “formality is exactly the same as renaming someone or misgendering them” going on here. *shrug*

      1. Iris Eyes

        It seems that FHT is aptly pointing out that “if its rude, its rude.” The issue Thor has is that he is using language too formal for the office, he believes this formality is polite but that is not the culture, the group culture will either have to change and allow the quirkiness or they will have to badger him into submission if he remains part of the group.

        The argument of “that hurts their feelings” is a bad argument to make in this case (and in just about all cases IMO) because as MANY commenters have pointed out they suffer just as much (if not objectively more) from trying to curb the habit.

      2. Will "scifantasy" Frank

        It isn’t that…but seeing you say that, I see your angle, so let me try to rephrase:

        Formality is not inherently polite.

        That’s what it comes down to, really. “Polite” really means “acting a manner that is respectful of others,” and what that means changes with culture and situation.

        A lot of people have been taught that formality (use of titles and deferential language) is polite. But it isn’t, not necessarily. If the culture is one where use of titles and deferential language isn’t considered polite, then formality can be non-polite, or even rude.

        In lack of other information about the culture one is in, formality is a good way of showing an attempt to be polite, and nobody (well, almost nobody, see below) ever reacts to an initial “sir”/”ma’am”/”Mr.” from a new person, especially someone who is new to a workplace or the like, as impolite. But when the response is “oh, no, just Myfirstname, please!” then that’s a big whopping cue: in this environment, formality is not polite.

        And so, in an environment when you have been told to not be formal, defending your formality with “I’m being polite” is very wrong. You’re not only refusing to respect the cultural norm, you’re also being aggressive at the norm: you’re unintentionally pushing back at the cultural norm overall, suggesting that you think that your equation of formality with politeness is more important than the culture.

        This underlies Mrs. Stark, too. In an environment where informality is not impolite, as she was in, for her to say “I prefer to be called Mrs. Stark” is valid, and it is polite to respect her choice…but she is pushing against a culture.

        Sometimes, pushing against a culture is good and righteous…we all know about, and have discussed, places where the cultural expectations were literally dehumanizing, or reinforced artificial barriers of superiority. But…given everything we’ve said about picking your battles…is “here, informality is polite” something you want to die arguing against?

        Now, the exception: we’ve discussed misgendering a lot. My sense of this is, if you have no information, you might be best served to pick neutral, non-gendered methods of address, which (largely by virtue of being more recent, generally), tend to sound less formal. But if you have to, and you guess wrong, on no information, you will generally not offend horribly.

        Of course, once you have information, the situation changes. Just as with everything else.

        (This is why in some circles I’m in people wear buttons, ribbons, or pins with their preferred pronouns and forms of address.)

    4. Curious

      I agree that the concern for respecting people’s preferences is insincere here. Just leave it at this is the office culture.

  53. LuJessMin

    My parents taught me to be polite. I say sir and ma’am all the time. I’ve tried stopping, but it’s too ingrained in me. If someone asks me to stop, I say I’ll try, but you’ll have to forgive me if the occasional sir or ma’am slips out.

    1. Lauren

      My parents taught me to be polite, as well, which is why I’d never dream of calling them ma’am or sir unless it was in a joking fashion. They are my parents, not strangers.

  54. No Tribble At All

    Channel Janeway and say you prefer Captain.

    Seriously though, if it’s an ingrained habit, Thor should just say that and apologize. He’s acting like his way is correct when it’s jarring and uncomfortable to everyone else.

  55. JDR

    It’s not a quirk. it’s how his parents raised him. He’s hard-wired for it. My kids’ friends insisted on calling me “Mr. Firstname,” which I really don’t like. They are all adults now, but they CANNOT stop it. I’ve said to them over and over agian, “Please, either call me Firstname or Mr. Lastname. Please do not call me Mr. Firstname.”
    When they were younger, I had other parents get angry with me for this, telling me that I was countermanding the way they were raising their children to be polite and respectful. After years and years of asking, cajoling, etc., I finally surrendered to it.
    I’ve seen kids get spanked for referring to authority figures in familiar ways. And, since this is so familiar to me; it’s difficult for me to understand why it’s “jarring” for someone to address you with a clear, simple show of respect.

    1. CM

      I think it’s a little different in the workplace context where everybody is a peer and you’re expected to conform to the office culture in some ways.

      This letter reminded me of a straight-out-of-school new member of my group who kept referring to everyone as “Mr.” and “Ms.” and sending emails that looked like formal business letters. I gently told him that the culture in the office was to be informal and use first names, and people might perceive him as being too formal or inexperienced. He told me he preferred to do it his way and that his way was polite. I let it go, but I did find it rude that he was basically telling me that the rest of the office wasn’t polite, and was disregarding a senior person giving him advice.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I got spanked for cussing as a kid, so I still don’t get your fu*king point honestly.

      We’re also in a new society that doesn’t really accept “spanking” as acceptable either, so again, I don’t see the point.

      1. Jason

        I don’t know where you’re from, but I’m a millennial from the south. My *high school* was allowed to administer corporal punishment (and it wasn’t something reserved for “bad” kids) and spankings at home, while not common, were not unheard of.

        Yes, we address people as “sir” or “ma’am” in the south. I think the fact that the letter writer is from the south is important. It is part of the culture here, as is respect for elders and the military and stricter discipline than might be given elsewhere.

        1. Sherman's March on "Etlanna"

          Wait, your high school was allowed to spank students? Like 16-18? That’s awful. WTF is it about the South?

  56. Semprini!

    I wonder if it might be useful to say something like “Address your co-workers like you would your classmates in school” – giving him an existing frame of reference to draw upon.

    1. Southern Yankee

      Oh, I like this, too. I fits the wanted behavior into an existing “acceptable” slot. It may make sense to him instead of perceiving the change as against everything he’s been taught.

  57. Vax is my disaster bicon

    I would find this utterly exhausting, both for the constant misgendering and because, in my region, sir/ma’am is only used (outside of a customer service context) when one wants to express joking or sarcastic irritation. It’s a way of telling someone they’re being overly demanding. Doesn’t exactly come across as polite in that context!

  58. Jessen

    I have a thought: could someone potentially give him a short lesson in adult manners? Given that he is young, I’m wondering if there’s a certain aspect of “I don’t know how to be polite without this so I’m going to double down.” It’s very different to learn how to be polite when the familiar ways of being polite don’t work, and often it’s not as simple as just dropping the honorifics (or at least doesn’t seem that way). Doubling down on it isn’t a great reaction, but it’s a somewhat understandable one from a young person.

  59. LaurenB

    Here’s the distinction, and why Southerners don’t get why Northerners don’t consider “sir/ma’am” to be polite.

    In the South, “sir/ma’am” is used for everyone – parents, teachers, coaches, etc.

    In the North, “sir/ma’am” is used for people whose names you don’t know AND with whom you have no desire to establish a relationship. It’s a form of address for STRANGERS. “Excuse me, sir, how do I get to 123 Main Street?” “Excuse me, ma’am, but I was here first,” “Excuse me, sir, but I think you dropped your wallet.”
    This is why it sounds snarky, smarmy, and disrespectful if our children were to say “Yes, sir/ma’am” to us, or if we were to hear it from a coworker. It’s a deliberately distancing form of address. You don’t “ma’am” your mother [except in jest] because she’s your freakin’ mother who gave birth to you, not some stranger dropping her wallet or butting in front of you in the grocery line.

    It’s not that Southerners are being mannerly and Northerners aren’t. It is actively impolite in the North to use sir / ma’am with loved ones, people whose names you know, people you care about.

    1. Koala dreams

      Thank you for this explanation, it’s very interesting to learn some background.

  60. Project Problem Solver

    I’m not sure if this has been stated up-thread, but it’s a bigger issue than just “this is kind of weird.” It is also an issue for every non-cis person in your workplace, and if they’re not open about it, you may never know. I know this is generally seen as politeness, but as gendered language, it’s really not appropriate.

    I can’t give you any better suggestions on how to handle that, just wanted to state that this really isn’t something that should be considered inconsequential.

    1. Actually, it’s just Sonny

      As a nonbinary trans person, I must agree. Gendered language is not appropriate in the workplace unless someone offers it to you (I.e. “my pronouns are x, y, and z.”) Misgendering people is dangerous and puts our lives at risk. For example, say a trans man walks out of the men’s bathroom, gets called “m’aam,” and someone witnesses both situations and follows him home. Calling people these terms against their consent is sexual harassment. Every employer has a responsibility to teach new employees how to properly address people in the office during their trainings so this doesn’t happen.

    2. neeko

      Yes, this has been brought up but I think it should be highlighted as a reason why people should stop brushing it off with “this isn’t a hill to die on..” stuff. The more you make an effort to break this habit, the less of a chance you have of misgendering someone with a gendered honorarium. It IS a big deal. Also, just call people what they want to be called! Man alive!

    3. Nerdy Library Clerk

      Yeah. I’m non-binary, and if there were a Thor in my workplace, I’d have to chose between the fingernails on the blackboard of being constantly misgendered or having to out myself to explain why he absolutely needs to stop with the gendered “politeness.” That’s not a fun situation for someone to be in.

  61. Southern Yankee

    I haven’t seen anyone mention this yet: the OP says the company is in the South, and that many of the coworkers also had to break this habit at some point. So many comments are focusing on this being a culturally normal thing for Thor but not for the others, I thought it worth pointing out. It seems to me that OP realizes that being in the South, this is normal behavior to be taught as children, but that Thor isn’t picking up on the cues that what he was taught as polite needs to be adjusted in a work setting. I think that makes it even more obvious that Thor is making no visible attempt to break the habit. I think pointing out to him that his definition of polite needs to be adjusted to take into account adult business relationships, especially if he wants to avoid a reputation of being tone deaf, might help.

    As a northern-raised transplant to the south, I get how embedded this is. I first thought it very strange, then after about a decade while home for a holiday, “yes ma’am” slipped out completely without thought while I was talking to my mother. She looked at me like I was completely crazy and was pretty insulted!

    1. Sonia

      Yes! What is polite is context-dependent. That’s why I find the arguments that “he’s just being polite” or “he was raised right, you’re just uptight” so frustrating. I think people who insist on ma’am/sir regardless of context are more focused on a rigid *appearance* of being polite, without actually understanding what politeness *is* and how it works.

  62. ArtK

    I had this issue with someone who was assigned to work for me. Unfortunately, there was a cultural issue involved as well as rank/class issues. I asked a couple of times and then gave up because it wasn’t going to change. Still bugged me every time he did it.

  63. Faithful Reader

    My partner is ex-military and he’s heard “sir” so much in his life that he actively discourages people from addressing him that way, but he has a rather humorous way of doing it. If we’re out and about and someone addresses him as “sir” (as in, “May I take your order, sir?” or “May I help you, sir?”) he replies, “There’s no need for name-calling!” with a laugh. It usually puts people at ease, and then he can introduce himself and invite folks to call him by his first name.

  64. Allison

    When I was a kid, my parents wanted me to be polite, and sometimes got a bit nit picky, but didn’t generally care about our household being super formal or old fashioned. But, even in the days before widespread internet access (think late 90’s, we had internet but it was only so mom and dad could check emails), I was exposed to other people’s ideas on how children should behave. I was under the impression that good girls dressed up for dinner, sat up ramrod straight, ate with perfect table manners, called her parents sir and ma’am, but did not speak unless she was spoken to, because children were to be seen and not heard. Nick News ran a segment on Louisiana’s proposed law to require children to address their teachers as “sir” and “ma’am,” and most people supported it because, as they said, it’s important for children to be respectful. I wanted to be respectful, and I knew there were adults who hurt children when they weren’t respectful and I didn’t want them to find out I was bad and hurt me.

    But when I followed all these rules in front of my parents, especially at the dinner table or at the super market, they hated it! That’s not how they wanted me to address them, and that’s not how they wanted me to behave, and the fact that I kept doing it when they’d repeatedly told me to stop wasn’t respectful at all, my dad thought I was giving him lip! In hindsight, I should have stopped immediately. Speak to people the way they want to be spoken to, as long as they’re being reasonable. If you need to go against your upbringing and adjust your habits to do so, I understand that that can be difficult, but you need to at least try. Refusing to change your ways, because your ways are “good” and those who don’t adhere to those rules are “bad,” is incredibly stubborn and rude.

  65. Middle School Teacher

    Ehhhhhhh…. I get it, but I’ve definitely been called worse. I don’t think I’d die on this hill.

  66. LGC

    I have never felt as old at work as the time one of my employees called me “Mr. [LGC].”

    (I’m 35. This was a couple of years ago. The employee in question was in her early 20s. I mean, I was flattered, but also I was not expecting to get the “Mr.” treatment for like 15 years.)

    But real talk: I GET Thor. Like, I still have issues with remembering to address my friends’ parents by their first name (I am a manchild, but also I AM IN MY MID THIRTIES). Even if he’s from the same broader culture as y’all, there are big differences in what is the default “polite.”

    And I think…maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it seems like no one has actually told Thor that it’s actually more polite to say “Bruce,” “Steve,” or “Natasha” in context than “sir” or “ma’am” – since these are his peers he’s talking to, he’s being overly formal when he says, “yes, sir” instead of, “yes, Tony.”

    Also…somehow I’m reading this as “Thunder God’s First Job.” Just based off of his age, he’s a fairly recent graduate. And he’s definitely a new hire. So he might genuinely feel like he’s not one of your peers, LW!

    Anyway. Hopefully he grows out of it and becomes more comfortable addressing you guys as peers. I’d continue to gently correct him, but also – make sure he feels like he’s a part of your team.

  67. Daenerys Targaryen

    People seem feel a lot more strongly about this than I do. For what it’s worth, OP, I’m not used to being called ma’am, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be offended by it either. To be honest, I think would rather just get used to being called ma’am than put any mental effort towards getting Thor to stop calling me ma’am. You mention that he’s new. If he’s very new, the problem might resolve on its own if you give it some time. Once he gets to know you all and develop collegial relationships, the formality will go away. My younger colleagues tend to start out calling me Dr. Targaryen, then progress to Dr. Daenerys, then to just Daenerys. Until they betray me. Then I call them dragon food.

  68. Maria Wagstaffe

    Just a thought, could be be face-blind? Maybe, names aren’t sticking and he’s too embarrassed to say?

    1. Loki

      Hi! OP here!

      I think it’s safe to say that it’s not face-blindness/memory issues—he’s actually pretty good at names, but more or less refuses to address anyone by them

  69. MommyMD

    Aw leave him alone and don’t take it so personally. He is being polite and this is how he was raised.

    1. pancakes

      What you’re suggesting is deeply personal, though — deciding that a coworker is incapable of changing their behavior because they’re helplessly rigid is a deeply personal observation. I don’t see it as a social nicety to write them off as such; I see it as very unflattering.

  70. Gardener

    Slightly unrelated question – I’m not from the South or the military and don’t use sir or ma’am myself – EXCEPT for when I need to get a stranger’s attention. I don’t like that it’s gendered and it feels weird anyway, but I can’t think of an alternative. Anyone have any ideas for me? “Hey, you!” feels weirdly rude, but maybe it’s not?

    For example, if you see something fall from someone’s bag and they’re walking away from you down the path – I would say, “Excuse me, sir! Sir!” etc. Or, if someone is standing near me and I notice that someone else is trying to get their attention and they’re adrift in thought, I might say, “Ma’am?” while looking at them. I think sometimes just saying, “Excuse me,” or “Hello,” feels too much like I’m addressing THE WORLD and using a specific “you” kind of word clues people in that my comment is addressing a specific ONE.

    1. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw

      Honestly, I don’t see a problem with using titles with complete strangers. The problem with honorifics like “sir” or “ma’am” or whatever is that they’re deliberately impersonal and formal. That’s fine if you’re in a situation that’s impersonal or formal. Working with close work colleagues is not that kind of situation, but strangers are always going to be impersonal, and not knowing their actual names kind of requires that sort of formality, because you can’t just call them Matilda or Cagney or what have you. So I’ve used “sir” and “ma’am” when getting a stranger’s attention (“Sir, you dropped this!”), but also in customer service jobs (“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down”) and in campaign calls (“Sir, could I ask you a few questions about the election this year?”).

    1. pancakes

      The idea that all complaints besides one very important one should be disregarded is arbitrary.

  71. your vegan coworker

    For someone who is non-binary or otherwise uncomfortable with their apparent gender — or who simply believes that gender markers needn’t be dragged into every. single. conversation. — it would be particularly jarring to have their perceived gender stressed again and again and again by someone insisting on “politely” using gendered terms like ma’am or sir (or mr/ms) despite being told clearly that that first names are preferred.

  72. SenseANDSensibility

    We have someone at my workplace that does this. I’ve asked this person point blank to not say it to me & told them it makes me uncomfortable, but they said they can’t help it and it’s just habit. I’m barely older than this person and once I asked them to stop and they keep doing it, it feels disrespectful and bizarre and mocking, even. Like something they know they can keep doing to purposefully get under my skin. It’s a pick-your-battles point but it sure does suck when people blatantly ignore or disregard your requests.

  73. IWantToPetAllTheDogs

    Mid-40s Southerner and 20+ year military spouse here. I was one of those children whose parents didn’t physically beat ma’am/sir into them, but I was sent to bed without supper once or twice as a child for omitting it. I also remember getting into quite a bit of trouble with my father for calling a friend’s mother by her first name as she had requested. I remember something along the lines of, “I don’t care if she asked you to call her Louise, you must absolutely address her as Mrs./Miss/Ms. Smith.” It was drilled into me that this was polite and courteous and if you did not address someone in this manner, then it clearly showed your lack of respect and was the etiquette equivalent of sucking all the air out of the room.

    Ma’am and sir were absolutely the automatic default, particularly if you didn’t know someone’s name. It blew my mind as a young 20s employee that the director of my department wanted me to call him by his first name. I remember the first few times I did address him by his first name, I also added sir at the end (and fully expected lightning to strike me).

    I’ve seen children who are now approximately the age equivalent of Thor receiving the same message, particularly in the military community. Without knowing the full context of his background, perhaps it is possible he is trying to reconcile what he may have been taught at home with a new reality in a more informal workplace. That can be initially jarring as it makes someone develop their own version of “courtesy code-switching” depending on the audience.

    Also, never assume that someone has been exposed to more appropriate terminology or had someone show them the kindness of how to use a better word choice. I certainly appreciate all the helpful people who redirected some of my gendered language choices without inflicting shame or assuming negative intent.

    You mention that he is incredibly nice–my guess is that the behavior is reflexive, rather than intentional, but I would specifically address it in a serious manner as Allison suggests.

    1. pancakes

      Considering how many commenters of various ages have emphasized this, one would think military families have had more than ample time to realize that demanding their children treat every social interaction as a militaristic one is needlessly short-changing them.

  74. Mrs. Fenris

    I was raised in the rural South, and I live and work in the urban South. I was raised to say “ma’am” and “sir,” but you really don’t hear it as much in the suburb where I live now. I visit rural areas a good bit. So I do what many people do when they spend time in two different cultures: I code-switch. If I’m in a rural area, or really if I hear a more rural Southern accent from an elder in my current area, the ma’am and sir start rolling. It’s not that hard.

  75. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw

    We have someone who does this in our office, though to his credit, he doesn’t do it all the time, and it really does seem to be more of a reflex than a deliberate choice. Like, he’ll call me Book if he’s talking to me directly or referring to me, but if I ask him to file something for me, he’ll say, “Yes, ma’am.” We’re close in age, so it’s a little weird, but not that weird.

    What weirds me out is when people who are much older than me call me “ma’am” or “Miss Book.” For me, honorifics are for authority figures and people in positions of power, and I just feel Weird being treated like I’m an authority, given that I am only 25. But I am from the Cold And Heartless North, where everyone is impolite and no one talks to their neighbors, as my college friends are fond of telling me (I went to college in the South).

  76. Color me shocked

    In the south, sir and ma’am are respectful terms. I can see where someone ingrained to believe that would have trouble wrapping their head around the thought of the usage being impolite.

    Have you (collectively) stated what bothers you about them (like makes people feel like a ‘hag’ or concerns over fluidity)? Might help him understand that the usage isn’t polite by your (and your other coworkers’) standards. Thor honestly may not be able to wrap his head around it. And, no one is more stubborn than a person with good intentions.

    Also, you could consider calling him Sir Types-a-lot to reinforce your point.

  77. Alf

    There is nothing wrong with good old fashioned manners. Here in Australia ma’am and sir aren’t as common but I do have one employee of Indian background who will always use madam. On questioning him about it he explained it is cultural. Any female not related to them over 21 will be called madam whether married or single.

  78. DrPepper Addict

    Since you mentioned it to him, he should stop. But I will say, I grew up in the south and “Sir” and “Ma’am” are terms of respect, and it sounds like he’s simply using it as a term of respect. I agree with Alison that it seems you’re taking it a little too personally. Maybe it would help to reframe it in your mind to think about where this is coming from in his mind – he’s not doing it to bother you or spite you, he’s showing you respect in his own way.

  79. Airy

    It seems like there’s another culture divide here, as with ask/guess culture: “politeness is based on rules” culture and “politeness is based on principles” culture. The first teaches “to be polite you must use these specific words in these circumstances and that will be correct,” the second “to be polite you must consider what other people prefer and adapt your approach to them to fit.” Obviously the latter takes more thought and can make people who prefer clarity and certainty feel anxious or as if they’re going to be wrong no matter what they do because there is no one universally-acknowledged Right Way. The more people have experienced disapproval and punishment for doing things wrong rather than being told that getting things wrong is a normal learning experience and now you can do better probably factors in.

    1. Airy

      The other interesting duality I’m seeing here is between “The whole purpose of politeness is to make people feel comfortable and respected” and “How you feel doesn’t matter, this is what’s polite!”
      Which to a lot of us from Principles Culture sounds like “YOU don’t matter, shut up and accept the rules.”

  80. Kisforkite

    Could he really just be bad with names, and is using sir and ma’am as a cover up for that? I’ve done that in the past because I could just never remember names even after three or four months.

  81. Argye

    Oh good grief. YES! I *hate* being called Mrs. *lastname* as a University professor. That’s my mom. I’ve never been married, and I’m not your high school teacher. I’ve started insisting on being called Dr. *lastname* in professional circumstances, because 1) that’s my actual professional title, and 2) there’s a whole lot of gendered weirdness in referring to someone with a Ph.D. as Dr. [In my previous dysfunctional workplace, when we were interviewing for a new Dept. Chair (req. Ph.D.), our Dept. secretary called the men “Dr.” and the woman “Mrs.” because, and I quote, she’s married, that’s more important than having a Ph.D. The candidate also had the Ph.D. degree, btw.]
    Apologies if this multiple-posts. My computer is being stupid.

    1. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw

      My parents are both Dr. Badger (they met in their PhD program), and woe betide you if you address a joint letter to “Dr. & Mrs. Badger,” because my mom got her degree first and it didn’t go away when they got married.

    2. DreamingInPurple

      Oh nooooo. If I’d been your female interviewee I would have been sorely tempted to leave on the spot. I’m glad for you that it’s your *previous* workplace now!

  82. CastIrony

    I call people sir and ma’am just because I’m just bad at customers’ names and names in general.

    Though I understand the frustration.

  83. Dr Rat

    OP/Loki, if you’re still here, I freely admit I did not read all the comments above, but this seems to be what Captain Awkward refers to as a Use Your Words situation. On that note, let me tell you about… Bobo. I interned with Bobo, lo, many moons ago, and Bobo could not take a hint unless he was hit over the head with it. He was breathtakingly incompetent and had amazingly high self esteem. If you joked about how bad he was at his job, he thought you were funning with him. If you said, “Bobo, you’re doing a terrible job”, he was sure you were just joshing, because he was the amazing Bobo and his Mama had told him he was perfect. You had to talk to him like a bad dog: “Bobo, NO. You CANNOT do it this way. You MUST do it this way.” It didn’t always get through, but it was the only thing that ever did. Stop joking. Sit Thor down, one on one, closed door, and say, “I understand that you equate saying Sir and Ma’am with being polite. I don’t think you realize that calling someone by terms they don’t like is actually IMPOLITE. You are not being polite, you are being RUDE. It makes you stand out here, and it makes you stand out in a bad way. We’re never going to fire you for saying it, but every time you say it, we all cringe a little inside. It makes me think you can’t learn from feedback. If you can’t take feedback and adapt, you are going to fail in the workplace. This is your chance to show me you can listen to what I am saying and change your behavior. Are you going to do this?”

  84. Luna

    I wouldn’t worry too much about this. It might be weird, but it could be seen as a quirk to his work persona. I know I’d feel weird if someone my age did it to me, but I am also finding it a bit odd that everyone in my office is on the “Du” (informal you in German) level; even my supervisor, whom I’d usually address with “Sie” (formal you in German). But a bit of the awkwardness goes away as you use it more, so… *shrug*

  85. Major Kong

    As soon as I started reading this I assumed there would be some reference to “the South” in this. I was not disappointed. I hate this over simplifying explanation for the problem: the South. It is biased and lazy.

  86. yala

    I was initially thinking “well, it is a tough habit to break” especially if you’re from the South where it was such an embedded requirement. I tend to default to it. But then you said that y’all have flat-out told him to stop. And THEN this: “He once explained to me that he just wants to be ‘polite.'”

    And then I wanted to scream.

    Because really, there are few things I find as frustrating as people who do things that make people uncomfortable to “be polite.” I’m thinking dudes who straight up refuse to walk through a door I hold, or who grab me and push me through so they can hold it, smiling all the while, because to them they’re being “polite.”

    There’s this awful mindset where “polite” means “do things This One Way Forever Regardless Of Who It Makes Uncomfortable” rather than “try to make things easy and pleasant for the people around you.” Sounds like Thor’s “politeness” is more about his comfort than yours.

    But since you’re coworkers and not his boss, really I guess all you can do is maybe speak up when he calls YOU that. “Please don’t call me sir/ma’am.” “I’m just trying to be polite.” “I know, but it makes me uncomfortable. Please stop.”

  87. Gobsmacked

    I was raised this way, too, and while I don’t do it now, I probably did when I was 20. I’ve also been on the receiving end of enough anti-southern bias when I work elsewhere in the US, that I know that a lot of what I’m reading here is antipathy towards those of us who live in the south. I’ve had more people than I can count make stupid, nasty comments to me about my accent, always along the lines of assuming that everyone from the south is backwards, or stupid, or bigoted, or all three, when the only person being judgmental is the one assuming me I must be dumb because I’ve got a southern accent. And it always comes from people who don’t say thank you to service workers, or hold elevators for other passengers, or clean up after themselves in public places.

    1. Tiffany In Houston

      Definitely agree with you about the anti-South antipathy in these comments!

      1. LawBee

        It’s not unusual – especially coming from people who moved down here and are shocked, SHOCKED, that our norms are different than theirs.

  88. DCBA

    I’m on the east coast, but work closely with an office based in Texas. They refer to me constantly as ma’am (individuals both significantly older and younger than me), and I absolutely shudder at that term. However, they also refer to each other as sir/ma’am all the time in casual conversation, regardless of level or position. I’ve had to suppress my tendency to ask them to not use that term with me since, in this situation, I’m the odd duck out. In some offices, even casual offices, that really is the norm. I wonder if Thor’s previous office used the terms freely as well, and he assumed it was a workplace standard in addition to just being polite.

  89. Sharikacat

    Maybe this guy came from the same office with the woman who asked her coworkers to refer to her significant other as “Master.” Just a lot of very thorough training on showing “proper respect” to others going on behind the scenes there, y’know. Haha.

  90. AnotherFed

    Working in the department of defense, you’d think that the people most concerned with being called Sir and Ma’am would be military personnel, but it’s not. Military personnel are generally quite gracious to confused civilians. It’s actually the lifelong feds. They get really mad if you call them by their first name in an email or use their first name to soon, it’s a mess. Imagine the most offended southerners you ever met but with the belligerence of DMV employees. Titles and greetings cause huge breaches of etiquette—I am able to code switch pretty easily at this point. But being a northerner starting out 10 years ago, it was awful. People care more about the performance of politeness than anyone’s genuine intentions. I don’t care if anyone calls me ma’am but if I got a job working outside of the government or in a different area of the country I would drop theses terms in a hot second.

  91. Sarah

    I worked with a guy with this problem – it was actually because he’d spent 10 years in prison (for a crime he was then exonerated for – wild, terrifying story). So it was literally, like, drilled into him for 10 years and he found it really really hard to break. I told him it was ridiculous – he was actually older than me – but he didn’t stop, and he didn’t apologize often when he did it, he also said it was “just being polite” or “it was just his habit.” But it was really uncomfortable in our very informal office. I took to calling it out every time- I teased him back by saying “Yes, DONNY” (his name) really over-emphasized every time he said yes ma’am. It defused the tension but didn’t solve the problem.

    But ultimately, when we got to be better friends, he did tell me that he felt really out of place, insecure, and inadequate in our workplace, and felt kind of like he didn’t “deserve” to be there or wasn’t good enough to be there. Obviously, his life experience was reaaaalllly different than ours. We made a really intentional effort to include him in social conversations, happy hours, etc., and he did get more comfortable. I think being in a social context made it easier for him to relax and get used to call us by our names. I saw him for coffee the other day and he only ma’am-ed me like, 3 times, and otherwise called me by my name, which, hey, progress.

  92. Dr Rat

    And just a few thoughts:
    1. Is this the most commented on post ever?
    2. The sir/ma’am thing is so situational. I work with a geriatric population and 99% of the time, they LOVE being called sir/ma’am. They also want to be called Mr. Smith or Mrs/Ms. Smith, not Bob or Martha.
    3. Yes, habits are hard to break. And yes, I grew up in the South with a military father, so not only was I expected to call everyone sir or ma’am, I once got chewed out by my mother for saying “Yeah” to my family doctor when I was sick, instead of “Yes, sir.” Seriously. Sick enough to stay home from school, sick enough to have to get medical treatment, and still got yelled at in the car on the way home for embarrassing her. (She was a great mom in general, but the parents were all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.) But you know what? I grew up. And I don’t call people sir or ma’am except at work. And I even get to say “Yeah!”

  93. Notasecurityguard

    So I might be an odd duck here but in my line of work we NEVER call someone by their first name. It’s either “honorific [last name]” or “Job title [last name]” or if we’re being casual and informal just the last name. Like I didn’t even learn my boss’s first name until my third year on the job.

    And I kinda like it that way. It’s a way of reinforcing personal and professional boundaries. The office I worked in where my boss was the “just call me steve” type was the same place where said boss thought it was appropriate to ask what my girlfriend’s tits were like. And I feel like if he’d called me Mr. Notasecurityguard before he addressed me he’d have realized that was inappropriate

  94. beverly

    OK, I get the ‘office culture’ thing but am I the only one who wonders why this office or this definition of professionalism is so rigid? Why does it make this group of people so uncomfortable being addressed with ma’am or sir? Is an ageist thing? some false sense of egalitarianism? some lack of modernization? As a Southerner, I find it a little offensive that so many non-Southerners immediately think we were beaten into being polite. And regardless of how other cultures define it, Sir and Ma’am are this culture’s definition of polite. It seems the problem so many people are having with the guy using basic good manners is that they see it as something it’s not, something demeaning, or some insult to the idea of social equality or some kind of archaic holdover that enlightened people reject proudly. And in rejecting my cultural norms, it’s pretty offensive to me that one would proudly insist or brag that they would never raise their children to use this cultural honorific. Do you not realize that in my culture you are raising them to be rude? Please travel to my part of the country, do business here, populate our offices and workforce. But don’t expect that when you arrive here you will be the cultural arbiter of what is normal, respectful or polite for us benighted, old-fashioned, backward folk.

  95. enlyghten

    I was enlisted in the military for 8 years. The standard response by almost anyone lower than a senior NCO was ‘Don’t ‘Sir’ me, I work for a living’. It probably won’t change anything, but I find it oddly amusing to think of the back and forth for this.

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