How do I properly use "sir" and "ma'am" in the South?
January 21, 2010 2:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I properly use "sir" and "ma'am" in the South?

I grew up in the Northeast, where essentially nobody uses "sir" or "ma'am" unless they are at work and required to address customers that way. I think I have used those words less than 5 times each in my life (most likely, when trying to get the attention of an elderly stranger who has dropped something), so it doesn't come naturally to me at all, and I have questions.

Please forgive me if these questions seem dumb, obvious, or picayune. Soon, I'll be going on job interviews in the South, and I would really like to make a good impression and not inadvertently offend anyone. I don't want to seem like a rude, out of place stranger on the one hand, or an out of place stranger who thinks she is in Gone with the Wind on the other hand. I have spent weeks at a time in the South, but mainly visiting other Northerners. Young, uncouth ones.

-I know (or think I know) that you are never supposed to say just "yes" but rather "yes, sir." What if you say "yeah?" Would you just never say "yeah" to a person you'd address as "sir," in the first place? What about a word that is less slangy, like "definitely" or "certainly?" Would I say "certainly, sir?" (That sounds butler-like to my ear). What if the person is going down a checklist and asks me 6 quick questions in a row that require a yes or no -- "yes, sir" to all of them, or is that overdoing it?

-What about other words/phrases like "please," "thank you," "good morning," "congratulations," "excuse me, " etc? Are they all *always* followed by a sir/ma'am?

-Do I use sir/ma'am with everyone in the workplace, including colleagues my own age (mid 20s) and people whose positions are below mine, or only with people whose positions are above mine? Would I use it with everyone in a social or public setting, also? Would I say "yes ma'am" to a 19 year old I don't know? What about one I'm acquainted with or friends with?

Aside from the whole sir/ma'am issue, if there are other important differences in manners between the Northeast and the South, I'd really like to hear about them.
posted by Ashley801 to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not from the south, using sir/ma'am will be perceived as disingenuous.
posted by torquemaniac at 2:12 PM on January 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Yep, what torquemaniac said. Its presence is notable, its absence is not, and it sounds funny if you don't have a southern accent (which is why I affect one when I get pulled over by a cop in the south).
posted by TheNewWazoo at 2:15 PM on January 21, 2010

Although many people in the South do say sir and ma'am, there's no reason for you to try to emulate the habit. Especially in a professional situation, I'd think that using the same level of courtesy you would for an interview in the NE would be appropriate. After all, they know that you aren't a Southerner. You wouldn't affect a Southern accent for the interview, so why affect Southern habits of speech?

A more important difference to be aware of might just be that in the South, from my experience anyway, people tend to be friendlier and more apt to engage in friendly chit-chat with strangers or people they don't know well than in the North. So if your interviewers seem more personable and informal than you're used to, don't be taken aback. Having said that though, the South-is-more-friendly thing is a stereotype, and it's totally possible that your interviewers won't fit the mold. As you would in any interview, just pay attention to how they interact with you, and let them set the tone in terms of level of formality, level of friendliness, etc.
posted by aka burlap at 2:16 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an adult raised by southerners in Texas and I don't say ma'am or sir to adults. I did sometimes as a kid, but not anymore. You don't need to say it. It is 100% acceptable just to say "yes" or "no."
posted by ishotjr at 2:17 PM on January 21, 2010

Like torquemaniac said, it won't be too noticeable if you don't say it. However just so you know, they way that I've always used it and heard other people use it is if the person is older than you or your superior. So you would say it to an interviewer, but not to friends or people younger (unless that person is the interviewer). The only time you would probably use it with a colleague is if you are being formal. Please, thank you, and etc would not generally be followed by sir/ma'am. If it is a quick list you don't need to say sir/ma'am every time. Sir and ma'am aren't required, especially not every time, it's just nice to have.
posted by Deflagro at 2:17 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

BTW, this is not just based on my anecdotal experience. It's really, actually, not expected, and you will probably seem weird if you do it unnaturally. Another thing to keep in mind is that in today's world you will find that many people living somewhere are not necessarily from that place. There's a chance that whoever interviews you will not be from the south, either.
posted by ishotjr at 2:19 PM on January 21, 2010

I have lived in the South most of my life, mostly in NC and GA. In elementary school, I was required to say ma'am to all of my teachers (and just saying "yes" without the ma'am was considered just as rude as saying "uh-huh"). Since I was 12, however, I have not regularly used ma'am or sir.

Times I do use ma'am or sir are primarily talking to senior citizens and talking to police officers. If I were to meet some big wig distinguished person, I might. I'm going to be interviewing for faculty jobs soon, and I can imagine using ma'am or sir when I meet the dean, but not with the professors interviewing me.

What I'm saying is, use the same amount of politeness you would use in a formal setting anywhere else and call anyone who deserves extra respect ma'am or sir if you feel like it's appropriate and you can do it without sounding like an ass and I can't imagine you'll offend anyone. We are not Gone with the Wind or any other Hollywood version of the South, and nobody has fussed at me about not using ma'am since Mrs. Wiesner in 6th grade.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:20 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm from the south. My dad was in the Air Force. Put those two together and you've got a lot of sir and ma'am coming out of me.

Basically, if the person has any sort of authority they get a sir/ma'am from me. This includes people who are probably 3 or 4 years younger than me running the cash register. It's not something that has to happen, it's just the habit I've gotten into.

Not using it isn't really a big deal.
posted by theichibun at 2:20 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The rules you are describing might have applied two generations ago. Unless you are applying for a job at a historical plantation reenactment amusement park, forget all that stuff. Talk to people the same way you talk to your northern colleagues.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 2:20 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Does this apply to the police, too? If, say, I get pulled over for speeding, will the officer see it as disingenuous if I address him as sir?
posted by Ashley801 at 2:21 PM on January 21, 2010

Native Texan here. I use sir and ma'am as an show of respect, but it is situational, and so ingrained in me that I say it without thinking about it. Thinking about it: I'm much more likely to use "sir" or "ma'am" when speaking to someone I don't know, for example a cashier at a store or a person I accidentally jostled on the street. I never use it with friends or family, and I don't use either term with co-workers, whether they're above or below me. Where you are well acquainted with the person with whom you're speaking, sir or ma'am seems too deferential to me. I guess I use it as a generic term of address to for people I don't know well or in rare situations where I'm speaking with someone in a position of authority or from whom I need assistance (police officer, teller at the DMV).

With that said, if you're not already used to using "sir" and "ma'am," I wouldn't try to pick it up. It will sound unnatural and forced. If you're around people who use those terms for a while (along with the all-important 2nd person plural y'all), you'll pick it up anyway. But I don't think anyone is going to care if you don't use "sir" or "ma'am" during your interview.

Generally, my impression is that the South (and Texas) are generally more deferential/polite to strangers.
posted by seventyfour at 2:23 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're acting like an ass, then yeah. If you're obviously not from around there, and especially if you have out of state tags, then really don't worry about it.

Cops down here tend to be pretty nice about things. Once when I got pulled over I started talking to him about what kind of motorcycles they were using. And this was all after the ticket.
posted by theichibun at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2010

The "South" is a pretty big and diverse place. Sir/Ma'am isn't that widely used in the cities in a professional environment even by natives. I never spent a lot of time out in the country but when I was I never felt compelled to say sir/ma'am. Sure you a young waitress may call you ma'am but that doesn't mean you have to call her ma'am. If it doesn't feel natural, then don't do it.

The only time I've used the terms sir/ma'am was when I was pulled over by the cops. Yes, sir. No, ma'am. Then again, I use that same thing when dealing with cops or other authority figures in California.
posted by birdherder at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

As someone who grew up in the south, I'd recommend to just be yourself; speak as you normally do and don't worry about being impolite.

First of all, "the south" is a big place, and the usage of sir/ma'am (and other language constructs) varies wildly by region. In fact, in the tiny region where I grew up, it was possible to know that someone was from a neighboring town by the way they used "sir." So it would be somewhat ridiculous to learn a specific usage and try to apply it to 1/3 of the entire country (unless - again - it was your native usage and you were just being yourself).

In addition, if you're moving to an actual city (like Atlanta) rather than a small town, then you'll soon find that people have a much more neutral accent, and are much less likely to say "sir/ma'am." Your accent won't be as noticeable to them, either.

Does this apply to the police, too? If, say, I get pulled over for speeding, will the officer see it as disingenuous if I address him as sir?

Yes. Once you've lived in the south for a while, you'll reach a point where you understand exactly how and when to use it, and at that point you might be able to say it without it sounding artificial. But in the meantime, don't try to force it.
posted by helios at 2:28 PM on January 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

You can always address cops as "officer" if you need something other than sir/ma'am, I think.
posted by NoraReed at 2:35 PM on January 21, 2010

I was born and bred in the North (Chicago) but now live in the midwest (Oklahoma.) It was ingrained in me at an early age that anyone in authority, anyone older, anyone you respect or anyone in a position who has something you want/need (be it a job or a cashier) was always given a "sir" or a "ma'am."

A little honest respect goes a looong way in my book.
posted by damiano99 at 2:39 PM on January 21, 2010

Eh, just don't do it. It's not at all "expected" or "required."

(Baltimoron who owns a business in Richmond here. Also lived in eastern NC for a few years and in Texas -- albeit Austin -- as well.)
posted by CommonSense at 2:47 PM on January 21, 2010

Even in informal Northern California lots of people say, "Sir" to male police officers because we are instinctively, on some level, terrified of them, so cops might be a special case.
posted by serazin at 2:49 PM on January 21, 2010

When I moved from the north to the Charlotte, NC area, I did a lot of interviewing and never felt like using those terms would have been expected of me. You'll find that the larger cities are going to have more diverse populations and the people you work and interview with will be from all over. If you neglect to say sir and ma'am, it will be perfectly fine.

When I moved away from the city and started interviewing in smaller towns and more rural areas, I encountered southern culture full-on and it seemed like everyone was tagging "sir" or "ma'am" on to whatever they said. I still did not feel like they expected me to say it, but eventually I just picked it up.

In my experience, the people I worked with placed a great deal of emphasis on respect and these terms are just part of that. It's a way to demonstrate to someone that you are being genuine, that you respect their authority and it gives your interaction with them a formal polish. If you are professional and polite in a job interview, you will be demonstrating the same characteristics and traits so resorting to using words you're not familiar with will not be necessary.

I'd only use the words if you decide they come natural to you and only use them occasionally - not every answer. Like I said, I eventually picked it up, but only after living there for nearly four years. When I moved back to the north I continued to say them unconsciously and have actually had interviewers and highway troopers state to me that they found it mildly insulting. It was never meant to be, of course, but it's hard to stop saying it once you start so do keep that in mind as well.
posted by bristolcat at 2:55 PM on January 21, 2010

Rule: You don't have to say "ma'am" unless it's to stop yourself from saying "miss". Seriously, when my parents helped me move from Texas to Chicago, I was ready to punch a few teenage retail types when they referred to my mother as "miss". It felt really disrespectful, far more than leaving it out entirely would have done. On the other hand, I offended a few people by calling them "ma'am", which apparently carries much stronger age connotations up there.
So yeah, don't worry about it, don't call people miss (although Miss+first name is common when talking to little girls or preschool teachers), and don't assume people think you're old if they call you ma'am/sir.
posted by katemonster at 3:03 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Texas -- Houston area -- and left when I was 19. I'm now 34 and live in Seattle, and I reflexively sir/ma'am EVERYONE who's in any kind of authority or whose attention I need to get or to whom I am grateful. Even the 17-year-old who holds the door for me. Since I became aware of the age connotations up here, I try hard to drop the "ma'am," but it still just pops out.

You don't have to do it unless you're speaking professionally to someone whose authority you want to make sure to acknowledge. So if your boss is dressing you down, or you're speaking to the police officer who's handcuffing you. that sort of thing.
posted by KathrynT at 3:28 PM on January 21, 2010

Lived in the South my whole life. I think the only time I've used the word "sir" is when I got pulled over by a cop.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 3:32 PM on January 21, 2010

I think the only time you need to bust out a ma'am or sir would be if you are taken to meet the highest-ranking person (president, chairman, CEO) and the cue you get from the person making the introduction is that formality is expected. Otherwise you would use it for customers, police, higher-ranking military, DMV clerks, and anyone else with the immediate ability to make your life miserable.

There's an advanced level of sir-ma'aming that involves the informal "thank ya ma'am/sir!" when you're asking someone to do something they don't want/don't have time to do. That's an art; you are not ready for that level. (You can try it out safely on kids, though.)

You would use them to get the attention of a stranger. "Sir! You dropped your keys!" Rather than "hey" or "dude" or whatever. Really, we're mostly like you now, and we're all first-namers now. Unless you happen to cross paths with a former president or billionaire (I think the last time I called someone "Mr.", it was followed by "Perot"), you're fine just being normally polite.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:49 PM on January 21, 2010

native upper east Tennesseean here. the sir or ma'am where I grew up is used as both a mention of respect and affection in different circumstances. if you're using it on family, it takes on a different meaning, like "dear." as an honorary title it's only really necessary if you're establishing how you feel about the recipients position in your immediate surroundings. so it's more of a gift to use it. it's a mark of emphasis when not used on a specific individual. so "yes SIR, I would like some coffee" is just a more emphatic way (and usually happier in tone) of simply saying yes.
posted by patricking at 3:57 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

also, as a sidebar, it took me FOREVER to stop saying it when I moved to Chicago. my brother was totally confused why people got mad at him for saying it when he moved to NYC. guess our town was a little more old fashioned.
posted by patricking at 4:00 PM on January 21, 2010

Louisiana girl here - I use sir and ma'am ALL THE TIME. For me, it's not always formal at all. Say a friend hands me something I was reaching for - I'll often say "Thank ya ma'am!". I almost always end a 'thank you' with a ma'am or sir, regardless of the age of the recipient. My husband, who is originally from up north, has commented many times on how everyone down here says sir and ma'am, and how we also call everyone Mister or Miss.

That being said, I think if you try to overdo it during an interview, it will sound disingenuous and snide. Most likely they will not notice if you don't say sir and ma'am, but they will most definitely notice if you use it poorly.
posted by tryniti at 4:02 PM on January 21, 2010

Response by poster: Very very helpful answers everyone. Thank you!!
posted by Ashley801 at 4:04 PM on January 21, 2010

Raised in the south. Said sir & ma'am my whole childhood.

There are way, way more subtleties to this than I think you realize. For instance:

"Did you finish the Anderson report?" "Yes, sir, I've got it right here."
"Did you see that Ferrari!" "No! Where?!"

Would I say "certainly, sir?"

If you were a subordinate, like if Nelson Mandela asked you to valet his car.

What if the person is going down a checklist and asks me 6 quick questions in a row that require a yes or no -- "yes, sir" to all of them, or is that overdoing it?

Overdoing it.

What about other words/phrases like...

"please" : only if your name is Oliver.
"thank you" : no.
"good morning" : no.
"congratulations" : no.
"excuse me" : yes, almost always.

Do I use sir/ma'am with everyone in the workplace, including colleagues my own age (mid 20s) and people whose positions are below mine, or only with people whose positions are above mine?

Only above, and you will likely be told to cut it out.

Would I use it with everyone in a social or public setting, also?

Again, no.

Would I say "yes ma'am" to a 19 year old I don't know? What about one I'm acquainted with or friends with?

No, and no.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:12 PM on January 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm with tryniti--I use "sir" and "ma'am" in the exact same way, as a term of endearment with friends. That's it.

Formally, I only use it with customers at work. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I use it in interviews or with the elderly. I'm 25, so I'm sure that's at play.

In short, no, it's not expected or required at all.

On preview, I like what Civil_Disobedient said. You might say it when saying "excuse me," but that's about it.
posted by a.steele at 4:32 PM on January 21, 2010

As a northern expatriate, you are not expected to use "sir" and "ma'am" any more than you are expected to use a southern accent.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:32 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a native southerner and still live here. I almost never use sir or ma'am, except when I'm talking to strangers and want to be extra polite. Typical usage is children addressing unrelated adults, and between customer service people and customers.

The usage is kind of old-fashioned, though obviously some people like it. Personally, I find overuse of sir and ma'am kind of irritating - What, are you five years old, and I'm a big scary grown-up, or something?

I think it would be weird to use it in a job interview. I've never addressed an interviewer that way or been called sir by the person interviewing me.

It's never wrong to call a person by their name if you know it, with Mr. or Ms. when appropriate.
posted by nangar at 4:33 PM on January 21, 2010

I'd say don't worry about it, unless:
-- you speak to a cop, or
-- you speak to someone apparently over 55.
The way to defuse it, in case you're worried about sounding sarcastic with the terms, is to make it a sort of aspirated grace note. Say "yes'm" or "yess'r." Even if the addressee doesn't like it, they won't think you're being snide about it.

Native Mississippian here. My hippie-flavored parents didn't teach me to use it, and the old teachers had to hammer it into me. Now I only hear it as an honorific for the elderly, or -- in any given American state -- a form of address used by retail clerks to mean, "Person I am about to call security on."
posted by Countess Elena at 4:53 PM on January 21, 2010

I'm an Alabamian. Sir/ma'am, for me, are for anyone older than my generation. Anyone I address using those terms is also Mr./Mrs./Dr. So-and-so. It took me years to get out of the habit when I moved up north.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:02 PM on January 21, 2010

try and see what other adults around you are saying. it will sound really weird at first. later, though, you will feel like such a barbarian for *not* doing it that you will have to convert to sirring and ma'aming everyone.

here in rural N FL, sir and ma'am are for all formal encounters (including waitstaff) and everybody older than you. in a negative, remonstrating way, they are also for children, from adults (said with a rising tone as one word, "NoSir!" or "NoMa'am!") for offenses such as forgetting your helmet on the field or taking your sister's doll away from her.

when you start addressing everyone older than you as Mr. or Miz FirstName, you are starting to grow into the way of the place. in only 30 more years, your closest friends may condescend to forgive you for being a yankee.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:23 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I was a student at an inner-city elementary school in a semi-Southern city, at least one of my African-American female teachers amiably objected to my calling her "ma'am", saying it made her feel too old. (She was probably in her twenties; to me, then, that was old. And I was a very formal child, and one of a handful of white kids at that school, and from the North, so your mileage may vary.)

In my adult years spent in (semi-) Southern towns, it has never occurred to me to say "sir" or "ma'am", except to sexagenarian and older women, or as an ejaculatory warning, the "Sir! You dropped your keys!" referenced above. I've heard it a bit from some FFV types, but honestly not that much. Again, these are Southern towns that have a couple of generations of Northern influx.

Frankly, if I were interviewing you for a position of any independent judgment or authority, that is any professional position, excessive "sir"-ing would convince me that either you were too young for the job, too unsure of yourself, too obsequious to endure, or recently separated from military service (and likely as an enlistee, not an officer). But again, I'm a Northerner.

In interviews for most jobs, you want to project confidence in your abilities; you'll do that best if you act yourself. Even Southerners steeped in tradition -- especially those Southerners -- will know (Damn) Yankees have different folkways, and will appreciate you more for not appearing to be trying to ape their ways. A truckling attempt to give the impression you're one of them, when they know you're not can cause larger problems.
posted by orthogonality at 5:44 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm from the South, and both of my parents were Air Force brats, so I was raised with a lot of ma'am and sir. I still use them pretty indiscriminately, though since moving to the Northwest, I find myself saying ma'am or sir more often in casual situations as kind of a folksy touch, because folks who are actually in positions of authority seem to regard it as somewhat strange.

No one is going to bat an eye at a Yankee who doesn't say ma'am/sir, but they would probably notice disingenuous usage.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:00 PM on January 21, 2010

Another use of sir and ma'am that's heard fairly often in the south (or at least in TN) which I don't believe has been mentioned: for misbehaving dogs and small children:
*child knocks merchandise off shelf*
parent: "No, ma'am!" (clearly and firmly) "That is rude behavior!"
posted by frobozz at 6:01 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You will sometimes hear it in place of "pardon me" or "excuse me". For example, if a stranger said something to me and I didn't hear what was said, instead of responding, "excuse me?", I might just say, "ma'am?"

In my part of Texas, children are expected to use ma'am and sir to older adults, especially teachers.

In a job interview, I might not use it at all except for the very end when you are thanking them for the interview. At the workplace, only if the big boss asked me a direct question that required a yes or no answer. Certainly not with coworker except for a friendly, "yes, ma'am" when answering the phone. I will use it when speaking with important clients, especially if that person is older than I am.

Not to derail, but I'd be more worried about the whole door opening issue. If you get to the door first, open it for those behind you or at the very least, hold it until the person behind you has hold of it. When I have been "up north" as we say, watching people just letting the door shut or hit the person coming behind them was a standout and really seemed rude. Men generally hold the door open for women regardless of relationship, status or age.
posted by tamitang at 6:05 PM on January 21, 2010

My experiences, growing up in Texas and Arkansas and now living in South Carolina, jive with those of Civil_Disobedient. For instance, with my boss, I wouldn't walk into the office and say "Good morning, Sir." That would seem too deferential. But, if he were to ask me something specific about a project, I might very well start off with a "Yes, Sir," or a "No, Sir," before launching into the explanation. In those cases, the "yes" or "no" would be run together with the "sir" so it sounds like one word with two syllables. I wouldn't do this every time, mind you. But I can't point to any rule of how frequently or how often I would interject it. But, "in response to a direct question by a supervisor," would be a generally fair bet.

Southerners are capable of ratcheting the level of civility up or down, depending upon mood, rearing, and situation, just as people from other places are. You'll tend to see more of it when the person being addressed is older and/or in more of a position of authority. But you'll also see it as a common courtesy in many retail transactions. But it's worth repeating that there are plenty of people in the south, both natives and transplants, who don't use it at all.

One other usage, not mentioned here, is using "Sir" in a mocking or ironic way by doing it too often and with too much emphasis on the "Sir," as in response to what you take to be an unreasonable request: "Yes, sir! Right away, sir! With pleasure, sir!"

tamitang's comment about door etiquette being way more important than the ethics of honorifics is good advice.
posted by wheat at 6:32 PM on January 21, 2010

Response by poster:
Not to derail, but I'd be more worried about the whole door opening issue.

tamitang's comment about door etiquette being way more important than the ethics of honorifics is good advice.

Totally not a derail; if any more of these sorts of issues come to mind, I'd really like to hear them.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:49 PM on January 21, 2010

You should do whatever "feels" right to you, but also don't be afraid to show some deference. Might be a good habit to start addressing those (15-20 at least) years older than you with "sir" and "ma'am".

I grew up in Texas, and then moved out west. I address nearly everyone with "sir" or "ma'am" every once in a while, from close friends to complete strangers, and, as far as I know, no one has ever taken offense from that. If you're sincere, no one will care.

But also, don't feel the need to just mimic everything you hear in the South. We understand that some people just didn't have the privilege of growing up down here (:
posted by Precision at 6:55 PM on January 21, 2010

I grew up in South Carolina, and "ma'am" and "sir" were very deeply ingrained as part of my vocabulary. However, when I started working I was careful not to use them in the office. Especially as a young woman, I didn't want to sound like I was 12 years old at work, so I wouldn't worry about it in professional situations.

However, social situations are a completely different story. I've transplanted to NYC, and I use "Miss First Name" and "Mr. First Name" to address my in-laws even though I get made fun of. I still refer to parents of my childhood friends the same way. I cringe to think of calling any person my parents' age or older--especially my husband's parents--by their first names. It just seems disrespectful.
posted by CuriousGeorge at 7:00 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in my early 40s and was born and raised in Houston, and I second Civil_Disobedient. I also agree with general consensus that you'll do better omitting the honorific than trying to apply ironclad rules to situations whose subtleties you haven't internalized. Exception: it's almost never a bad idea to use an honorific to a cop, but "Officer" is appropriate if "sir" or "ma'am" doesn't seem right.

I can't tell from your profile what your gender is, but if you're a woman you should be aware as a corollary to tamitang's excellent door-opening comments that in some workplaces with older people, social door manners (gentlemen hold the door for ladies) are used in place of business door manners (subordinates hold the door for superiors). I've seen non-Southerners surprised by how door-opening etiquette plays out, so I thought I'd mention it. There are some subtleties to door manners as well, but they shouldn't come into play over a day of interviewing.
posted by immlass at 8:19 PM on January 21, 2010

I grew up in Virginia and live here again now. As an adult, I use Ma'am and Sir for people whom I don't know well of retirement age, for new customers when I need to get their attention (and I don't know their name), or if someone demands that kind of respect in their behavior (being managerial/bossy/directive in a certain way - it's rare, but it's easier to just say Ma'am to them. It softens them up a very little bit. It is unlikely that you will meet these people in an interview situation).

In professional situations, I have replaced those two honorifics with warmth and courtesy. When I say "Thank you" or "Excuse me" or "It's a pleasure to meet you," I try to make it sound like I mean it. (I usually do, but making sure that I seem engaged in the situation, and interacting with a person makes a big difference in how our interactions go.) I also tend to be a little more courteous in how I phrase things to peers - e.g., I say "Could you hand me that pile of paper?" as opposed to "Hand me that pile of paper." or even "Hand me that pile of paper, please." or "May I use your bathroom?" instead of "Where's your bathroom." or even "Do you have a bathroom?"
posted by julen at 8:31 PM on January 21, 2010

As a Northerner transplanted to the South for a while, my native Northern politeness did me fine. Doors ARE held more often (rather than propped so you can come in behind the person hold/propping it open), but I'm in the habit of thanking people anyway. The one area that I found ever so slightly fraught is how children address their elders (I was more accustomed to "Mrs. McGee" but my friends tended to have their kids say "Miss Eyebrows"), but I always just deferred to the parents.

The one thing I did have to do was defensively develop the ability to say my numbers southern, because nobody could freaking understand me when I recited a phone number or address on the telephone. :)

Oh, and sarcasm didn't play as big a role in humor as it did where I was from, so some of my friends thought I was mean at first. I eventually learned sarcasm was only for AFTER people got to know me!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:51 PM on January 21, 2010

Civil_Disobedient has as good an explanation as I've seen.

There are more subtleties but I'm not sure they can be taught. If you miss one of those subtleties and get the evil eye the proper response is either something to the effect of "oh. I've forgotten my manners" or STFU - we southerns still make the initial effort but I don't think we or, especially, non-natives making the effort should be eye-rolled when we fail.
posted by Carbolic at 11:13 PM on January 21, 2010

What if you say "yeah?" Would you just never say "yeah" to a person you'd address as "sir," in the first place?

I may be a dried out old coot (who was raised in Texas), but I think saying "yeah," unless speaking with close friends, is too casual / unprofessional and makes one sound like a bit of a mouth-breather. Lord how I love a nice crisp "yes."
posted by reverend cuttle at 8:53 AM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's always a good idea to be polite to those who can make your life more difficult if they choose to do so, so for me it's always Yes, Sir to the police and Yes, Ma'am to my wife . Other than that, not usually.
posted by Daddy-O at 11:36 AM on January 22, 2010

Just because we're from the south doesn't mean we get highly offended whenever someone misses a "ma'am." Unless you're applying for jobs in Mayberry, just be polite. People get if you're being respectful or not. And most likely, you're not the first Yankee these people have dealt with so don't worry too much.
posted by shopefowler at 11:01 PM on January 22, 2010

Late to this thread but it interests me greatly because (a) I'm a recent transplant from the West Coast to the South and (b) I'm kind of obsessively overpolite in many social situations anyway. I have found myself saying "sir" ("ma'am" not so much) much more than I ever did in California, mostly as a show of deference or public politeness. I also notice the use of both "sir" and "ma'am" a lot more here. Sometimes it's politeness, sometimes it's light sarcasm, sometimes it's just social grease (whereas in California it's much more likely to be perceived as pointed sarcasm). I think I can suss out the situations, mostly, in which using the honorifics may be seen as inappropriate or not, but not always. It may be that sometimes I come off like an obnoxious Californian, but it is what it is. I certainly don't think that the OP is required to say "sir" and "ma'am" in an interview setting, whether it's a Southern interview setting or not, unless it's to end the day on a nice note or something like that. I didn't use them in my interviews and I still got the job.
posted by blucevalo at 10:42 AM on February 3, 2010

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