Civic idea of the day: we should only expect to call people “sir” or “ma’am” if they are older than us and only be expected to be called “sir” or “ma’am” by those younger than us.
Right now, sir and ma’am are most commonly used in America by service and retail employees in deference to clients and customers. This would be fine if the role of service employee and customer were equally distributed in our country. But they’re not: the reality is that a set of people – the economically wealthier – are disproportionately represented as customers in commercial interactions and another set of people – the economically poorer – are disproportionately represented as service and retail employees in commercial interactions. The result is that for most times – not all times, but most times – when “sir” and “ma’am” are said on a day-to-day basis, it is said by a poorer person in deference and respect to a wealthier person.
So, the result is: as kids you are taught that you say “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect and deference to older people; as you grow up, you experience it as a sign of deference and respect to, generally, wealthier people. In fact, all dictionary definitions I found of “sir” and “ma’am” reference it being said as a sign that the recipient has “rank” and “authority.” This creates ridiculous situations: for example, it’s 9 a.m. and I, a buffoonish 24-year-old who has little worldly experience, have already been called “sir” today by a 50-year-old cab driver, a 40-year-old Mom at the bus station ringing up my Diet Dr. Pepper and a 30-something bus driver while telling me I’m talking too loud on the phone. The only reason I’ve “earned” this respect and deference is because I had money to buy the cab, the Diet Dr. Pepper and the bus ticket. The only reason they had to give it to me was because it was in their job description as service and retail workers.
Doctors and lawyers get to enter cooperative relationships with their clients where they rarely use “sir” and “ma’am”; creative professionals, scientists and other knowledge workers spend most of their day not interacting with clients. So retail and service employees are the ones caught having to say “sir” and “ma’am” the most, reinforcing the idea that those with the money to buy something are of a higher “rank of authority” (Merriam-Webster), in a “position of authority” (google), deserving of “honor” (etymology), and noble (British history of the words) and those serving them are less so. This is a small but notable blemish on the proud American tradition of classlessness and anti-aristocracy.
Even more, it is giving too much respect to consumers and not enough respect to producers: the customer is not always right. Sometimes they are jerks who just happen to have enough money to eat at the restaurant. Sometimes they are 24-year-olds talking too loud on the phone who just happen to have enough money to buy a ticket. Just as much as the customer is gracing the interaction with money, the producer is gracing the interaction with labor, goods and services. If commercial interactions are going to take up so much of so many people’s time, the day-to-day commercial realm has to be one of democratic mutual respect, not aristocratic unidirectional respect.
Let’s end that practice and just keep using “sir” and “ma’am” as a sign of respect for those who are older than us. It will be a tiny step away from the perverted value that those with more money are somehow more noble and towards reclaiming that conservative value of perhaps not deference to, but at least humble respect for those who have lived longer and experienced more than us on this Earth– our elders.