sir / ma'am [age range for use]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by perpend, Feb 13, 2013.

  1. perpend

    perpend Banned

    American English
    On talk/reality/music competition shows, I hear 20-somethings from the South (USA) refer to the host/judge/etc., when it's a female, as "ma'am".

    My question is whether there's an unwritten age dividing line when you, as a younger person, stop calling a lady a "ma'am"?

    In other words, if you think they are 20 years older than you, is it okay to call the woman a "ma'am"? What if only 10 years older?

    Maybe I should ask the other way---do same-aged women, as an example, call each other "ma'am", in other words, when there's no age difference?

    Sorry, this sounds confusing. I'm having trouble formulating the question.
  2. ride7359 Senior Member

    I am interested in the answer to this question and I wonder if the same applies to "sir." The terms are required forms of respectful address in the military, but when does a civilian male or female stop addressing others as "sir" or "ma'am."?
  3. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I don't think we'll get a straightforward answer here. In the first place, ma'am and sir are used more (I think) and used differently in AmE than in BrE, and used even less in AusE. In BrE, it's more closely associated with customer service - in which case age is not relevant. A shop assistant could address a young customer as sir or ma'am​. But I'll wait for American responses with interest.
  4. Copyright

    Copyright Mod Cat

    American English
    Addresses of respect don't have age limits, in my opinion. If someone is deserving of respect in a particular context, or you wish to be polite or kind, you can address people even younger than yourself as Sir or Ma'am as long as you do it in a sincere way. How long you do this should be as long as you live.

    Added: Ask and you shall receive, Sir. :)
  5. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    Ma'am should only be used to speak to a stranger or a superior (or to someone to whom you wish to give the impression that they are superior) - acquaintances and equals would not say 'ma'am' to each other.
  6. Adge Senior Member

    Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
    USA- English (Southern)
    Since no other Southerners have chimed in yet, I'll share my experience. I think it depends on whether you know the person or not. When talking to people you know (neighbors, friends' parents, coworkers, etc) you use "sir" or "ma'am" only if the person is older than you- probably a generation. I've had coworkers in their 40's who called other coworkers in their 60's "sir" and "ma'am"- even supervisors who called their employees "sir" and "ma'am" if the employee was a lot older.

    As for strangers, it's considered common courtesy to address all unknown adults as "sir" or "ma'am." Obviously, this depends on who you consider to be an adult. :) This is especially true in stores and businesses- the employee should call the customer "sir" or "ma'am" and importantly the customer should do the same.
  7. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2013
  8. perpend

    perpend Banned

    American English
    Hmmm ... thanks Adge for checking in---I think that's a great entry (#6).

    I read the thread, sd, but it's a little wishy-washy, but good overall.

    So, I guess it's a mixture of business and politeness and age, when it comes to "sir" or "ma'am" in the USA.

    I'll never forget the first time I heard "sir". Me, circa 35, jogging, and a car pulls up and a 15-year old says "sir, can you tell me where such and such a street is"? I was devastated, for 5 minutes, at least. :)

    Glad you brought "sir" into the mix, ride (#2).

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