Use of Ma'am with Police/Army Officers

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Sempronio-Graco, Jan 28, 2008.

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  1. Sempronio-Graco New Member

    Valladolid, Spain
    Spain, Spanish
    I have already seen some topics related with the pronunciation of "ma'am", but I have still some doubts.

    I have read in this forum that in some cases,depending on the woman you talk to, or the country you visit, this word can be considered offensive (mainly for age reasons...).

    But my question is:
    Is it correct to use ALLWAYS the term ma'am when you talk or ask to, for example, a Police or Army officer (woman) as you use Sir?

    I would not like to make a mistake with this word if a Policewoman stops me while I drive in the EEUU, could be dangerous (or at least embarrasing ....).
     
  2. Lexiphile Senior Member

    Germany
    England English
    Hi Sempronio,

    First of all, welcome to the forum!!

    I may be a radical old anarchist, but I would not be inclined to use either "sir" or "ma'am" when addressing a police or army officer in Europe. This usage is normal and expected in the USA, but would seem unduly subservient elsewhere.
     
  3. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    What would you say in Europe instead? Officer?...
     
  4. Mister Micawber

    Mister Micawber Senior Member

    Yokohama
    USA, English
    .
    I think I would use 'Officer' for a police person and try to ascertain the rank of the military person ('Sergeant', 'Captain', etc). Still, I do not think they would take offense at Ma'am.
    .
     
  5. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I agree with Lexiphile.
    As a civilian, I wouldn't use any label or formal form of address - no sir, no ma'am, no officer, ...
     
  6. Lexiphile Senior Member

    Germany
    England English
    Nothing special. I address all the people I meet (other than friends and relatives) in the same manner. The fact that a person is an officer in some organisation, of which I am not a member, doesn't require me to treat him as anything special. And I don't seem to be alone in this: I have never heard anyone else trying to be "extra" respectful to police or army officers (except in jokes, of course).

    That last sentence applies equally, by the way, to the USA, where you would normally address any man as "sir."

    As a further thought, in England one used to hear "sir" being used to show not respect but condescension. Perhaps I might still do that. :D
     
  7. out2lnch Senior Member

    Ottawa, Canada
    English-Canada
    You may want to be overly polite if the officer has just pulled you over and you have the chance of avoiding a ticket by being meek. I don't think there is anything wrong with using 'sir' or 'ma'am' to this end. For military officers, 'sir'/'ma'am' is the way they are addressed by lower ranks, so there is nothing at all insulting or inappropriate if you use 'ma'am'.

    Typically, younger women (not in uniform) would be put off by the use of 'ma'am', which makes them sound old.
     
  8. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I think it would be unwise to try this in the UK. It is tantamount to admitting that you are guilty. Not using such a title does not suggest any disrespect - much more is conveyed by tone of voice and body language.
     
  9. Sempronio-Graco New Member

    Valladolid, Spain
    Spain, Spanish
    I read in a travel guide that this treatment was expected by Federal Agents, or Officers, and I wanted to be sure, because this misconceptions could be uncomfortable in some situations, especially in this times...

    All your replies have been very useful. At the end, I supose that all depends on the context, and common sense applies.....

    Thank you very much, Sir(s) !! (and Ma'am(s)!) :)
     
  10. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    I find bizarre what seems to be a UK attitude that police are (but of course!) one's social inferiors, and while it is appropriate to be addressed by a police officer as "sir" or "ma'am", it is stooping far too low to address the police officer in the same way that the police officer addressed you: politeness is to be considered "subservience", and one should leave the "subservient" role to the police officer, to whom one can then feel superior.

    Clearly, a hereditary class system seems to have had an unhappy effect on manners in Britain. In the US, the use of "ma'am" to speak to an adult woman, especially a stranger in a position of respect whose name one does not know, is not considered odd at all. For example, just last night I was parking my car in a parking lot. A middle-aged lady with impaired vision, who was standing by the passenger door of a nearby car, had dropped a package and could not find it at her feet. She heard my car door close, and -- not knowing if it was a man or a woman who was nearby -- called out "Sir? or Ma'am? Could you help me here?" I did not find that "subservient" at all, but very polite. It also is not considered strange for both people in a conversation to address each other as "sir" or "ma'am", without some implied jockeying for a position of "dominance" or "superiority" over the "subservient" one. Therefore, in the US, any woman old enough and responsible enough to be a police officer or a military officer would not think it remotely offensive to be addressed as "ma'am."
     
  11. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    There is no sense whatever in my earlier comments that police or anyone else are my social inferiors - or that they should necessarily address me as "Sir" - they don't. That is not the point at all. I might equally consider it bizarre that in such a supposedly egalitarian society as the US anyone should consider it necessary to address anyone else using such stratified forms of address.

    Not at all. This is simply a cultural misunderstanding - just as my comments above are based on a cultural misapprehension :)
     
  12. Lexiphile Senior Member

    Germany
    England English
    That which you find bizarre, GWB, is not actually prevalent. I know of no UK attitude that the police are socially inferior. But equally, they are not superior. The well known American use of "sir" and "ma'am" as a sign of (mutual and equal) respect is simply not relevant in the UK. We don't do it, but not doing it is in no way a sign of disrespect. Politeness does not require the use of these forms of address, as it does in the USA.

    When these terms are used, it is generally a sign of "looking up to" and therefore, of subservience. On would say "sir" to a magistrate, for example (a case in which social inferiority has nothing whatever to do with the matter).

    The use by the police of "sir" and "ma'am" is a different matter. The police are trained to say this specifically to avoid any suggestion on their part that they are superior. I doubt whether many non-police actually expect it or would really object if they were not so addressed.
     
  13. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hear hear!

    I don't think I've ever been addressed by a police officer as "Ma'am". And the only time I can remember my husband being addressed by a police officer as "Sir", it was meant (and understood) as an ironic rebuke.

    Use/non-use of terms such as "Sir" or "Ma'am" has everything to do with convention, and little to do with respect.
     
  14. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    I think you mean you don't do it any more. You certainly used to; where do you think we got it from? This is another example of Americans preserving an English language usage that has been tossed aside by the British. It might be "relevant" to look at Boswell's Life of Johnson, in which men constantly address each other as "Sir" as a matter of course. There appears to have been a conscious choice on the part of people in the UK to stop using a form of address that had been standard, and I think it comes from an attitude you describe as follows:

    This attitude is simply not found in the US, where "Sir" and "Ma'am" are used without any of this "subservience" baggage.

    And if they are not superior, what is it thought to show? That they are equals? No, because as you said, it shows "looking up" (looking in which direction? "up" -- which means that the one looking is "down", or lower), and subservience.

    I assure you very strongly that no "subservience" whatsoever is shown to you by police officers in the United States who address people as "sir" or "ma'am", and if you should ever think that it did, then you have another think coming.
     
  15. Lexiphile Senior Member

    Germany
    England English
    Indeed, GWB, it was common usage in the past. Unfortunately, I wasn't around in Boswell's time so I can't comment on the social implications then. I also have no idea when or why the usage disappeared -- but it has. And it has also acquired what you choose to call 'subservience baggage."

    But getting back to the present and to the police, you neglected to remark on the sentence you quoted: "The use by the police of "sir" and "ma'am" is a different matter." Different. A British police officer is showing no subservience, so I doubt that I shall suffer another think there or in the US. But he is making a special effort to avoid showing superiority, which is not quite the same thing. He is also certainly not trying to suggest that he is in any way subservient, as would be the case when a non-police person spoke in the same way.

    By the way, we always address the Queen as "Ma'am," because we consider ourselves to be subservient to her.
     
  16. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I have occasionally been caught committing, or suspected of committing, offences, and been addressed by a constable using the dreaded 'sir'. (Cycling on Tooting Common and driving in a bus lane are the offences that spring to mind.) I didn't regard it as a matter of personal superiority; the officer was trying to defuse any potential confrontation by emphasizing that he was not addressing me out of spite, but that he was performing his duty as a public servant (and in this specific case, my servant).
     
  17. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Indeed, the police force has, in recent years, been re-named the "Police Service"!

    I completely agree with what the other Brits and Panj have said.

    I would just point out that "Madam", rather than "Ma'am" is normally used by the police (and shop assistants in posh shops etc).

    I still occasionally hear men addressing eachother as "Sir", which I think is lovely, albeit quaint. I do maintain, however, that such usages are not necessary in order to express politeness. We just do it in a different way nowadays.

    Sorry, Panj, not sure if you count yourself a Brit or not!
     
  18. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    One may note that the fact that he was a "public servant" did not make him your individual "servant" any more than the fact that it was a public highway would justify you in referring to it as your own highway.
     
  19. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    The use of the word "servant" here in no way implies inferiority. It is common parlance in the UK to use the words "public servant". In this instance, a member of the police service was serving/ acting as servant to a member of the public.
     
  20. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    It is perfectly common parlance in the US as well to refer to police officers as "public servants." It is quite another matter for anyone to refer to me or to any other police officer as "my servant", as the poster did. I assure you that the police officer was certainly not acting as his "servant", but was instead in the service of the public as a whole. I am no individual's "servant" any more than that person may refer to the public pavement in the town square as "my pavement". Members of the public who speak of "my lamppost" or "my traffic light" or "my sidewalk" or "my zoo" or "my river" and who think they are being entirely accurate are sorely mistaken, if not actually mentally disturbed.
     
  21. Black Sheep

    Black Sheep Member

    England, English
    Many foreigners would be shocked to hear the way in which our gallant police officers are addressed by today's 'yoof'. I have no wish to swear here - I'll leave it to your imagination!

    Army officers are awarded the greatest courtesy by those whom they command. "Yes Sir!" is ingrained in their subordinates.
     
  22. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Point taken, GWB. I think the poster was only referring to "my servant" to illustrate a point of language, rather than anything else! It could, of course, be argued that as an individual is a member of the public, a police officer is simultaneously the servant of that individual and of the public at large.
     
  23. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    What is the public, if not the sum of all individuals? :)
     
  24. I also agree with the Brits (may I consider myself a honorary one? after all I swore the oath - to the Queen, who is not a public servant, and is thus addressed by everybody as Ma'am).

    I would say that, in my experience, an appearance of Sir/Madam is virtually a sign of the user trying to defuse some tension and show respect if not subservience. It says: I am not trying to use my authority/power over you, whatever it might be as I am here to serve you, not to trample over you/insult you.

    Thus, from police officers to debt recovery agents to people in banks who are able to refund your charges, these are people who'd call you Sir/Madam.

    Others, when they are polite, just use the surname & Mr/Mrs/Ms. Sadly, members of the health service (!!!) tend to go first-name which I find very demeaning.
     
  25. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    That's a very useful explication Magda, and with superb English like yours, you can be an honorary Brit any time!:)
     
  26. out2lnch Senior Member

    Ottawa, Canada
    English-Canada
    I find the differences in the UK and North America interesting. I'm forever being addressed as 'sir' in any shop, regardless of whether there is any tension to diffuse (normally there is not). 'Can I help you sir?' I hear all the time. In fact, I have since my early twenties. I can't say anyone's ever said 'Can I help you mister?' It would strike me as really strange. Similarly, 'ma'am' is often used, although I never hear 'madam'.
     
  27. Lexiphile Senior Member

    Germany
    England English
    Yes, indeed, O2L. In a shop, the assistant is making an effort to indicate that he is there to serve you (be subservient, even! :))
    Interestingly, even that seems to be fading out in England, where you are more likely to be apprehended with "You alright there?" or "Found what you're looking for?"
     
  28. Yes, even if not so coloquial, the forms of address seem to be depersonalised. My nearest big town still caters for the country lady, and when visiting posher shops I would still be addressed as simply you, even if it's otherwise relatively stilted phrase like Do you need any assistance?.
     
  29. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    This thread has wandered from the original specific topic to a much more general discussion that does not properly belong in this forum.

    Assuming that the initial topic has been well enough exercised, I am closing this thread.
     
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