My father would run me through this refrain every time I failed to say that final magic word. “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” were mandatory in my household not only for my parents but for any adult I addressed–so too was calling any adults “Mister,” “Missus” or “Miss” paired with their last name. “Please” and “thank you” were also important, but “sirs” and “ma’ams” were absolutely sacrosanct. This wasn’t limited to just the kids either. My father too called older men “sir” even into his middle age.
When I went to college in the Chicago area and addressed the few adults I happened to meet this way, I discovered to my surprise that there were whole states full of people who hadn’t grown up saying anything of the kind. In fact, most adults bristled at being addressed as a “sir” or “ma’am” or “mister” or “miss,” saying that it made them feel old. They would usually laugh at my parochial charm, but sometimes they were quite serious. “Don’t call me that.”
Most non-Southerners think of Southern manners as just a culturally ingrained pattern of speech, the waters that we swim in. What is less known is that not everybody says “sir and ma’am” in the South, and it is not just absorbed by growing up there as if by osmosis. It takes some pretty intentional parental instruction to produce a child capable of good manners even in the more courtly milieu of the South, and not everyone achieves it. This is because saying your “sirs and ma’ams” is not just idiomatic, it serves a very important function for which there is no equivalent in the North. All over the nation, boys and girls, if they are brought up with attentive parents, are taught to respect their elders, but children in the South are also supplied with the added benefit of a script. Not only is one admonished to be respectful, but one is also taught the exact words with which to broadcast one’s respect.
This is especially useful for children, since speaking to adults is always a daunting task. As a child, you know that, even if you are exceptionally bright for your age, you cannot be half clever enough to actually interest adults beyond momentary amusement. You also know that, because of your lack of life experience, your superficial cuteness is your only reliable asset, and if you’re male, then this option is closed to you forever once you hit 12. But if supplied with the proper code words–“sir,” “ma’am,” “mister,” “miss”–then a child can communicate a good deal to the adults around him: that he is at their service, that he knows their names (or cares to know them), and that he acknowledges that he owes some indefinite duty to them. In return, the adult offers compliments (“oh what a nice young man!”), cordiality, and especially that most valuable of treasures when one is young: attention. The strength of this exchange is that it is easy for the youngster to initiate, and it costs nothing to reward.
The biggest misconception about Southern manners is that they exist solely for the vanity of adults. Speaking from experience, however, I can report that they actually serve to benefit the younger party, not to stroke the egos of the elders. What generally follows from a successful exchange of manners for a youth is some measure of greater inclusion into the adult world. You may well be asked by the adult you addressed to complete some task because they have now judged you, based on your respectful speech, to be useful and intelligent. If you have the presence of mind to remember your Ps and Qs, then you’ll probably be a reliable junior partner in mending a fence or fetching the correct tools needed to change the oil in a tractor, or even in just riding along to the gas station to pick up some ice. All of these little episodes may seem insignificant, but they offer kids important expansions to their world of experience.
These little adventures only increase in significance if the child’s patron is an adult who is not their parent. It is commonly said that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but the mechanism by which this occurs is left out of the platitude. The truth is that the benevolent villager usually needs some prompting if he is going to find it worth it to take another man’s child under his wing, even if in some small way. Respectful speech subtly supplies an invitation to take an interest in a child that is not your own, and also some superficial assurance that such interest will not be wasted on a closed or undisciplined mind. On the child’s side of the exchange, this is just a total win, as there is nothing more exciting as a kid than to be included in whatever is going on. The coded exchange of Southern manners gains children access to the invaluable fruits of inclusion into adults’ affairs and experience and has the power to facilitate good relationships between youth and adults despite vast gulfs in generation, experience, or cognitive development. Of course it isn’t only saying the right words that achieve this effect–one also needed to actually practice qualities of deference, industriousness, and respect to be fully appreciated as a “nice young man”–but as a child, saying my “sirs” and “ma’ams” really were the magic words that opened up the possibility of an entrance into adult life.
I’ve also heard Southern manners criticized on the grounds that they aren’t “genuine” since they are practiced out of habit rather than conviction. Perhaps this is true some of the time, but this objection is far too Puritan to be taken seriously. Requiring one to exercise a purely spontaneous social grace is rather like demanding that all prayers be spontaneous. And we churchgoers know from experience that most “spontaneous” prayers, when they do manage to resist informally accepted scripts–“Heavenly father we come before you today…set your hedge of protection around us…bless this food to our bodies,” etc.–tend to devolve into endless repetitions of needless transitional clauses: “Lord we just..we just…just.” Most of us are completely genuine when we come before God, but sometimes we just need to know the words to say.
This of course does not mean that without distinct manner codes the benefits I’ve described above cannot be incurred, but I’d hazard to say that the goods are delivered far less frequently elsewhere than in the South. I don’t mean to suggest that folk up north aren’t brought up to be respectful or kind (in the Midwest at least, they’re the salt of the earth), they just very often aren’t taught how to express it, and so the benefits occasioned by respectfulness are halting, infrequent, and usually limited to only one or two very close family friends. It was not until I reached Illinois that I came into contact with “awkwardness” as a fetishized and much joked-about phenomenon. It seemed to be expected that encounters with elders would produce situations of awkwardness to be giggled about later, and so I experienced the spheres of youth and advanced age at their widest divergence during my college years, ironically, as I began to enter adulthood myself. Without any common script to fall back on, it is often very hard to know what to say to people who are different than yourself, whatever your age. Awkwardness flourishes where shared codes of manners recede.
It is often unfairly supposed that declines in all civilized things are the perennial fault of successive generations of unruly and wayward youth. But in the case of manners, I actually blame the behavior of generations of adults who cannot or will not allow anyone to perceive them as elders. In places like Illinois, where a vague egalitarian ethos rules the day, manners are perceived as the hangovers of a courtly and hierarchical past, and their dissolution is spun as a victory for equality. Here, folks are more interested in breaking down recently discovered forms of discrimination like “Ageism” and its odd cousin “Adultism”, with the view of further establishing absolute equality across generational lines.
While these movements are well-intentioned and their concerns may not be entirely invented, the language of rights and equality is fairly useless when it comes to actually interacting with someone born in a different time than one’s own. It is unrealistic and even a little cruel to expect that children and youth form peer relationships with their elders, unaided by anything outside their own minds; and, to be honest, the project is more than a little daunting even as a young adult when dealing with someone, say, twenty years one’s senior. In this respect, I think an agreed upon code of manners is an absolutely essential ingredient in fostering positive contact across generational lines, and building a safer and more trusting society besides. A social code that affords children and youth opportunities for respect and deference is beneficial to these young ages, as it gives them something solid and valuable to offer their elders at an age when they haven’t yet had time to gather the experience needed to hold their own in conversation or relationship with older people. This is why I think a loss of manners goes harder on the young than the old.
Certainly, manners are not the most pressing concern for our country today, but as the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone, and in a day where the eroding social fabric of neighborhoods and communities is frequently decried and inequality increases apace, manners may be a more significant tool for social cohesion than we think. So what to do about it? It is certainly possible that manners may be revived in places where they have fallen out of fashion, but it is difficult to know how to re-seed them. The Southern practice of teaching children to say their “sirs” and “ma’ams” does no good if those gestures are received as oddities or sometimes even offenses by the adults they are directed toward. The onus is on the established generations rather than the new ones.
It is probably futile to attempt to reinstate lost social code words, as such self-conscious cultural change is rarely achievable. But I do think it is worthwhile to encourage my fellows as we enter the more established adulthood of our thirties not to balk when we are treated as elders. We should accept the gifts of experience given to us by long life and try to find ways to impart them to younger generations. We are kidding ourselves if we think that youth don’t care what their elders think about them (if you have any doubt on that score, just teach a class of high-schoolers, and you will be disabused of the notion that age carries no power). Perhaps by cultivating an attitude of security in advanced age and grasping–instead of denying–the natural authority that it confers, we can once again start to practice the benevolent attentiveness that younger generations crave, affirming their good qualities with admiration and inclusion and thereby encouraging them to practice the sort of polite and respectful behavior that will serve them well in their adult lives. If we are fortunate, then an acceptable shorthand will emerge in our patterns of speech that will afford youth the ability to cue that inter-generational exchange all on their own, increasing the chances that, after they have grown up, they too will one day reward those magic words with the sort of attention and informal apprenticeship that is crucial to the cultivation of all good men and women.
“Well, what a nice, respectful young man. Say, I could use some help over here. Why don’t you give me a hand?”