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I'm assisting a daily phone meeting with people from Asia, Europe and North America. One of the Americans is using "Sir" sometimes to address the team leader. Is it appropriate to address a colleague in the same job rank, by "Sir"?

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@MετάEd Yes, I read it, but I wanted to ask for more background on business and over-the-phone meetings –  José L. Cardós Aug 7 '13 at 12:37
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Then please edit your question to clarify how exactly the related question ans answers are inadequate to solve your problem. –  MετάEd Aug 7 '13 at 12:40
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marked as duplicate by MετάEd, Mari-Lou A, TrevorD, p.s.w.g, aedia λ Aug 9 '13 at 6:00

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It's a tricky one - especially on a voice only call. Personally, I would never use the word 'Sir' to anyone and haven't done since we had to call our teachers that at school. Certainly to use it in a formal manner could imply deference.

I have a couple of US friends and colleagues who use 'Sir' quite liberally, never deferentially, but as a slightly more formal version of 'mate', 'buddy' or similar, perhaps as a French speaker might use 'Monsieur' or 'Madam'. So 'Thank you, sir' comes from them as a UK person might say, 'Cheers, mate'.

I would not say it is inappropriate to use in business meetings, but you have proven that is does carry some baggage such that it is not the best choice of referring to someone in a non-specific way. If 'Bob' is too informal and 'Mr Smith' sounds too stuffy, then I'm not sure English really has much to assist.

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I disagree that American usage equates sir with buddy. It is a polite form of address that many of us are taught quite young, and personally I use it with anyone my age or older who is male and who I am not close friends with. I would never refer to those people as "buddy" nor would I call my buddies "sir". –  KitFox Aug 7 '13 at 12:54
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In the southern US, there are some holdovers of more formal etiquette. One of these is addressing others as sir, miss, or ma'am. 'Sir' works for all boys and men. 'Miss' works for all girls and young women. 'Ma'am' is used for older women, women in authority, and women with children.

  • I think Miss Manners would have it in saying that it is never incorrect to be more polite. However, in instances where there are people from multiple different regions and some confusion over the proper etiquette, using 'sir' could seem stilted or condescending. As always, give the benefit of the doubt and be tolerant.

  • there is a moment in every Southern woman's life where she hears herself called 'ma'am' for the first time. It's a sudden and uncomfortable announcement that she is no longer a sweet young thing. For some, this is extremely difficult to handle, and they can be wounded, hostile, or whiny. Others view it as recognition that they are held in higher esteem and treated with more respect, even if they aren't considered an object of youth and beauty. Saying "Oh, good grief, that boy just ma'amed me!' is instantly understood by others as having passed a threshold of sorts.

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Even in the South, "sir" would almost always be used to address an elder or someone of equal or higher status than the speaker, I believe. I would not expect to hear someone address a younger subordinate with "sir." (And then there are the racial aspects to consider, which remain... complicated, to say the least.) –  phenry Aug 7 '13 at 15:57
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@phenry One can also use sir for respect or especially for distancing via formality, in which case it is also appropriate for those whose station one perceives to be lower than one's own. –  tchrist Aug 7 '13 at 16:01
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As a mid-continent American myself, I indeed use "Sir" quite liberally, including with some junior collegues (even on occasion with my own son). It is meerly a minor gesture of respect; an indication that I'm taking the other person seriously.

There are a few occasions when it gets me into trouble. In particular, with people who are active duty enlisted military. They are not entitled to that form of address in the military, and can become perversely proud of that fact. Using "Sir" with such a person can offend them.

Also, using the equivalent female form of address, "Ma'am", with someone in the vicinity of 30 can often produce a rather negative reaction. In that circumstances it implies to them that I consider them older, and some women can be fairly sensitive where their percieved age is concerned.

In general though, it almost never hurts to be respectful with other people.

I could see where this mode of address could lead to awkward situations in England, where some people are actually entitled to that form of address and some are not. We don't really have that issue in the USA though (outside of the military), so the title doesn't really have any connotations of class here.


(clarification)

My last sentence above is kind of an oversimplification (or a downright lie, depending on how you look at it). We do have class issues in the USA, but they tend to be racial. For this reason, while it is quite appropriate for me (a 40ish white male) to address address a black collegue with "sir" or "ma'am", probably both of us would very much prefer if the black collegue didn't respond in kind.

There's probably much more that could be said about this, but frankly this is about as far into my country's cultural pathology that I have the courage to publicly delve.

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What do you mean by saying that in England "some people are actually entitled to that form of address"? I suspect you're thinking of knights and baronets, but the correct style there is "Sir Firstname", not a bare "Sir". –  Peter Taylor Aug 7 '13 at 14:17
    
@PeterTaylor - I'll have to defer to your knowlege on the exact forms of address for British nobility. –  T.E.D. Aug 7 '13 at 14:23
    
British school children often refer to male teachers as "sir" and to female teachers as "miss" or "Mrs (surname)". Male clients are often greeted with "sir" in restaurants, especially true in restaurants labelled Haute cuisine. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 8 '13 at 9:26
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