Amar Bail

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The Sir/Ma’am Syndrome

Posted by Haris Gulzar on March 7, 2010

Throughout our schooling life, the colleges we attend, the universities we go to, we are taught to call out our teachers as Sir or Madam (or Ma’am in short). Or maybe not from our schools because I know my niece calls her teacher as aunty, but as far as I can remember, I have called my teachers as Sir or Madam, (or ‘teacher’ as well at some places, as in when the class would end and the teacher would leave the class, each child would stand and sing “THANK YOU TEACHER” :-P)…

This calling out as Sir or Ma’am is not because those teaching us have been rewarded with that title, we do it just to show respect, something that a teacher deserves from students. Also, we don’t do it because we’re forced to respect our teachers, we respect them because they are our teachers. I mean, a teacher is to be respected, this is as simple as that.

I say this because recently I participated in a discussion about teachers being called out as Sir or Ma’am, and if this was a good gesture or not. One of the professors who spoke AGAINST the topic, although had all her arguments as totally valid and well thought out, still failed to convince me enough. I’m not too aware of where the word Sir was first used and in what context, but supposedly this is a colonial baggage and it fosters a servile attitude. I say, it definitely would foster a servile attitude if servility lies in your mind, why and how would someone mix respect with servility? And that too, a student to his/her teacher?

The professor made a point that respect is not given by insisting on a title that your addressee does not want. That’s where I totally agree with her, but she also said that she doesn’t want to be called Ma’am because that would make her feel like a member of some august house to which she does not belong. Above all, she also thought the Sir/Ma’am salutations were nothing more than apple-polishing :-(. She even used words like “…you do consume your DIGNITY when you stoop to address your senior by Sir/Ma’am” (Actual words, copied from one of her memorandums)

Professor it will be, if that’s what she thinks respect is. We respect our teachers, so we should learn to address them the way they want us to, but bearing in mind that the students have been through the Sir/Ma’am state of mind throughout their schooling, is it ok to expect them to forego their (good or bad?) habit of addressing their teachers as Sir/Ma’am? Although a professor definitely deserves to be called a professor, but is there REALLY something wrong with Sir and/or Ma’am? Are we really consuming our DIGNITY by RESPECTING our teachers?


20 Responses to “The Sir/Ma’am Syndrome”

  1. adeel said

    agreed to u! I do not think any problems with sir/madam.

  2. Sarah said

    literally speaking the word ma’am denotes sarcasm in europe…i rem being told this by our headmistress back in school but like so many other words the word has lost its actual impact owing to its over use…i dont think the prof is wrong..but i do feel u should address teachers with first names as the new norm in the corporate world is to address bosses with their first names

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  4. razaidi said

    As much as i respect your point of view i would like to oppose your opinion and support the professor here. Although the Sir/Ma’m syndrome has been prevalent in our country ever since the British raj, it has lot to do with our servile attitude. I was also of the same opinion as yours until i actually practiced saying “professor” or sometimes nothing before speaking. Whether you believe it or not this is something subliminal which is beyond our normal comprehension. The moment you start addressing the person on an equal footing, you feel a enormous confidence inside of you, a power to look straight in the eye, to stand tall and look straight and express yourself boldly, yet respectfully. Thats exactly the reason why the professor has been emphasizing on this so much.

  5. K said

    Heh, what course are u taking with *professor* *doctor* mf?

  6. Kanwalful said

    I took a course with this teacher too, last semester. And I made the same points as you did. Too bad she can’t offload her own colonial baggage and broaden her mind enough to understand our perspective.

  7. Rambler said

    How did she want to addressed?

    As for calling them by their first names as somebody pointed out, we do not call our elders like that.

  8. brocasarea said

    somethings r not worth discussing 🙂 🙂

  9. @Adeel: So I have people supporting me as well? 😛

    @Sarah: For me, a word does not mean anything unless you want it to mean something in particular. For me, the word Sir/Ma’am can be used to respect a person, for you it might denote sarcasm, for someone else it might mean submission to and accepting slavery… And calling someone with their first name might be a good option only if the addressee is OK with it, otherwise again, it can lead to different interpretations by different people… Welcome to Amar Bail and thank you so very much for your comment!

    @Raza: I simply cannot be on equal footings with my teacher. A teacher is superior. Hence I’d definitely want to have a gap of respect between us. Having said that, the choice of words that I use to respect my teacher should really not be a problem. Besides, I’m really not too sure if not using some specific words can bring more confidence in you and can help you stand tall and speak boldly.

    @K: Hehe. So that means you have already taken a course from her? :-). I’m taking CS in evening with her… And welcome to Amar Bail, do keep visiting…

    @Kanwalful: Welcome to Amar Bail! Actually, I won’t put it the way you have. The points she has are all valid and worth giving a thought. My only point is that the words I use, only mean what I want them to mean. My words do not necessarily mean what others think they mean…

    @Rambler: She wants to be addressed as Professor or Doctor. Nothing wrong in it, in fact its good that she likes being addressed by her professional title… And yeah, about calling elders with their first names, again, it should be OK if the addressee wants to be called out by that name…

    @Brocasarea: lol :-D. Why do you say that? After replying to all the comments above, I think it was just so worth discussing :-)…

  10. K said

    I am too, taking CS with her in evening, and had the privilege of being in the first ever class that was handed the infamous written memo 🙂

  11. @K: Actually, I think she is only enforcing her point of view, although she should listen and understand our point of view as well. Although I’d say again that she is totally right and has all valid points and is justified in saying what she is saying…

  12. Nabeel said

    Gr8 discussion guyz!
    I hope we could have such discussions/counter-arguments in the class, without being supposedly ‘disrespected’ by the “Professor” for knowing too little, not being inspired enough, not have read the ‘assignments’ etc. etc.
    Anyways, I seriously do respect the Professor for her knowledge and most of her views, most of the time in her class i’m thinking “she’s so right”. No one at IBA ever made me really “think” about the things around me as she has. Other than the grades (fear of an F even) i really consider myself privileged to be in her class.

  13. K said

    She is right abt the sir maam thing, it is a cultural thing and nowhere else in the world u find ppl calling others sir and maa’m and at her level of accomplishment it must be frustrating for her to see how us mere mortals stoop to apple polishing and khushamdi behavior as she wrote in her memo. But then just restating what haris n nabeel wrote, she comes across as too authoritarian and imposing.

  14. Huda said

    Oh! I clearly remember standing up in the morning and saying “Assalam-0-alikum Teaccccccccccheeeeeeeeeeer”
    Haha! Good old days. 🙂

  15. Ali Adnan said

    hmmm reading all above … I would say all are valid points… but its not a black & white discussion

    a word may have a particular dictionary meaning .. but its meaning is altered by the tone it is spoken , the intent with it is used, the way it is used in a particular society even changes its meaning altogether in that society or for the people in that society.

    Agreeing to other’s point of view , but I hold the same point of view as that of haris , we use sir / madam as respect for our teachers. Bcz teachers “are” to be respected. But yes if the respected teacher asks me to address him/her differently she has full right to do so and I would respect his/her wish and address him/her accordingly.

    And also i would agree that I personally would not call my teachers or elders by first name , bcz in our culture / society its even considered disrespectful. but in west , its a norm and preferred way to address even your parents with first name, that doesnt mean they respect them less. so it heavily depends on the norm of the society . there is no right or wrong here.

  16. well its ok to use salutation words Sir or Maam but i personally feel,,even all teachers dont deserve to be called SAR or MAAM 🙂

  17. @Nabeel: LOL @ your initial comment. I think it’d only improve us if we are allowed to have discussions like these in class and if we’re allowed to put forward our point of view “as well”…
    You’re right. She definitely has knowledge, and she starts your thinking process. But again, she enforces a lot more things which makes the class, and the subject overall, a bit negative :-(. Welcome to Amar bail and do keep visiting. And thank you for your comment…

    @K: Well, why should it be about everywhere else in the world? I mean, what difference does it make if people don’t use these words anywhere in the world. We do, or even better put, I do, and I use them to respect my elders with all pure intentions. For me this is not apple polishing and khushamdi behavior… And yeah I agree with you when you say she has an imposing nature…

    @Huda: Lol :-P. That was a norm wasn’t it :-P. Singing Good Morning TEEEEAAAAACCCHHHEEEERRRRRRRRR and Thank you TEEEEAAAAACCCHHHEEEERRRRRRRRR!!!!! 😀

    @Ali: If whatever you wrote was in my support, I agree with you totally 😛 :-P.

    @CU: A teacher DOES deserve to be called that. A teacher SHOULD be respected, even if it is only because he/she is a teacher. I have been a teacher myself and believe me, you so want to be respected by your students 😛 😀

  18. i had that syndrome –
    even after graduating i m still stuck with it!

  19. siras said

    Haha! I remember how we used to sing our Good Mornings. But we used to say Good Moooorrnnnniing Miiiisss.

    It’s strange how people could think that addressing someone as sir/ma’am would be consuming your dignity. But as she said, if it doesn’t make the teacher feel good, then the purpose is kind of lost.

  20. @AD: I guess we all have that syndrome, the way we are taught makes this syndrome stick with us 🙂

    @Siras: True. I’d say its only how you look at things, but yeah, what matters is how the other person wants it…

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