“Yes sir, no ma’am”: Regional Manners

When you cross a California girl with a Texan, you end up dealing with the occasional…cultural differences. Nothing major — mainly different slang or favorite teams (or sports) or culinary ideas (I won’t get into our chili wars debate…yet). He’s shocked that I’m not familiar with the exploits of William Barrett Travis, while I can’t believe he doesn’t know how to pronounce “Junipero.”

But then there are Southern manners.

My mother-in-law raised my husband with proper Southern manners. It’s an often-told story that when he was a freshman at Cal Poly, his parents came to visit and one of his friends asked his mom, “Does he always say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ to everyone?” His mom replied, “He better!”

That’s where I want to start. Let me first say this post is nothing more than a presentation of some differences I’ve noticed in our attitudes that seem to be influenced by where we were raised, and an invitation for discussion, because really, I find these cultural differences pretty fascinating.

So. “Yes sir” and “yes ma’am.”

When we were in Chicago, we were at a bar one afternoon and the server, a young lady who was probably in her early or mid-twenties, stopped by our booth to make sure we were doing okay. “Yes ma’am, thanks,” my husband said.

As she walked away, I said that I found it a little funny he was saying “ma’am” to someone who was probably younger than him.

It’s a sign of respect to someone in a service position, he told me.

I’m all for showing basic respect to everyone, but I always believed that “ma’am” was for…mature women. “Miss” or “Ms.” for younger women. And “Mrs.” (I really hate spelling that “missus” for some reason) for any married woman, any age. When I get called “ma’am” I brush it off, but a small part of me thinks “do I look that old? crap.” And I do tend to raise an eyebrow when the person saying “ma’am” is my age or close to it.

I also didn’t growing up saying “ma’am” (or “sir” for that matter) that much in general. “Please” and “thank you” were enough in my neck of the woods. We called teachers and friend’s parents “Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so.”

So…that’s Regional Manners Difference #1. Ready for #2? Because it’s way more loaded.

Stephanie Tanner

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A couple years ago, we drove from San Diego to Texas to see Husband’s family for Christmas. (I don’t recommend it. Not the seeing family part, the driving for a day and a half in the winter through the most desolate of all desolate landscapes.) We stopped in some tiny town in west Texas for the night and while eating breakfast in the morning, started talking to a guy (in his 40s or 50s, probably?) who — if I remember right — had, for a little while, lived in Southern California, in a city fairly close to where my grandparents live. “Oh yeah,” I said, “my grandparents live in [city], near [general area of the city].”

“Ooooh, they must have money!”

I was literally speechless. I think I mumbled something about my grandpa being retired now and kept my mouth shut for the rest of the conversation. I told Husband later how uncomfortable that made me, and he shrugged and said “that’s how it is in the South.”

Now, I don’t remember getting a lot of explicit “lessons” about proper manners from my parents. I learned “the magic words” and how to set a table (knives on the left and stuff) and to hold the door open and say “excuse me” and all that, and I think I behave pretty appropriately in most social situations. But one thing I do remember being made quite clear is that it’s rude to talk about money. When my dad bought a car when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, he made a point to remind me not to tell my friends how much the car had cost, for example.

So that man’s comment, which clearly wasn’t said with any intentional malice or rudeness, utterly shocked me — and made me feel so uncomfortable I basically dropped out of the conversation.


I find all this interesting, in part, because it’s so easy to find guidebooks on different country’s or culture’s manners, customs, traditions, etc. for traveling — “how to not piss off everybody in [whatever country you’re visiting].” I remember doing a report for French class back in middle school on the differences between French and American table manners (we tell kids to keep their hands folded in their laps when not eating, in France keeping your hands under the table makes you look “sneaky”). But you don’t hear nearly as much about the differences you find from region to region or state to state in the U.S. I guess you get some generalities like “Midwesterners are friendly” and “New Yorkers are rude” (I’ve always found New Yorkers to be perfectly pleasant in my little time there, but then, I also don’t find Parisians all that rude, so maybe I’m not the best judge), but I’m thinking a detailed guide to Southern manners and customs would be fantastic if I ever spend extended time in the South!

Now I ask: those of you who have traveled extensively, maybe even moved from one region to another — do you notice differences in manners or customs like these? Do you think they really can be defined by geographic region? Have you had any awkward encounters? Please share!

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4 thoughts on ““Yes sir, no ma’am”: Regional Manners

  1. Oh my gosh yes!!!!! I’m a northerner from NY and PA living in Tennessee now. Down here you call everyone ma’am or sir, and if you don’t you are considered rude. Up North though, if you call any woman ma’am, that’s considered an insult.

    • Hah, I know this isn’t a fair judgement to make, but I’ve got a really strong feeling I wouldn’t fit in too well in the South…largely because I wouldn’t be able to navigate all the manners and social norms.

  2. There are huge cultural differences from one region to another. My family moved from Michigan to Kentucky when I was little, and my family jokes all the time that that was our cross-cultural training experience, because there are so many difference between those two states that really aren’t all that far apart. One example was, my Dad was a manager and asked an employee to do something, she responded “I don’t care to.” He was flabbergasted to have an employee straight out tell him she wasn’t going to do that task (as least, that’s what “I don’t care to” meant to him) until they explained to him that “I don’t care to” meant “I don’t mind.” And then his employees made my Dad a t-shirt that said “I don’t care to” on it, because they thought his lack of comprehension was hilarious.

    Then, my family moved to Malaysia over ten years ago, so that was our big move across cultures. There, instead of “ma’am” or “sir” when addressing service people or even just any random stranger or older friend, you use “uncle” and “aunty” if they are much older than you, and the local language word for “older sister” and “older brother” if they are near your age. And when I visited the US I was very embarrassed when I accidentally let “Uncle” slip when I was asking for assistance at a grocery store!

    Now I live in China and I’m married to a Mexican who was born in Orange County–apparently I was born for a life of figuring out different cultures!

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