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The more I embrace my gender nonconformity, the more disconnected I’ve become with binary salutations – not just because they don’t apply to me, but because “ma’am” and “sir” always seem to carry different connotations despite their perceived synonymity.
The utterance of these two one-syllable words communicates the gender normative toxicity of a patriarchal binary that interacts and amplifies through different spheres of life, even when unintentional.
The etymology of “Ma’am” can be traced to 14th century Old French ma dame, literally "my lady," mostly used for married women – even if ‘endearing,’ still laced with a sense of ownership, entitlement, objectification of one gender by another.
There are countless ways modulation can mold “ma’am” into a vessel of misogyny and contempt, the patriarchally constructed fragility of femininity sharpening as a voice travels from ‘m’ to ‘m’.
In contrast, “sir” originated as a title of honor of a knight or baronet – whole within itself with a demand for authority that doesn't have much room to allow satire or contempt.
What does respect mean if “sir” and “ma’am” are a reproduction of gender biases? Surely, a one-syllable word can’t portray the complexity of how respect is created or diminished in a relationship?
Recently, a government-aided Senior Basic School in Olassery village, Kerala, became the first to move away from the binary salutations of ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ by asking its 300 students to refer to faculty with ‘teacher.’
“One of our staff members, Sajeev Kumar V, broached the idea about abandoning the practice of male teachers being addressed as sir. He was inspired by the campaign launched by Palakkad-based social activist Boban Mattumantha to do away with the practice of addressing government officials as ‘sir’,” the school’s headmaster told Indian Express.
Although the state’s schools faced backlash about introducing ‘gender-neutral’ uniforms, the change in Olassery has been welcomed by parents, with students gradually embracing the concept of the gender-neutral salutation.
Maybe unlearning and reframing the language we use to address each other is a step towards dismantling hierarchies and binaries in the systems that permeate our being.