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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

A Conversation about “Ma’am/Sir”

Ma'am/Sir is commonly heard in interactions with service personnel in the UAE, but what does this connotate and should the culture be changed?

In January 2019, the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dubai announcedthat it will be adopting a policy banning staff from addressing guests with titles such as ma’am and sir with the goal of becoming “friendlier.” This news stirred debate about the implications of these titles in a country as diverse as the UAE.
Growing up in U.S. American and international schools abroad, I associated the use of ma’am and sir with so-called Southern manners and usually considered them somewhat outdated and unnecessary. Indeed, the only people I knew who used these titles were military families who would address my dad, for example, as “Sir” while I would call their father “Mr.” and their last name. Sir and ma’am seemed too hierarchical while also too general.
Coming to the UAE meant I had to adapt to the near ubiquitous use of it, and by now it has become ingrained in my daily vocabulary. I no longer feel confused or prompted to correct those who address me as such and I myself use these titles almost every time I interact with a person in a non-familiar way.
The use of these titles in the UAE are tied especially to the large South Asian and Filipino expatriate populations. Both are cultures that use these and other honorifics commonly in daily speech. Yet, despite -- or in fact, because of -- the ever-present use of these titles, students and community members should consider how and when we use them.
I still struggle to navigate my understanding of these titles, especially with interactions between students and contract staff on campus. Being addressed as ma’am by ADNH Compass staff who I interact with on a daily basis makes me feel strange, considering that my perception of that title growing up was always one of implied hierarchy.
It is different off campus -- if an ADNH employee at a hotel in the city were to refer to me as ma’am when entering a restaurant, there is the assumption that I will be a paying customer and, regardless, my age or status is not as easily determined as it is on campus where the East Dining Hall staff know that I am a student and oftentimes younger than them. Obviously, staff on campus who use these titles may not be actively recognizing a hierarchy, but I do believe honorifics such as these carry with them implications of inequality.
The Indian campaign No Sir, No Madam is challenging the use of such markers of respect, arguing that it hinders professional communication by limiting equal mutual respect. The initiative interviews Indian leaders in business to reframe these titles as perpetuating class structure, and being a mental barrier that employees rely on in the workforce out of fear and habit, rather than genuine respect.
The Radisson Blu Hotel also believes that they can create imbalances of power. “We don’t use this horrible Mr or Ms in front of people’s first names,” said David Allen, the hotel’s general manager, in his interview with The National. “And we said we don’t want to do that with our guests, either. Everyone is an absolute equal in this building.”
But the hotel also had another goal: to become the friendliest hotel in the UAE. The management believes that by asking for customers’ names, rather than resorting to honorifics, their experience at the hotel will be personalized.
Raja Changaiz, an NYUAD security guard in Residential Building A6A, does not address students with these titles either. “I find that when you call someone by their name - their full name - they like that,” he said when asked why he does not use the titles. “I read somewhere that if you want to speak to someone’s heart, you call them by their full name.”
The relationship Changaiz has with students is a close one, but not unlike the relationships that staff who do use the titles have. Another security guard may welcome a student into the building with “Sir” but the conversation which comes afterward would be just as cordial and informal as with Changaiz and guards who do not.
The use of these titles are present in close relationships between colleagues as well, whose use of them with fellow compatriots is almost a sort of pet phrase. An entire essay could be written about how nuanced Ma’am/Sir is, how within groups that have grown up with, it goes beyond hierarchical respect.
Yet, the UAE brings together vastly different groups of people for whom language and words have vastly different meanings and that alone can establish a unintended hierarchy. Recognizing cultural differences on both ends is important to ensure that there is understanding of what is respectful to each. These everyday impacts, however, are more easily overcome and recognized. The longer-term consequences, ones of deeply imbued inequality, are more difficult.
In what ways did the histories of the countries that these titles are common shape the usage? My childhood recollection of Ma’am and Sir comes mostly from a military context, one that is highly based in ranks and social structure. Does class structure and ranking impact who uses these titles? When addressed by someone from the Philippines -- with its past of U.S. imperialism -- or India -- a former British colony -- how do we understand those legacies to be at play?
I do not have clear answers, and there is little to no social or linguistic research into the use of these titles. I also am not advocating to simply stop using them -- they are a useful marker of respect with those we do not know and can be a pet phrase or shared value between people from the same country. But we should open a dialogue about when and how these phrases should be used, and more importantly, in whom they are addressing.
Understanding Ma’am/Sir is not going to erase inequality, but it can make us intentional in questioning the status quo.
Katarina D. Holtzapple is Video Editor. Email her at
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