To Sir With Love

The other night I happened to meet the American author of a relatively well-known book.  He had drunk a fair amount and so had I, and I was asking him questions about his work, referring to him politely as ‘sir’ because he was much older and more accomplished than me and I failed to catch his last name.  Had I known It I would have called him ‘Mr. So-and-so’.  Anyway, in the middle of the conversation he leaned toward me, his beard-covered jowls parting, and he let loose an alcohol-soaked ‘Cut the “sir” sh*t!’

Now as an American, I have a complicated relationship with shows of respect.  Even before I came to Korea I felt like the American way of using first names with everyone was a pleasant fiction, a way of masking inequalities that nonetheless exist.  In college I was very uncomfortable calling my professors ‘John’ and ‘Ella’, and rather than call them ‘professor’ and risk alienating their equality-loving asses I managed to go entire semesters without addressing them at all.  Why, I wondered, do we play this game of talking to each other like friends when this person holds the power to pass me or fail me?  And even in situations where there was no power dynamic, shouldn’t someone who has proven themselves in academia expect a certain amount of respect from pimply-faced kids that have yet to do anything of value with their lives?

I know, America is a country where equality is a big thing, but why extend that to areas where it doesn’t apply?  Jeff Egnaczyk’s post of yore about class had a great effect on me.   In it he says

Put more value on how you treat your waiter, or the guy with the funny religion, or the guy whose sexuality really doesn’t matter in your life, or your mother, or the guy having the bad day, or your employee, or a thousand other people. That doesn’t mean you can’t get angry at them. It just means you should treat them with respect and a modicum of dignity.

That is to say, equality applies to all people.  We are all worthy of respect and kindness, and we shouldn’t just show respect to those that have the juice to demand it of us.  The thing that galls me about telling someone to ‘cut the “sir” sh*t’ is that it uses authority to shame the acknowledgement of that very same authority.  Why would you say a thing like that, when you could say ‘Please, call me Steve.’?  The only two reasons I can think of are a) you want to show what a regular down-to-earth guy you are and b) you want to shame what you see as fawning.  Now the first one is probably better done with a little gentle ribbing, because most regular guys aren’t rude as hell.  I guess that leaves the second one.  Was I fawning?  Most decidedly not, as I already considered the guy a boor and his methods somewhat idiotic, but I am sure he did not realize this, drunk and full of himself as he was.

Actually, ‘Please, call me Steve.’ is exactly what I expected.  Being an American who doesn’t like to pretend we’re all pals, I always offer more politeness than people expect and tone it down at their request, and they almost always do request politely that I refer to them by first name.  I do not others to call me sir, but I do greatly appreciate politeness where I find it.

This is not the phony politeness that Jeff’s post calls out.  There is nothing phony about the gulf between student and teacher; between boss and worker (usually); between experienced elder and green youth, and there is nothing phony about the difference between close friend and total stranger.  To try to hide these distinctions in a fog of phony egalitarianism is silly and wrongheaded, and I think it finds its finest expression in the phrase ‘Cut the “sir” sh*t’.  It’s no wonder we dress like slobs, talk chummy to everybody and find ourselves sorely unprepared for professional life

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~ by Joshing on March 4, 2008.

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