My default mode is not the best; it's layers and layers of the expectations of my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Every child and adult becomes sir and ma'am, punctuated so often in speech I am asked to drop such formalities. And, to my best I do indeed drop these things. But when I am tired or the setting more professional, gender neutral language tends to dissolve.
I wonder how the parents of the next generation are tackling such things. With deep southern roots, sometimes it's hard to be as perfect as I wish. After all, my mother would be offended should I answer without the proper ma'am. When I am speaking to a crowd or to individuals, I do not want to assume or assign pronouns. But, my parents taught me throughout my childhood to do just that.
And later on those manners served me well in years of retail when appeasing a difficult customer. Most difficult customers were older and clung to those words as a sign of respect and sincerity. But, our understanding of respect has, thankfully, changed to something much broader than submissive words of appeasement.
It has become more polite and respectful to use instead more inclusive language with no assigned gender. Despite my readiness for this swap, it has not been the most natural change for me. It is difficult to release the habits that were beaten into us with a belts and switches. Still, I try to use a person's name or attach words of affirmation to my yes or no rather than the ma'am or sir I was taught. "Yes, I am so happy I can help," things of that nature.
Even how my generation says "you're welcome" has changed to assurances that we were happy to help with phrases such as, "it's no problem", "my pleasure", or "of course". I think we have actively sought to create more loving language; to produce responses that show a person matters. We have worked to become the affirmation we often need. And, that is why it feels so crucial that I get pronouns right and use gender neutral language. I want a stranger to know I am an ally from the briefest of moments.
Yet, I continue to blunder through situations that evoke the training drilled in me through childhood and assign everyone sir or ma'am as much as a sentence allows. If I am in a new situation, nervous, or uncomfortable, I revert to what was safe for me as a child. I default. After all, my stiff politeness was always rewarded and met with praise and pats on the head as a kid. The lack of it earned me the label as a disappointment and physical punishment. And, through college and my career it has warded off other angry adults or pacified outraged men. My 'manners' have worked like a shield against society.
When will we break this cycle of forced pronouns through manners with the next southern generation? Will future parents teach their kids to just use a stranger's name to be polite? Will they teach them to refer to an audience as "everyone" instead of "guys"? Will they tell their kids to use gender neutral language until they know the other person's pronouns? Will they teach them to attach pronouns to their own name for clarity and allyship? I hope so.
I hope we do better and continue to rewrite our own habits. I practice exercising how I want to talk ahead of meetings, ahead of presentations. I prep and prepare and strive to erase the language I use that others parts of our community. But, like most of us, I have a long way to go before I break the habits of the patriarchal south.
About the Creator
I am an author from deep East Texas with a passion for horror and fantasy, often heavily mixed together. In my spare time, when I am not writing, I draw and paint landscape and fantasy pieces. I now reside in Alaska where adventures await.