The Disrespect of “Sir”

I promised my friend and veteran, David, that I would write this article six months ago, and I’m ashamed to say that it slipped off my radar until now.

The details of how we got on the topic are a bit hazy to me, but I think the conversation was struck while drinking with the Royal Manticoran Navy. David asked if, in the books, they ever referred to Captain Harrington (a woman) as “sir” because he couldn’t remember. The answer was a chorus of “I don’t think so”s.

I mentioned that would be cool if they did, and that was one of my favorite things about science fiction because it felt like it turned the whole gender stereotype of “sir” versus “ma’am” on its head. I thought it was more respectful to be rid of the gender dichotomy altogether.

“Yeah, but it’s not gender neutral,” David pointed out. “Also, it’s very disrespectful.”

“Well,” I conceded, “I mean, it’s worrying that we think ‘sir’ is more respectful than ‘ma’am’.”

David shook his head, and set his drink down. “No. I mean, there is already a gender neutral term to show respect.”

As I said, the details are hazy, but I’m fairly sure I cocked my head to left like a dog. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what he meant.

The rest of the Royal Manticoron Navy (which I would say was about 50% vets and their partners) nodded their heads sagely.

“Their rank,” David explained. “Their rank is gender neutral, and it’s far more respectful than saying ‘sir’.”

And that’s when I realized that Battlestar Galactica was wrong. Calling everybody “sir” may have seemed like the right way to address gender equality in a show with probably the strongest and most nuanced female cast to hit science fiction since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, but the truth is that the best way to respect anyone as a person is to address them by their rank.

So listen up science fiction writers! If you want to write a story with a bit more hopeful future where men and women are indeed treated equally, you may want to consider getting rid of “sir” and “ma’am” from your dialogue altogether, and start address the individuals by their rank.

11 thoughts on “The Disrespect of “Sir”

  1. This idea is a really good one, although I anticipate some friction from science fiction writers who are just too lazy to learn military ranks besides “Captain” and “Ensign”. They might just make “Sir” its own rank. 😉

    “On this ship, there’s only four ranks: Captain, Scientist, Custodian of Snacks, and Heigh-U!”

    1. I’m one of those lazy writers! I’ve been making a concerted effort for “Night Crew”, my radio play about the night crew of a starfship, always address each other with rank, and I’m happy to say it actually makes the stories more compelling because you know exactly at what degree they are in the hierarchy when they talk to the others… meaning you understand when something takes courage to say, or it comments on how little shits one character gives about the Commander, etc….

      1. It’s sci-fi, who’s to say the rank system hasn’t changed? Maybe they aren’t using a human ranking structure. Just make up your own ranks, or eliminate the ones you can’t remember. Or, if you want to use U.S. Navy ranks (why not Air Force?):

        Ensign, Lieutenant Junior Grade, Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain,
        Rear Admiral – Lower Half, Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral, Fleet Admiral (Not currently in use).

        Every other branch uses:
        Lieutenant Second Class, Lieutenant First Class, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier General, Major General, Lieutenant General, General. The Army has a five star and a six star that are not currently in use: General of the Army, and General of the Armies. General of the Armies has only been awarded to two people, and one of them was awarded posthumously to George Washington in 1976.

  2. What about those of us who are genetically predisposed to use sir and ma’am; for example, yes, ma’am and no, sir? I’m not trying to be argumentative or a troll. I am very uncomfortable when told not to use ma’am or sir; it feels like I’m trying to write with the wrong hand.

    1. I’m a “sir” and “ma’am”-er myself 🙂

      I should have more clear. I think in futuristic scifi, getting rid of “ma’am” and replacing it with “sir” in military operations is a bit questionable. I think outside of the military, using “sir” and “ma’am” is just fine. It’s not like we all have rank. I hope that makes sense.

      1. This was actually another one of my arguments against it. Say you do eliminate ma’am and replace it with sir. Now, some young person in the military leaves base and calls some civilian lady sir. Bad times ensue when she gets offended, because the words were not originally military terms.

  3. A fine point. I tend to give a lot of thought to titles and pronouns in general. Language is a fluid thing, and science fiction writers should stay on the progressive edge.

    1. I think gender in European science fiction is a hard thing to skirt around because it is so present in our language. If you read Peter David’s stuff (particularly New Frontier) you’ll note that he uses gender neutral pronouns for specific species, which I absolutely love. But even then, it’s still hard to right meaningful science fiction without our current conceptions of gender coloring it.

      I often really like Japanese science fiction because it’s very easy to avoid pronouns and gender whatsoever, so you can read characters whichever way you like 🙂

  4. A little late to the party here… Janeway addresses this in the first ep of Voyager by sorta teasing Harry when he says “yes sir” then “yes ma’am.” Something like unless the shit’s going down, “yes Captain will be fine.”

    Which, being Voyager, they throw that convention out the airlock early and often but still…

    BTW not to fan girl all on you but I always attend one of your panels at Starfest and love them!

    1. There is no late to the party, because the LtA party is always going.

      And that is a good point about Janeway. I had totally forgotten about it. I’ll stick an update in to reflect that 🙂

      Fangirl away! I work really hard on those, so I’m so happy that people are getting enjoyment from them! I guess I’ll see you next year, huh? Out of curiosity, what sort of panels to you like to go to?

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