I'm Asian who learned English at school. Our teachers taught us in class to add "sir" to be polite when talking to men. I'd assumed that you say so only when your listener is older than you. But after growing up, when I happened to watch an American TV drama (about everyday life) and was surprised to see that this middle-aged man(ordinary office worker, mild-mannered) spoke to a very young man (passerby, looking mild-mannered too) saying "excuse me, sir but..."

I looked up the dictionary and it says in British English "sir" is used by children at school when speaking to. How about the American usage? I now know that irrespective of age gap you say "sir" to a man, but on what occasion do you say so? In what situation?

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    May I ask where you are from? Excessive use of "sir" is a marker for South Asian English speakers. – Eddie Kal May 3 at 4:07

In American usage it is becoming less and less common to say "sir" and "ma'am," at least in my experience in the Northeast and Midwest. Perhaps retail employees might use it when greeting a customer, and customer support personnel having a telephone conversation might use it to indicate politeness (as body language is not transmitted over the phone). But in normal interactions it comes across as overly stuffy and perhaps even mocking depending on context.

In trying to grab the attention of someone on the street, I would first say "excuse me" when looking straight at someone. I would only say "excuse me, sir" as emphasis to try to get their attention, not necessarily to be polite at all.

And of course in the military it is still used when speaking to a superior at all times.

In all of the above contexts, the respective ages of the speaker and the recipient are nearly irrelevant. Much more important is the power differential: "sir" is used when you are addressing someone of more social standing or power than yourself.

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    I'd add condescending to that list of adjectives. Cops call people "sir" or "ma'am" but they don't mean any respect. They'd call you "sir", yelling "Sir! Stop resisting!!" while knocking you to the ground. – Eddie Kal May 3 at 4:30
  • Thank you all for answering my question. My teachers were all American, so I needed to know the American usage.(No English speakers around me now; they are back home due to Covid19) So, now I believe that maybe you just say "sir" somewhere like at the new office until your boss allows you the interactive friendliness. – nat 123 May 3 at 5:08
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    @nat123 Today, even at the office, I would be very surprised if a new employee called me "sir". (And I would immediately tell him to stop calling me "sir".) It is just not something we do in North American culture anymore except in extremely formal situations. – stangdon May 3 at 11:43
  • All right, so I gather that after coming of age you don't generally call someone "sir" other than the case you get the attention of a stranger. Thank you all. – nat 123 May 5 at 5:11

(I'd like to apologize for any false sense of authority that comes off through the formatting of my answer, but I thought the use of headings made it more readable.)

Using "sir" with strangers

I'm about to oversimplify, but as a rule of thumb you can consider it a neutral way to address anyone whose name you don't know. In most interactions with strangers, no one will really care whether you use "sir" or don't, as long as you're courteous overall:

"Excuse me, do you know what time the train leaves?"

"Ten o'clock."

"Thank you."

But it might come in handy if it's the only way you can get their attention.

"Sir? Sir! You dropped your wallet."

Of course, you generally wouldn't use it with someone you actually consider inferior (a small child would be the main justified case of this, but some people are just rude). In cases where perceived social standing is actually in question, it may be a good way to show that you do respect the other person.

Using "sir" with respected individuals

When directed at someone whose name you do know, that, counterintuitively, is when it becomes a term of respect.

With someone you consider a peer, you'd usually use their name once you learn it. By continuing to use "sir", you show that you don't consider yourself worthy of speaking to them as an equal. This is almost always expected in a structured hierarchy like a workplace or military command, but it's also a common way to show genuine, voluntary deference to a respected individual. (If they insist you use their name, though, do it!)

A final note

Apply all the same guidelines to "ma'am"/"miss" when speaking to a female. The only hangup is whether to use "ma'am" or "miss" in a given case, but that's another issue entirely, one you're probably familiar with and can find plenty of resources dedicated to if you don't.

Hope this is helpful, any corrections are welcome.

  • Thank you for your answer, which reminds me of what I saw on TV drama. They are really relevant. I appreciate that. – nat 123 May 3 at 7:02

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