I took my car in for service early on a weekday and elected to use the shuttle service instead of waiting for the repairs to be completed. As the driver and I made small talk, he asked where I was from. When I said that I was born in Alabama, he was surprised and said that usually he can detect a Southern accent and most often Southerners show their respect by using sir and ma’am.

His comment struck me to the core.

I know he meant absolutely no harm or ill intent, but it made me think about my roots, my core values, and how such a small change had taken place without my recognition. When I arrived at work, I had to sit for a moment as I paused to reflect and figure out when this change took place. This random interaction — really a question of my identity as a Southerner — had such an impact on me that I knew I couldn’t start my workday without a little soul searching.

I knew my accent changed quite a bit as a result of my participation in a church choir in Missouri. The music leader drilled us time and again to pronounce all the words the same. I remember being challenged not to drawl. (Do y’all know how hard it is for a Southerner not to drawl? That’s like askin’ uh fish not ta swi-yum.) So I spent time working on this over several years. And, of course, within my role at the bank, I want to project clarity in speech and in writing, so I think that I may have subconsciously continued and reinforced this practice. I’ll be the first to tell you, though, that any time I travel south to see my family or if I am out of my comfort zone, that drawl picks right back up.

The most profound piece of this interaction is his comment about using sir and ma’am. I mean absolutely no disrespect by not using it. I’m certain my actions and tone of voice convey my respect for those I encounter every day, but when did I start omitting it? In all honesty, I’m not quite sure. Could it possibly be that I am mirroring what I hear and see? I believe we are not a product of our environment but that we can consciously choose who we are and what we become. This might take a little longer to sort out, but what I am certain about is that I should make the conscious effort to use these terms of respect again. I think we should all go above and beyond to show respect for one another, and this is one simple yet impactful way for me to do so.

Our actions, our words, and our body language should all send the same message. 

My challenge to each of you is to pause and think about how you treat others. Maybe you aren’t intentionally disrespectful, but are you unintentionally conveying that message? Think about these simple things:

  • Do you smile and interact with your server at a restaurant or do you just order and go back to staring at your phone?
  • When you walk through a door, do you pay attention to see if anyone is behind you and hold the door open?
  • As you drive through your neighborhood, do you wave to people you pass? In the south, it is extremely rude not to do this.
  • Do you smile or say hi as you pass people at work, on the street, or in a store?
  • How many of you cultural Southerners still use sir or ma’am in your conversations? I’d be curious to know if this is a cultural shift in general.
  • Do you use “please” and “thank you” with your coworkers?

None of these courtesies cost anything. They only take a moment and can impact someone’s day in a positive way. I never thought a simple five-minute shuttle ride would cause me to have such a profound moment of self-reflection; yet here I am writing this to help me process these simple words.