If Men are Called Sir, Then I Want to be a Proper Madam

Britain may not be the most sexist country in the world, but there is one way in which Britons are less than respectful to women

I haven’t met many who agree with the daft claims from a UN official that Britain is the most sexist country in the world. But there is one small area of everyday British experience that is commonly less respectful to women than to men; an anecdote will illustrate the point.

I was in my local Marks & Spencer on Saturday, waiting to pay. There was a middle-aged man just ahead of me. “Thank you, Sir,” said the check-out woman, as he gathered his purchases. After mine came through the conveyor belt and I paid, she looked up and said: “Thank you, my darling.”

This scenario occurs regularly and I often ask the same question. “If you address a man as ‘Sir’, why don’t you address a woman as ‘Madam’?” Marks & Spencer staff are well-trained and polite and she didn’t quite know how to respond. She just smiled and shrugged: “I’ve never thought about it.”

It is a mini-campaign of mine to try to encourage the English to use equal honorifics (or, if they prefer, none), so I then said: “Is it because, secretly, you think men are better?” The lady protested that she didn’t think that at all – she’d just had some trouble with a couple of men upstairs and could happily have told them where to go. And so I left it at that.

Perhaps I’m a mad old biddy making a fuss about nothing, but it does intrigue me that it so often happens that a man in public is addressed as “Sir”, while a woman is addressed as “Love”, “My love,” and “My darling”. (Mind you, I have no objection to being called “Love” in the North of England, where everyone is equally given that term of endearment.)

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