M is for Master, Ma’am, Ms. and Mr.

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I was sick for a few days and got off track with posting but I’ll be posting 2-3 letters per day between now and April 30 so I can catch up. Sorry for the service interruption. 🙂

During April, I’m writing 26 posts for the A to Z Blog Challenge. I’m combining my skills as a writer, a life coach, and a martial artist (2nd degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo) to create a series of posts about applying aspects of TKD to life outside of martial arts. Whenever possible, I’ll include a little Taekwondoodle to illustrate what I’m talking about.

At Taekwondo class, I call my instructors Master Downey and Master D. I call the other students Ms /Mr or Sir/Ma’am – Sure, sometimes with little kids or with a close friend, I’ll slip up and say their first name (Sorry, Kevin!) but mostly I remember.

Just like bowing in to the Dojang, I like the kind of atmosphere that the formality creates. We are not here to hang out, we are here to learn and to practice. The honorific titles (Ms/Mr/Sir/Ma’am) and the earned titles (Master/Grand Master) reinforce that.

Those titles give a shape to our interactions and the fact that among students we are all ‘Ms/Mr’ reminds us that we can all learn from each other. Using those titles or Sir/Ma’am can help us focus on our joint purpose, and it creates a useful atmosphere for instruction.*

Two people in white martial arts uniforms bowing to each other, the person on the right is saying 'sir' the person the left is saying 'ma'am'

The fact that we call our instructors by a different, earned, title shows that they have worked long and practiced hard to get where they are. Frankly, if you had told me before I started martial arts that I would be willing to use the word ‘Master’ when addressing someone, I would have sprained my eyeball when rolling it.

However, in TKD, it feels appropriate to consistently recognize someone’s mastery of our sport. It’s no different than addressing someone with a PhD as Doctor. The fact that these titles are earned is a useful thing to consider – it puts that skill set within reach of those of us who are determined and dedicated.

Where’s the lesson for the rest of my life?

Well, putting this formality into practice in class has made me think a bit more about how I interact with people outside of class and I have found that valuable.

I’m not suggesting that as a society we should go back to calling everyone by titles all the time but I do think that we should consider what level of formality we want to have in given situations. It can be useful to realize that we can recognize someone’s valuable/lived experience by using a title, or by choosing our language carefully. That doesn’t mean that we need to automatically surrender our own authority, nor does it mean that we should let others dictate how formal a situation should be.

Instead, I recommend thinking about what we are trying to achieve, the atmosphere we are trying to create, and about what the other person is expecting from your interaction.

Once you have considered all of that, you can decide how to proceed.

You don’t have to speak deferentially to someone who is expecting it but it will change the nature of your interaction – you have to decide whether that makes sense for right now.

If you want a formal work meeting, then you can set the tone in your introductions or in your opening statements.

If someone else ‘pulls rank’ on you – for example, calling you by your first name in an email and then signing it ‘Principal Smith’ then you can recognize what they are trying to do and decide how you want to react to that.

It’s wise to make yourself aware of the level of formality expected or implied in your interactions and then consciously choose whether to continue or to disrupt it. Obviously, though, you will have to deal with the consequences of your choice but that’s better than being swept along solely by tradition or by someone else’s expectations.

Recognizing that things like titles and word choice can be someone’s attempt to assert authority over you or to control your interaction/input in a given situation can be very valuable. It can help you understand why you end up feeling like you are ‘on the defensive’ with some people, or why you end up swept along in their plans instead of making your own. Once you understand that, then you have more power in the situation.

And, as far as I am concerned, understanding your own power – whether or not you choose to assert it – is a key part of feeling like you are in charge of your own life.**
*Of course, when you get used to calling someone by their title, it makes for very odd social occasions, especially when people who are not part of TKD join us. It’s kind of funny to be out with a group of people who are calling each other Ma’am and Sir but it’s hard to break the habit after so much time in class together.
Also, I recognize that the gender binary of these titles is problematic but, frankly, I haven’t figured out how to handle that yet.
**No, I am not suggesting that everyone has power over every interaction in their lives. And with factors like racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism at work you may not have access to the structures to support your choices in any given situation. However, I still think it is valuable to recognize how people use language for good and for bad, and acknowledge that the problem is not you.