Apart from text and Jejemon speak, there is nothing that annoys me more than the constant (mis)use of the honorifics “Sir” and “Master” in Filipino forums and discussion groups. You’ll see this a lot in PinoyExchange and TipidPC, but it has already spread into other tech sites that attract newbies.

This short post will explain why I think these honorifics shouldn’t be used outside an ironic and/or personal (i.e. you know the guy personally) context.

No one does it outside low-class and/or tech related forums.

With this behavior so widespread in the places where it is seen, you’d think that it’s not just a Filipino thing and it’s really how newbies approach senior people.

But the fact is, it’s not a global thing. You don’t see newbie programmers in r/learnprogramming calling people sirs or masters.

And when you visit many other discussion groups, you’ll notice that it’s not even standard behavior for Filipinos.

Look at discussions in PhRUG or PHPUG, tech groups that have newbies but are generally filled with experienced people, and you’ll see that no one really calls anyone a “sir” or “master”. The only people doing that are newbies that come from forums where it is considered normal.

Move on to local non-tech “geek” groups (e.g. gaming, art, music, pop-culture, etc) and you’ll see the same trend of people not using the two terms to refer to seniors. Even in Deviant Art, a place infamous for having way too many sycophants, it’s rare to see someone call a good artist a “master”.

It’s nothing but bullshit flattery.

You might say, “But saying sir and master is just a harmless way of showing respect!”

Well, yeah, it’s an honorific. Whenever I see it, though, it’s always used as bullshit flattery.

Look at it this way: if you’re using Tagalog to communicate, you can simply use po to signify politeness. On the other hand, you can always use humble speech (i.e. using humble questions instead of demanding answers) if you’re using English.

In either case, using “sir” and “master” is unnecessary. At the best case, it can be seen as a sign of laziness; at the worst, it can be seen as boot-licking flattery that borders on colonial mentality.

Almost all of your “Sirs” and “Masters” don’t deserve the title.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve facepalmed over someone calling an obviously average person a “Master”.

Yes, Filipinos are world class, but it doesn’t mean that you can just call anyone who’s competent as his craft a “sir” or “master” without any negative connotations.

I’d like to chalk it up to naïveté, with most people not knowing how certain skills are normal and not magical if that’s your job, but I don’t hear people calling doctors “masters” for knowing how to diagnose common diseases, or plumbers for knowing how to unclog drains.

Nope, this still falls into either laziness in the part of the praiser, or just plain boot-licking.

It lowers the potential quality of everyone.

Those who claim that these honorifics are harmless probably have never seen their long-term effects.

By bestowing honorifics unto average people, they have unconsciously lowered the bar for themselves. Instead of striving to reach much higher skill levels, they instead settle for mediocrity, thinking to themselves “Kung ganyan kagaling si sir/master, pwede na ganito na lang ako.”

On the other hand, by hearing people praising their lackluster skills, these sirs/masters unconsciously believe that they’re skills are enough. And so instead of looking for opportunities to improve their skills and knowledge further, they also settle for mediocrity.

You can see it for yourself: go to any discussion group where calling people sirs and masters are the norm and look at their archive to see the growth of the skill sets of their members. Then go to some other discussion group where egalitarianism is the norm. You’ll likely see more people visibly improving in the latter.

Bottom line: there is no reason to call seniors you don’t know “Sir” or “Master”.

IMO, there are only a handful of people who really deserve such honorifics, and even they are knowledgeable/humble enough to acknowledge that they are not that good yet.

[3/9/2013 UPDATE] This post got a bit viral yesterday and it seems I need to point out some stuff that people didn’t get about this post.

So what do I use instead of Sir/Master/Boss/Madam/whatever?

It all depends on context. I’m actually fine with using these honorifics as long as they are used in the correct situation.

For example, “Boss” is my go to honorific when asking people who are obviously not my superior like security guards, jeepney barkers, or the person on the street (i.e. the “shouldn’t be used outside an ironic context” I mentioned above).

Boss, nasaan yung CR?

Another possible context is in a hierarchical environment like corporate and academe. Since ass-kissing is inherent in those societies, I find that going against the flow to be a waste of time so I just use them there like everybody else.

There’s an exception there, though. Corporate environments that deal with foreign clients on a regular basis, or those that have a flat hierarchy (or both) tend to do away with the honorifics, mainly because of the reasons I outlined above. Here you’ll just have to figure out what you’re comfortable with.

For example, I wouldn’t call JerrySir Jerry” when talking to him even though he’s my superior. On the other hand, I refer to him as “Sir Jerry” when talking about him with HR/Admin under him in Exist (“Paki-reserve yung room kasi may meeting kami mamayang 6PM ni Sir Jerry“) because I’m sure they would be more comfortable with the honorific form.

Now when we’re talking about the place I wrote about in the original post…

So what do I use instead of Sir/Master/Boss/Madam/whatever when I’m asking for advice in public forums?

If you’re using English, use proper English.

If you’re asking in Tagalog, don’t use text-speak and just use po a couple of times.

It’s that simple.

When asking for advice, it’s much more important to ask smart questions (How to Ask, How to Ask Questions the Smart Way) than being “polite”. I’ve seen way too many newbies fall into this trap and ask questions like:

elo p0w mga sir master, panu p0 gmwa ng wbsitez?

Yes you’re “polite”, but your question is too vague. And frankly, it looks too stupid to encourage proper discussion.

There lies the irony – people claim to use honorifics to be polite, and yet they keep using it in an impolite manner: insulting the intelligence of their intended audience.

Also, for the non-programmers here who didn’t get the in-joke, see the Jargon File’s entry on considered harmful.

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11 Responses to “Sir” and “Master” Considered Harmful

  1. reneorense says:

    so, what’s the main reason..?

  2. Mademoiselle says:

    But Sir… Ooops! Pero ano na lang gamitin ko, p’re?

  3. jsncruz says:

    I’ll agree with this post. I’m a Filipino, but I spent much of my life in Malaysia, where ‘honorifics’ are deeply and genuinely rooted in culture (there are royal families in every state, and achievers ARE knighted often by the King).

    Coming back to the Philippines, just stepping into a mall will see one experience a flood of honorifics, often with no regard for gender either (the classic “Ma’am/Sir!”). In my opinion, it’s not simply an extension of a service-based culture, but a lack of respect for the titles being used. A simple “Hi, would you like assistance while you shop?” would probably convince me of politeness more than “Ma’am/sir, ano po ang hinahanap niyo?”

  4. axiom says:

    I seems to be be used a bit differently where I go — those titles are used only among peers of ‘masters’ and ‘sirs’ — not to be polite but to proclaim equal technical footing with those people. It is usually the more experienced (or egotistic) person who uses it first, so typically a lot of ‘sirs’ or ‘masters’ get thrown back and forth to assert who is more ‘sir’ or ‘master’. stroking one another’s egos, like a couple of japanese bowing to one another ever lower and lower. Quite amusing, but it serves to create better rapport, I guess.

  5. Language evolves to fit the culture. It’s never the other way around. I think it’s all about your general perspective of things. I respect your ideas. I respect that you think that a particular sub-culture is bullshit just because some other people are not doing it.

    I believe that these ‘honorifics’ are on the same level as ‘kuya’, ‘manong’, ‘tita’, ‘auntie’. Verbal respect, even though ‘bull shit flattery’, is rooted in our culture. Unless of course you also question why you call your mother ‘mama’ or ‘nanay’ instead of her first name. It’s insulting and disrespectful only if you think they really are belittling you. It’s like shouting at a child for making a mess drawing something for you. You’re not more right or more intelligent.

    I hope you respect people who call you ‘sir’ or ‘master’ as much as they respect you when you call them by whatever you want to call them. I hope that you do not judge someone’s intelligence because of how they write or speak. I hope you see the ‘deep’ good in everyone and stop using your own self-righteous flawed paradigm to inflict unnecessary pain.

    Nonetheless, I respect your views.

    • Bry says:

      Language evolves to fit the culture. It’s never the other way around. I think it’s all about your general perspective of things.

      Linguists/anthropologists/psychologists who support the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis would disagree.

      I believe that these ‘honorifics’ are on the same level as ‘kuya’, ‘manong’, ‘tita’, ‘auntie’. Verbal respect, even though ‘bull shit flattery’, is rooted in our culture. Unless of course you also question why you call your mother ‘mama’ or ‘nanay’ instead of her first name.

      No, kinship terms are not on the same level as honorifics, as evidenced by its common usage in cultures that don’t place too much emphasis on honorifics. Some cultures do use kinship terms for honorifics (and vice versa), though.

      And again, context is key here.

      It’s insulting and disrespectful only if you think they really are belittling you. It’s like shouting at a child for making a mess drawing something for you.

      No, they are not belittling us. They are, however, belittling themselves — which is exactly why we want to discourage this behavior.

      You’re not more right or more intelligent.

      I hope you respect people who call you ‘sir’ or ‘master’ as much as they respect you when you call them by whatever you want to call them. I hope that you do not judge someone’s intelligence because of how they write or speak. I hope you see the ‘deep’ good in everyone and stop using your own self-righteous flawed paradigm to inflict unnecessary pain.

      And again, this post is not about superiority. In fact we want to do away with it and put everyone on equal footing in order to encourage fruitful discourse.

      But if that’s how you read the post, I respect your views.

      I respect your ideas. I respect that you think that a particular sub-culture is bullshit just because some other people are not doing it.

      Nonetheless, I respect your views.

      Oh and do away with the compliment sandwich. It just doesn’t have that much effect considering we’re talking about language and its effect on thinking and human emotion.

  6. gsmendoza says:

    Only saw this post now. Sums up everything I felt about the use of Sir and Master in phrug 🙂

    > For example, “Boss” is my go to honorific when asking people who are obviously not my superior like security guards, jeepney barkers, or the person on the street.

    My brother and I had a discussion a long time ago about the use of “Boss”. Having worked in Manila for some time, he argued that the term is a symptom of Manila’s “hard” culture. He disliked the term because of its falseness: it communicates “I’m higher than you but I’ll be gracious and call you Boss to make you feel better.”

    So what alternatives might be better? I think kinship terms (Kuya/Ate/Uncle/Auntie) is a good way of showing respect to older people. A quick “Excuse me” also works well in all situations.

  7. rL says:

    Only saw this post now. Ive seen a few instances of outright “please stop calling us master!”, but sirs and masters are still rampant (matter of time before Chief and Bros top the list). Its really EZ to miss the light side to this.

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