Why use titles?

What comes to your mind when you hear, “Yes Sir!”?

A scene from a war movie? Was it said with gung ho enthusiasm by a fresh faced recruit or with near-the-breaking-point contempt by the scarred, broken soldier?

A flashback to really bad fan fiction turned international best seller/blockbuster movie?

Your childhood? Or stories of your parent’s childhood?

Um. Last evening’s martial arts class?

If you’re reading this, the chances are really good that you are involved in a martial arts community in some way, so I’m guessing that for most of you, the use of honorifics such as “Sir” and “Ma’am” or titles isn’t as unusual or strange-sounding as it can be for the general public. On my birthday, my personal Facebook page gets peppered with “Happy birthday, ma’am!” and my friends-not-Kuk-Sool-friends always comment about how strange it is.

Why do we use titles or honorifics? There are a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s a term of respect. One of the ways we show respect (or a lack of it) is by what names we call each other. Formal honorifics tend to show greater respect than more casual use of first names or nicknames.
  2. It helps to define and support the hierarchy. (And why is that important? Because the hierarchy is part of what protects and supports students’ and instructors’ ability to train and teach safely.)
  3. Because we are asked to.

That last one is particularly important to me. We always ask our students and their families to use titles, all the time, every time. So when I hear someone call an instructor by his or her first name with no title, what I find most disappointing is that that person is calling someone by a name that he or she was never invited to use. If I call you Ms. Clementine and you say, “Oh, please, call me Myrtle,” then I show respect for you by accommodating your wishes. But if I’ve never asked you to call me by my name, and you continually do so, in person and in writing, it’s simply a discourteous practice. (Note to titled members of the greater WKSA community: if you invite me to call you by your first name, I must respectfully decline to accommodate your wishes. We are specifically told to use titles, all the time, every time, by Kuk Sa Nim, and, in this organization, his guidelines trump a member’s wishes.)

What are the titles we use? Here are a few:

Dahn Bo Nim: a candidate for first degree black belt. I kind of love that we use a title for students who are “merely” candidates for a black belt. It recognizes the dedication and grit that person has already shown, just to have gotten to this point.

Jo Kyo Nim: a first degree black belt. Each degree of black belt has its own title. I recommend learning them, especially when those titles correspond to actual people and instructors in your school.

Kwahn Jahng Nim: a master. There are multiple levels of master, and the formal titles, such as “Soo Suhk Kwahn Jahng Nim” always include that “Kwahn Jahng Nim.” While it is more formal to use the full title, using Kwahn Jahng Nim for a master is acceptable in most situations.

Sir or Ma’am. I find these problematic because English honorifics are gendered titles. We use the Korean, non-gendered titles as often as we can in our school, but below a certain rank, or for family members, the only honorifics or titles available to us are “sir” and “ma’am.” The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that we support and accommodate students and family members who specify their desire for the use of a particular gendered title or pronoun (or non-gendered pronoun). If someone can teach me a great, Korean, non-gendered title for “person I’m treating with respect,” I’d appreciate it.

Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, sir.

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