Is there such a thing as too polite or too formal in the civilian workplace? Yes, there absolutely is, and laying it on too thickly could damage your career.
If you grew up in a sir/ma’am culture or are a military veteran, you may feel as if the use of respectful titles is in your DNA. There are some professional perils to being excessively formal that you should be aware of, though. Most people simply don’t talk that way in the civilian workplace, and they aren’t used to hearing it from employees and coworkers either. How can you relax these standards while still staying true to your values?
In my first post-service job, I called everyone sir or ma’am. Even when they chuckled and said, “You don’t have to call me sir,” I continued. I felt as if I couldn’t help it. What I didn’t realize was that my extreme formality actually put a barrier between myself and my colleagues. Instead of being seen as respectful, I came off as different, “other,” and unrelatable, which took me quite some time to overcome. During this time, I had a typo in the salutation of an email to my boss that read, “Good morning Sire,” instead of, “Good morning Sir.” The rest of my email was so rife with over-the-top, pretentious verbiage that the recipient actually thought I had deliberately referred to him as “Sire.” Yikes.
What I didn’t realize was that my extreme formality actually put a barrier between myself and my colleagues.
Many people struggle with the same issue. I can tell you from experience, however, that you should make a concerted effort to dial it down. If you say sir or ma’am too much, especially after people request that you address them by their name instead, you run the risk of isolating yourself or making people uncomfortable. I even had a boss tell me that she hated it, because it made her feel old and inaccessible. You also run the risk of pigeonholing yourself as a “typical veteran,” which may make you appear robotic and inflexible. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of negative, unwarranted stereotypes that accompany being a veteran which you will want to avoid at all costs.
By all means, start with respectful and polite as your baseline. After that, listen carefully; it is exceptionally important to do what people ask. If your boss says, “You don’t have to call me sir. Call me John,” you need to call him John from there on out. This may seem like a foreign concept. After all, when you were in the service, if a General ever told you, “You don’t have to call me General or sir, call me John,” you would respond with, “Yes, sir,” and continue to call them sir or General. Believe it or not, I have had that happen to me personally a handful of times. That is a big difference between the military and civilian workplace: formalities in the chain of command can be and typically are relaxed.
If you decline the invitation to level ground by holding fast to rigid formalities, you are selling yourself short.
When a superior says, “Call me Jane,” she is inviting you to come up to her level and treating you as an equal. It is important to allow someone that opportunity, so accept her generous offer by honoring her request. In the civilian world, it is acceptable to oblige. In actuality if you decline the invitation to level ground by holding fast to rigid formalities, you are selling yourself short. Don’t forget, you were hired because your boss thought highly of you. If your boss wants to place you halfway up the chain, don’t insist on climbing down to the bottom of it and starting from there.
Don’t misunderstand: one should never relax his/her professionalism. However, it is definitely possible to be respectful with a bit less formality. It will take practice; I still struggle with it myself. Do you have experience with any of this? Let us know about it in the comments section or on our Facebook page.