Excessive Formality May Harm Your Career

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Is there such a thing as too polite or too formal in the workplace? Yes, there absolutely is, and laying it on too thickly could do some real damage to your prospects.

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-military 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 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 period, 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.

You also run the risk of pigeonholing yourself as robotic and inflexible...

Many people struggle with the same issue. I can tell you from experience, however, that you should make an effort to dial it down. If you say sir or ma’am too much, especially after someone requests that you address them by her/his 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 robotic and inflexible, especially if you are a military veteran. (Unfortunately, there is already an abundance of negative, unwarranted stereotypes that accompany being a veteran which you will want to avoid...)

By all means, start with respectful and polite as your baseline. After that, read the room; 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 socially and professionally, but trust me: in the real world, formalities in the chain of command can be and typically are relaxed.

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. 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 corporate ladder, 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 may take practice; I still struggle with it myself.

Do you have experience with any of this? Let me know about it in the comments section below!

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