Getting it Right with the First-Name-Basis Means Saying “Sir”​ or “Ma’am”​ Sometimes Too… but When?

*Originally published April 20th, 2019.

BLUF: Attitude is everything, but manners go a long way too. Stay classy. When in doubt, whip it out! Meaning: if you THINK you’re in a “Sir” or “Ma’am” moment, you probably are.

Circa 2004 or so when I was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, I once got punched square in the chest by a Marine Master Sergeant who was an LNO to my unit from the I MEF. He was a big guy too! And a very cool dude. I learned an important lesson that day, which I value still now. In the Army, the standard custom for addressing a Master Sergeant is “Sergeant.” In the USMC, the custom is to address them by their full rank, “Master Sergeant.” That Devil Dog actually had told me several times over the course of the month or two we had already been working together to “please” call him by his proper address as to his custom, and I did recognize that I should do that. I was getting it right, mostly, but I just kept having slips of the tongue because I was so conditioned to my custom, the Army way. Don’t worry, he metered his force appropriately at a proper disciplined “teachable” level, but I learned how volatile the consequences can be from not exhibiting the right amount of interpersonal respect to peoples’ expectations.

I once heard a rumor that in the Air Force you’re allowed to “dude” two ranks up… but I don’t thinks that’s true, Lol, Is it? Among Army Officers, the custom of Senior Officers calling Junior Officers (JOs) by their first name at times (while “Sir” or “Ma’am” are always the expected standard addresses upward) is a dominant tradition, although I’ve known a few Senior Officers that abstain from that practice intentionally and will simply address JOs by rank and last name. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it is a human condition that we attach some level of respect to how we are addressed. There’s a wide spectrum range to proper address customs beyond these military examples, and I don’t intend to cover it ALL now. However, as a business leader these days I still know the right approach to avoid getting “punched in the chest” professionally by unintentionally not conveying the level of respect that’s in my best interest situationally.

The Diamond Rule is Better Than Gold

As far as I know, I just made up the term The Diamond Rule. I call it that because I believe its more valuable than the Golden Rule… because its not about YOU. Its not about treating others how YOU want to be treated. The Diamond Rule is “treat others how THEY want to be treated.” By definition, if someone is offended by something then, inherently, that something IS offensive. Whether it may be considered something reasonable or not is another story, but understanding these subtleties is important universally in interpersonal communications and respectful Consideration of Others (COO).

COO as a program can be part of a business’s organizational culture strategy, just as it was in the Army for me. When I was stationed in Korea I learned to bow, when I was in Germany I learned to say “Herr,” and when I was in Iraq we’d hug it out with our cross cultural partners as part of respectful custom. Upholding the Diamond Rule is important in business and in life, and I’ve seen that prove true without exception throughout a huge spectrum of contexts and proofs of principle. First, seek to understand peoples expectations and preference. Then, treat people according to their custom and preference as much as is reasonable and practicable. Only fail to do so with intention and having weighed the risk.

Everyone is Your Customer

I suppose I’ve acted out this ideology in practice since I was about 20 or 21 years old, but only did so subconsciously. However, I learned to think in these terms explicitly as a fundamental and deliberate way of approaching interpersonal relationships after learning it from an accomplished Sales Director friend of mine that I worked with who had also been a career law enforcement officer, and has met at least four U.S. Presidents. Or, I think it may have been five. I have met zero. In any case, I encourage everyone to think (and act) in line with this philosophy as a helpful guide to interpersonal respectfulness for productivity and for fostering successful relationships.

Your boss? He or she is your customer in some facets. Clearly, customers are customers, but all stakeholders are customers in a way too. Other departments, peers, subordinates, vendors, etc, in a corporate environment if you treat all of these entities like your customer and provide them excellent customer service, growth of respect for you will most likely compound in most things, and its simply a winning philosophy. Respect breeds trust. Trust powers growth. It is not necessary to always call everyone “Sir” or “Ma’am,” but keeping this customer focused philosophy top of mind can aid in recognizing situations when its to the right time to whip out the extra respect, Ma’am. Sir. Losing customers in business can be worse than getting punched in the chest, in my experience. Whether the punches get pulled or come full force is out of your control once someone feels disrespected, so you better be situationally aware and communicate with intention, always.

First Name Basis

In alot of companies (and in most of the younger, “forward thinking” ones certainly), the standard of the culture is that people call both Joe (the Janitor) and Joe (the CEO) “Joe”, just the same. I am someone who truly appreciates the first-name-basis standard of custom. It seeks to uphold interactions consistent with the view that we as humans are all fundamentally of equal value regardless of our jobs, status level, age, or career stage. I’ve probably put more thought into thinking about the first name basis in business than most people do, since I was used to Army custom and courtesy as my norm for so long. However, everybody wasn’t raised the same, and there are differences across some generational and cultural groups in the workforce today as it applies to level of appreciation for the organizational first-name-basis standard that customarily extends vertically in most organizations these days.

If all you’ve ever known is the first-name-basis standard, it is important to understand some of the variety of views that may be around you based on age and/or upbringing/cultural differences. Recognize that there’s always someone who would rather say “Sir” or “Boss” or call people by “Mister” or “Miss” (or whatever) as what is comfortable for them, and is what they feel as the way to convey respect. If you’re listening, you’ll hear them. See them and take note, refer to the points above. There’s a great quote I love by Maya Angelou and always apply alongside interpersonal customer-centricity and the Diamond Rule:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Me too, Maya! Me too. Its a good policy to always want to make people whom you do respect to feel respected by you, right? Sometimes to accomplish that requires more than the standard first-name-basis treatment.

Even though we live in the first-name-basis era, a well placed “Sir” or “Ma’am” in certain contexts with the right tone can do wonders to shape positive feeling towards yourself in a variety of ways. People generally recognize it as being extra nice. If I hold the door for someone they might say “thank you.” If they do, I usually am certain to add a “Sir” or “Ma’am” in my reply: No problem, Sir! I’ve found that all people, strangers to friends alike, usually appreciate that kind of courtesy a little more than simply hearing “No problem” alone, and it only takes a syllable of effort. Just sayin.

I, personally, also like to insert “Sir” or “Ma’am” into discussions that may be heated, argumentative, or require high reassurance and/or consideration. “I hear you, Sir, but I disagree.” “Ma’am, I’m sorry you feel that way. I can assure you that…” “I implore you, Mr. Smith, Sir, to look more closely into…” If you take the “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” out of those situations you might not be as effective nor achieve the best results. Especially if you are in a situation where you ought to be taking accountability for a mistake or shortcoming that was expected of you (like with a boss), the courtesy can go a long way. When in doubt, whip it out! Just like Kendrick Lamar said: be humble. “It won’t happen again, Ma’am”, says a lot more with “Ma’am” at the end than without. A well placed “Sir” or “Ma’am” can be a small thing of sorts that instills confidence in the listener, deflates negative feelings, shows appropriate humility, and can help to reach productive common ground.

Wrap Up

Its 2019 and relationships are more important than ever. There’s no short cuts to good form and no substitute for a good reputation. If you want to keep a high NPS with all those around you take my advice: treat everyone with excellent customer service appropriately. Practice the Diamond Rule. When in doubt, err on the side of respect and taking the high road by default. Exampling this type of behavior shows leadership, courage, and trustworthiness. People around you won’t forget how you made them feel by extending the simple courtesy of calling them “Sir”, “Ma’am”, or in whatever way the wish to be called. Being deliberate in communicating this way is surely the best approach to success with people all around universally. If nothing else, upholding respect in these ways will at least decrease your chance of getting punched in the chest. No slack.

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