Dear Mr Manners,
It depends on your workplace, industry, the company culture, what part of the country you live in, and the person’s role. I know that some women get irritated when you call them “ma’am” for a number of reasons (they think it’s too formal, or they feel they aren’t old enough to be a “ma’am”).
When I worked as a senior manager and later as a director, people sometimes called me “ma’am” even after I let them know it was not necessary. They continued to do it because it was a habit - that was how they were raised, or they had been in the military. It was a respect thing. I also know that in conservative workplaces or industries (with lots of suits) it’s much more common.
As a baby boomer and daughter of a Marine, I was taught to address people with sir or ma’am. I hated it and I dispensed with that as soon as I left home! At work I’ve always been quite informal, but to this day I will throw out the occasional “sir” or “ma’am” when I feel it’s warranted, particularly if I’m interacting with a EVP or C-level executive that is my age or older. Again, it’s a respect thing and I appreciate something they did.
On another note, I had a direct report that always called me “Boss”, as in “Okay Boss” or “Need anything before I leave Boss?” but being called “Boss” bothers me more than “Ma’am” because my leadership style is to break down role barriers and work as a team. Nobody worked “for me” instead they worked “with me.” Boss didn’t jibe with that, whereas Ma’am was more of a societal label.
All that being said…bottom line: Definitely, don’t throw the “ma’am” card every time you interact; your manager has a name so use it. If in doubt, ask someone like your boss, or HR. Don’t rely on your immediate circle of peers to know what’s appropriate. I hope this helps!
Originally published on Quora