Monthly Archives: November 2011

Messages that Miss the Mark

by Guest Blogger:  Jessica Newcomb

Last week, I saw someone driving a car that was almost completely covered with bumper stickers like the one in the picture.

Let’s address the obvious first. A timeless piece of advice is to clean your vehicle inside and out before going to an interview. What would you think if you saw the owner of this car drive up for an interview at your company? After all, everything you wear or bring to an interview is an accessory that conveys your personal brand.

Selecting a few key, professional accessories polishes a look and sends a message of confidence and attention to detail. On the other hand, looking messy or being too flashy creates unnecessary distractions. You don’t want a potential employer talking about your car, suit, or any other accessory instead of your skills, abilities, or experience. With all of those bumper stickers, this person might be trying to convey that he is a free spirit who is spontaneous and unrestrained. In reality, the message is that he is messy and unfocused.

Now, let’s address the not so obvious. Because the messages were so overwhelming and conflicting, I couldn’t identify which was the most important message to the car owner. When your image is confusing and unfocused, others are likely to dismiss your good qualities with the bad because it’s too difficult and time consuming to separate them. Consequently, they are likely to dismiss you as a serious and viable candidate.

Each interaction you have with an employer gives him/her more information about you with which to make a final judgment. So, every interaction, whether written, on the phone, or in person needs to be flawless and focused.

What do you want an employer to know about you?

Can you identify anything about your image that detracts from that message?

Be aware of how each piece of your image works or doesn’t work together to create a consistent and focused message. Don’t be the guy in the car with too many bumper stickers to count.

~~ by Jessica Newcomb, Assistant Director, Masters Career Education and Advising, Graduate Business Career Services, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University



The Problem with “No Problem”

Have you noticed that fewer and fewer people say “You’re Welcome” when responding to “Thank You?”  The new response has become “No Problem.”  Think about what that really means.  “No Problem” infers that there could have been a problem.  I don’t know about you, but when someone thanks me the very last thing I want to infer is that I was put out in any way. 

The recipient of our gestures of kindness should see our freely given pleasure to help.   “No Problem” has become a slang response and while innocent does imply that our kindness was not 100% given whether we meant it that way or not.  Society has learned to accept this new response, but does that make it right?  My opinion is no. 

When someone thanks us for our kindness, the most respectful response is to reassure the recipient that our gesture was our complete pleasure. defines “welcome” as gladly receiving or acceptance with pleasure and without obligation for the courtesy received.  While does state that “no problem” means no thanks or apology is necessary, I argue that one should never respond to thank you with a phrase that is synonymous with no apology necessary. 

“Thank you” is an expression of gratitude; therefore, your response should communicate your complete pleasure in the gesture. 

The next time someone thanks you for an act or word of kindness, make sure this person knows of your complete happiness and pleasure of the courtesy.   Say “You’re Welcome.” 



Excuse Me Sir, Don’t Call Me Ma’am! – The Perils and Confusion of a Simple Acknowledgement

There is an ongoing debate that centers around one simple question:  Is using the terms “sir” and “ma’am” appropriate, outdated or condescending?

There are some that take offense when addressed as a sir or a ma’am; usually the complaint is that the terms are indicative of older age or the assertion that the terms come across as patronizing. Then there are those firmly planted on the opposite side of the fence who take offense when not referred to with sir or ma’am, as they feel the term shows an outward sign of respect. 

Clearly, Southern states are more prone to use such a title while on the East Coast it is seldom built in to any conversation. While the military routinely use the terms sir and ma’am as a daily part of their communication, a technology company or PR firm would be less likely to require their employees to use the term.

In customer service, “sir” and “ma’am” are commonly accepted ways to address an adult customer when you do not know their name: “Excuse me, ma’am, did you want a Grande or Venti Latte?”  Sir and ma’am are also often default terms when getting the attention of strangers: “Excuse me sir, you just dropped your wallet.”

Since the phrase does imply a perceived guesstimate as to a woman’s age (if you’re 16, you are more likely to hear “miss”) the safest route may be to simply eliminate the term altogether: “Excuse me, would you mind removing your shoe from the back of my jacket?”

Whatever your background, upbringing or training, here are some general etiquette tips on the use of sir and ma’am:

  • Calling colleagues sir or ma’am makes you seem junior-level. If you are relatively young, using sir and ma’am emphasizes your junior status, diminishes your power and could possibly make the person you’re addressing feel uncertain or ill at ease. “Yes sir, I can certainly provide you with guidance on your financial portfolio, just as soon as I have my milk and cookie break.” If, however, you are a new graduate, on a job interview, using the terms would be respectful and appropriate.
  • When in doubt of, ask. Your authority is conveyed through your tone of voice and professional demeanor.  It takes self-confidence to ask “How would you prefer I address your clients, sir and ma’am, Mr. Jones or by a first name?” Taking it upon yourself to clarify shows leadership.
  • Adapt to your surroundings. You may be “Southern born and bred” but if you insist on calling everyone older than you sir or ma’am, you may also be out of a job. Appearing unable to adjust sends the message that you are inflexible and unable to adapt.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of caution. While up to this point, sir and ma’am are somewhat controversial, Mr. or Ms. provides more clarity.   If you’re contacting someone you haven’t yet communicated with, it’s always safe to start by addressing them by their title (Mr. or Ms.   ̶   never Mrs.) and last name. If they ask you to call them by their first name, you may oblige. Never use any gender-specific title unless you are absolutely sure of the person’s gender (The Chris’s and Pat’s will thank you).

Above all, give each other the benefit of the doubt. If you are addressed in a genuinely friendly and respectful manner, take it at face value and respond in kind.   ~ Diane Gottsman

Diane Gottsman is a nationally recognized etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in corporate etiquette training. Diane is also the author of Pearls of Polish, an etiquette guide for today’s busy woman.