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Be Careful What You Call Your Boss

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Rep. Paul Broun might have the voting card of a Member of Congress, but the honorific he prefers is “doctor,” not “Congressman.”

And no matter where on the matter their own boss stands, staffers agree that when addressing a Member who’s not their boss, formality always rules. In elevators, in the hallways or in meetings, the most respectful address seems to be the default position.

“It’s always ‘Congressman,’ or ‘Congresswoman,’ no question,” one GOP House staffer says. “You always remember that you’re representing your boss, but that doesn’t mean that you’re as familiar as your boss is with his colleagues.”

Even once one has sorted out who likes to be called what, there’s the not-so-small matter of what to call them in writing. A first name might not be appropriate, but using only a last name might sound brusque or disrespectful. And so in internal emails and texts, many staffers refer to the boss by his or her initials.

The phenomenon persists even for Members whose middle names aren’t often invoked. Coburn, for example, is usually “TAC,” short for Thomas Allen Coburn, in his staff’s internal communications.

“That’s shorthand,” Lamel says. “It’s a respectful way to save a few keystrokes.”

In fact, some staffers so frequently type out initials that they begin using them in conversations, adding another name into the already jumbled pile of Hill names.

Titles can be tricky, too. Some female Members, including Boxer, like to use “Chairman” instead of “Chairwoman.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) identifies herself as “Congressman.”

If it’s a confusing maze to navigate, there’s one surefire trick to addressing a Member of Congress. McCann often offers this tip to his students, paraphrasing a quote from Harley Dirks, a powerful appropriations clerk during the 1960s: “I call them all ‘Chairman,’” Dirks said. “If they are, they expect it, and if they’re not, they’re flattered.”

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