The word “obsequious” is used to describe someone who is almost pathetically eager to follow, obey, and serve. It is often used in a pejorative way, suggesting that someone has rather slavish tendencies which are obnoxious and sometimes embarrassing. Most people make an effort to avoid being obsequious, finding ways to express compliance which are more subtle and less intense than obsequiousness, although in some cultures this servile attitude is considered socially acceptable.
This word is derived from the Latin ob, which means “to,” and sequi, “follow,” so the word literally means “to follow.” The term appears to have entered English around the 1300s, and it at first referred to dutiful service. The early incarnation of the word was typically used in a complimentary way, praising people who were prompt to serve. By the 1500s, however, the word had acquired its modern sense of being fawning and sycophantic, and it has decidedly negative connotations today.
Many people associate excessive flattering, fawning, and bootlicking with modern day obsequiousness. The implication is that someone is abasing him or herself to please someone else, and in many cultures people who tolerate obsequious behavior are also viewed negatively. Rather than simply being polite, submissive, and happy to serve, someone who is obsequious crosses the line, demonstrating behavior which can be distasteful in its intensity.
In some professions, obsequious behavior can be very common. Some waiters, for example, are accused of being obsequious, and striking a balance between being obsequious and simply providing attentive service can be challenging for many people in the service industry. For workers in the service industry, part of the problem is that different people have different personal thresholds for obsequiousness; for example, one person might be annoyed by a waiter who constantly checks on drinks for the table, while someone else would appreciate this gesture.
If someone suggests that your behavior is obsequious, you might want to examine the way you conduct yourself, especially around superiors such as bosses. If you're confused about why the label has been applied to you, you may want to ask for specific examples, especially if you are living or working in an unfamiliar culture, as different societies have their own versions of obsequiousness and their own levels of tolerance for it.