In the Mira Nair film, The Namesake, there is a scene where Gogol Ganguly, a second generation immigrant to the United States of America, brings his American girlfriend to meet his Bengali parents. She tries to do everything right, and even brings gifts for her boyfriend’s parents. But then the gaping culture gap catches up. When Tabu, who plays Ashima, Gogol’s mother, opens the door, she is told that her future daughter-in-law is pleased to meet “Ashima and Ashok”. I flinch as Tabu winces on screen. In India, addressing an elder by name is sacrilege. And addressing parents or in-laws (or for that matter any older relative) by name is unheard of. There is always a respectful epithet substituted instead. Your teachers are always addressed as Sir and Ma’am.
Yet when we travel abroad, we quickly adapt. Our non-Indian mentors, teachers and seniors are addressed by their first names. And no one minds. In fact addressing someone as Sir and Ma’am will be seen as being too servile. I remember more than one occasion where I have been part of an international mixed group of educators. The sessions start with the American resource persons setting the ground rules, and telling us that everyone will be addressed on first name basis. And then the participants address the foreign faculty on first name basis, while the Indian faculty continues to be addressed as Sir and Ma’am by Indians. Despite constant reprimands, we simply couldn’t bring ourselves to address someone ten years older by their names. It just didn’t feel right.
But what about the workplace, especially in the government sector? Do we need to resort to the archaic Sir and Ma’am? This is a residual remnant of our colonial past. I have seen colleagues being subservient even in their emails where they begin with ‘Respected Sir’ where a simple ‘Sir’ should suffice. Bureaucrat-ese is worse. I just wish the colonial British style of letter writing is erased from our communication protocols. It starts with being deferential and it is a sureshot way to promote flattery. And in a very subtle manner it discourages dissent. The more I think of it, the more I feel that this is the start of inequality, where hierarchy is inducted into the organizational power pyramid. Decisions are rarely participatory in a tiered structure. After all ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ will always have the last word.
When it comes to the workplace I certainly wouldn’t mind anyone addressing me with my name. But would I myself be comfortable addressing a senior faculty by name? Certainly not. Because cultural things like this are entrenched in our psyches. Addressing a senior by name would be considered abrasive. I remember as a rookie addressing someone six months senior to me by name, and getting arched eyebrows in return. I was curtly asked: “Why aren’t you calling me Ma’am?” It is easier to go along with the tide rather than cause massive upheavals for something like this.
It is possible to be respectful without being servile. And somewhere culturally we need to separate the way we address people at home from the way we address colleagues at the workplace. This spillover from the Raj needs to be dispensed with. But this will happen slowly. For a start, maybe it will be easier for us to preface names with a Dr, Mr or Ms while we make the transition. But eventually formal tags will have to go while we address each other respectfully by their first names. This will make things easier and more equal at the workplace.
How about taking the first step yourself and asking your colleagues to address you by your first name? Who doesn’t like the sound of their own names anyway?