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Posts Tagged ‘madam’

On the Yahoo group of my school alumni association, there was recently a vibrant debate on whether or not one should address elders as “Sir”. I thought the debate should be brought out of the closed e-group. So, this post.

To Sir or not to Sir? To Ma’am or not to Ma’am? —  This is an issue we all have faced — continue to face — in one way or the other at one time or the other.

When I was in school and college, there was no problem. All teachers and professors were addressed Sir or Ma’am. No second thoughts on any counts.

Trouble started when I got a job. The serious seniors were called Sir and Madam. But there was one among them who told me not call him Sir. I wondered how could he not like being called Sir, and dismissed his request as a pretense to being politically correct. He looked very much the sort of person who would actually enjoy the sound of Sir.

But the next time I Sir-red him, he told me with a stern look and a firm voice, ”Didn’t I tell you not to call me Sir. Just call me (his name)…”. This landed me in a difficult predicament. I couldn’t bring myself to addressing him by his name, and took the easy path of calling him nothing. Anyway, the agony didn’t last long, as he got another job and left.

Then there were a few seniors who were quite friendly, and never threw their weight around as seniors. With them, I discovered that calling them by their name, though initially difficult, was not impossible, with the ice melting very fast.

As I moved gradually to middle level, things were easier. No longer a rank junior, I took the liberty to call most of my immediate seniors by their name.

Other side of sir-ing divide

When I became a senior myself, I discovered that I was on the other side of the Sir-ing divide. It became apparent with the newcomers calling me Sir. Some of them not really junior, but I never made any forceful attempt to change the way they called me. Not because I enjoyed being Sir-ed (I don’t like being called Sir), but I knew with time, Sir will quietly vanish. And it did. All the (then) newcomers, without having to be told, began addressing me by name. I felt good.

But with more time passing, we have had still younger newcomers. Like earlier they have all been calling me Sir. The camaraderie of the work place has broken down the walls of formality. But the Sir-ing has continued. I told them, “Enough of Sir; just all me Pradeep.” But they replied: “Sir, you are so senior, and we are so junior how can we call you by your name!”

I have left it at that, reconciling myself to the fact that I am getting old, and the actual and perceived age difference between me and my juniors is indeed wide. Also, I get an eerie feeling that if I pushed this issue further, out of sheer compulsion, a few of my juniors might reluctantly call me nothing. Imagine, someone unable to call me either as Sir or Pradeep, trying desperately to catch my attention by raising voice, or waving hand, or pushing a paper, or talking out of turn… O, that’s bizarre.

I hope one day — when the perceived age-difference narrows down to a comfortable level, when the junior-senior perception has vanished — they all will call me Pradeep… 

Sir and Madam out of courtesy

The usage of Sir and Madam is not restricted to offices. In fact, it is used out of courtesy when talking to a stranger, old or young, unless the person is too young and one might prefer Young Man or Young Girl. In India, very few people use it out of courtesy. We as a nation, in fact, lag quite far behind when it comes to being courteous to strangers. Very rarely there is a Thank you, or a Please, forget Sir or Madam. 

There is a school of thought that ascribes Sir and Madam to servility, a legacy of the British Raj. I don’t agree. One can be servile without using Sir and even while using Sir one can be dominating.

Sir and Madam indicate respect, and can often be used in a disarming manner to get an upper hand in an interpersonal situation. In fact, a lot of us, easily resort to Sir or Madam when we have to get something done. So, in government offices or in any such place where we have to speak to someone in power, however disrespectful he or she looks or behaves, we selfishly use Sir or Madam.

Comfort level

So, let us go back to the initial question: To Sir or not to Sir. Is there a thumb rule? Is there a definitive guideline? I doubt if there is.

Sir and Madam do sound quite formal and official. Between strangers when the ice has melted and formality has given way to informality, Sir and Madam also give way to First Name. And, to make it doubly sure, at the earliest opportunity, the issue is settled with “Hope you don’t mind me calling you … (his or her first name).” This will in all likelihood fetch the answer: “Sure… (first name). 

How much ever the formality in interpersonal interaction has broken down, a wide difference (actual or perceived) in age can induce a sense of distance between the two persons, forcing the use of Sir or Madam. The perceived age difference can come down with greater interaction over a period of time. Then, mostly Sir and Madam too vanish. 

At the end of it all, it’s the comfort level that matters; the comfort level of the junior and the senior; the person who is addressing and the person who is addressed.

Let me end with a quote from a Polish blogger, Anna:

Polish is a very formal language. And people may take offense when they’re not addressed properly. A few months ago I was out with a group of friends and strangers, foreigners and Poles. I chatted with one lady in English, turned out she was Polish, so I switched to Polish. Because in English, I addressed her as “you”, I didn’t even think twice about using the same form in Polish – “ty”. She was my age and we were in a foreign country. Yet, her response was an icy stare and an even icier “Ja z tobą krów nie pasałam” (I didn’t tend cows with you) which is a nasty warning to a person talking to you (me in this case) that he/she has breached the magical Pan/Pani barrier. (More)

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