I remember my father’s phone conversations. They were less conversation and filled with “Good Morning, sir”…“Yes, sir” … “Sure, sir” …. “No, sir” and “Right, sir”. Whether it was someone from the office or a friend, I could never tell the difference. I had sort of assumed that that’s the way things are. The social context and the official context were therefore rather blurred.
In the social context, an elderly lady in the neighborhood is always addressed as ‘akka’ or ‘didi’. A more senior lady is safely addressed as ‘amma’ and a senior gentleman is ‘thata’. Here in Andhra Pradesh and in Telangana, there is the gender neutral “gaaru” that comes in handy in a slightly more formal context. So it can be, “Lakshmi gaaru, how are you?” and also, “Good morning, Lakshman gaaru.” We use the term ‘gaaru’ when we want to give the person some added respect while addressing them. In much of the northern parts of the country the ‘ji’ is equivalent to the ‘gaaru’. So it is, ‘Sharma ji’ or ‘Mathur ji’. The ubiquitous ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’ are always there in our Indian context – right from the vegetable vendor to the milk man. And more interestingly, the unique, ‘aunty ji’ and ‘uncle ji’. I wonder how an Englishman reacts to that! Did he hyperventilate on arrival to our shores? And there’s the unique twist of ‘madam ji’ and ‘sir ji’ to add to the heady mix by which we address people around us. I am pretty convinced that an Englishman would faint when he heard that for the first time. Then there’s always the kirana shop ‘bhaiyyas’ or the really young guys at tea stalls and cafes whom we address as ‘Chotu’. Usually, guards and gatekeepers, especially from Nepal are ‘Bahadur bhaiyya’ or simply ‘Bahadur’.
It is an interesting mixture of do’s and don’ts in the official context – one is advised to judge the context and make those subtle modifications to speech and writing. It can be rather jarring for a senior person from a more conservative organization who is used to being called ‘madam’ or ‘sir’ to be suddenly addressed by younger person as say, ‘Hey Uma’ or ‘Hi Ramesh’. What is worse, you could be branded as rude, discourteous, headstrong, ill-mannered, extra-smart, or an upstart. One has to just quickly judge the culture of an organization and adapt. At a meeting with a potential corporate client recently, I realized as I walked into the office, that this is a place where people would like to be ‘sir’ed and ‘madam’ed’ and I was right. It was just the set-up of the office and the body language of the people that can give clues that you have to latch on to. Hopefully, we will get the project in hand. I did at least one thing right!