British left India in 1947. But we do have some of the colonial legacies; some are frowned upon but the rest have become part and parcel of our lives. While some still follow it because there are no alternatives, others don’t have ideas about why they follow it.
Coming straight to the point. How many are aware of the history of the origin of the words ‘Sir’ and ‘Madame (Ma’am)’? Not many. Most of us are blind followers of culture, without giving any effort to know the meaning behind it. We still continue to address seniors at workplaces as Sir/Ma’am. This is one of the colonial legacies which should have ended in 1947 but we are still in the phase of colonial hangover.
Origin of Sir/ Ma’am
‘Sir‘ is a formal English honorific address for men, derived from ‘Sire‘ in the High Medieval Ages (between 11th -13th centuries). Traditionally, as governed by law and custom, Sir is used for men titled Knights, and later also to baronets, and other offices. The transformation in the modern era took place in such a way that the word started to be used to address any commoners of a superior ‘social status’. The word is also commonly used to address persons in military rank.
Likewise, the word ‘Madame‘ derives from ‘my dame‘. The word was once used to address married women or women who have been once in a position of authority. The word ‘dame‘ is now considered as an offensive slang but we still continue to use ‘Madame‘.
Now, what happened in colonial India?
The Order of the Star of India was established in 1861 to reward prominent British and Indian civil servants, military officers and prominent Indians associated with the Indian Empire. From 1861 to 1866, the Order of the Star of India had a single class of Knights (KSI), who were entitled to the style of ‘Sir’. This was later on reclassified into three divisions.
No appointments have been made since the 1948 New Year Honours. The last surviving Knight, Maharaja Sir Tej Singh Prabhakar of Alwar passed away in 2009 and since then the order became dormant. When a new Constitution of India came into being in 1950, the Maharaja was left with no option but to abolish the title as Article 18 of the Constitution abolished non-academic and non-military titles.
So, why are we still using the titles of Sir/Ma’am?
Going Back to Schools
Leave workplaces for some time. Remember? How did we use to wish teachers at schools? ‘Good Morning Sir/ Ma’am’. Right from the primary level, we have been taught to use the words Sir/Ma’am. This is one of the inherent problems in the education system, where the teachers themselves are promoting the use of words which were considered ‘titles of class’ in the colonial past. And do we even have any alternatives?
In the ancient past, we used to address our teachers as ‘Guru ji‘. Now, how many students wish their teachers the same way? And how many teachers would like to be called Guru ji? In the United States, students call their teachers by titles (Mr./Ms./Mrs.) plus the last name or sometimes the first name. In most of the Asian countries, students are encouraged to call their teachers by the simple words ‘teacher’ or ‘Professor’.
Most of the Asian countries have their own words. In South Korea, students call teachers ‘seonsaeng‘. Chinese students address their teachers as ‘Lǎoshī‘ (When I was in Taiwan for 2 months as exchange students, I used to address teachers over there as Lǎoshī. Using of Sir/Ma’am is frowned upon’). So, if they can have alternatives, why not India?
Coming to Workplaces
Nowadays, many of the multinational companies in India have done away with the titles of ‘Sir/Ma’am’, whatever the designation/position in the company, they mutually call each other by first names with all respect. This has been common in the U.S. But there are a number of companies, small organizations and other enterprises which still follow the traditional practice of Sir/Ma’am which is actually hierarchical.
There is a dilemma. What if someone gets insulted if I call the person by first name or last name? Or will the person get insulted if I address him/her by Sir/Ma’am? When you join an organization, you will be usually told how to address your colleagues and seniors. But there is always a level of discomfort to many. Especially, a person like me, I would never want to address my seniors as Sir/Ma’am. Because this itself creates a status differentiation. We do not live in a slavery driven culture and such words should be cautiously used.
Calling by first names can be criticized as following the western culture. But what we have been using since the last 7 decades- ‘Sir/Ma’am’, isn’t it of western culture? It is. Ours is a culture where young people do not address their elders and seniors by names. True, young people might feel awkward addressing a person of their fathers’ or mothers’ age by first names. But do you want to promote a notion where seniority by age or designation is more superior than your talent or what you bring to the table? We should discourage this notion of ‘flat hierarchy‘.
These words go against the ‘dignity of labor‘. No work is small. No matter what kind of work you do or which position you hold, there should be equality. Our IAS/IPS/IFS officers address our Ministers as ‘Sir/Ma’am’. Do our Ministers reciprocate in the same manner? No.
What has emerged in the last few decades can be a sign of some improvement. I have a Bengali friend who works in one of the media houses, he addresses his senior editor as ‘Dada‘ (which means brother in English). There is also a culture where people have started using the last names along with ‘ji‘, for example, the commonly used ‘Sharma ji‘. ‘Ji‘ is not a title but commonly used to show respect. So, at least we have one alternative, which again might be uncomfortable to many.
Think Before Addressing Someone
Hardik Dave, an IT professional based in Toronto, but who occasionally visits his hometown in Ahmedabad, launched a campaign in 2017- ‘No Sir, No Madame‘. He said that it’s archaic and obsolete to call superiors ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ and it’s time Indians created a healthier work environment based on mutual respect rather than deference.
In fact, I agree that Indians should work on to abandon the feudalistic habit of addressing anyone of higher designation as Sir or Madame. For those who work in the military, Sir and Ma’am are an act of respect. But our workplaces have become less formal, why do we still need to use archaic words? Be one of the changemakers. If one of your seniors want you to address him/her as Sir/Ma’am, and if you are uncomfortable, there will always be a mutual ground to sort out that issue. But don’t remain subdued. You can’t get fired because of such petty reasons!