A respectful address builds an undesirable distance

  • Karan Thapar
  • Updated: May 15, 2016 00:45 IST
Former British foreign secretary David Miliband believes in informality. (SONU MEHTA/HT)

As I grow older I often wish we were less respectful and more familiar in the way we greet each other. Instead, the terms of address we use can sometimes rankle and, occasionally, scratch close to the bone. Of course, that’s not how they’re meant but that can certainly be how they feel.

This is, of course, a personal tale and it begins with our liberal use of the term ‘Sir’. Like Americans, we use it for almost every male we meet who is older and who, additionally, we don’t know. Now, I don’t find this particularly problematic although I’d rather be called Karan or, if necessary, Mr Thapar. ‘Sir’ puts one on a pedestal which may be elevating but is also distancing. No doubt it’s respectful but it also keeps you at arm’s length. The space it enforces prevents easy friendship.

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However, it’s when people start calling you ‘uncle’ that I begin to bristle. Not for a moment do I object to the relationship that’s being claimed but ‘uncle’ also conveys a distinct statement of age. An uncle is clearly an older man. In fact, of a different generation. So, when a 30-year-old acquaintance, who you think could possibly become a pal, calls you ‘uncle’, you know that in his eyes age is a barrier that’s firmly separating you. It feels even worse when the person is a woman!

I recall many an occasion when I’ve been happily shopping, contemplating what to buy from a tempting selection on display, and the shopkeeper, no doubt intending to encourage, interrupted my self-absorption with the words ‘kuch thanda piyenge uncleji?’ If you happen to be feeling youthful and light-hearted this can bring you down to earth with a crushing thud!

Premila, my elder sister, has got used to being called ‘auntyji’. Once you cross 40 or 50 it’s not just inevitable, it’s unavoidable. But imagine her consternation when a vegetable vendor called her ‘mataji’. No doubt he was surrendering to her fierce bargaining but ‘mataji, aap jitna dena chahate hein mujhe manzoor hain’ was hardly what she wanted to hear. Worse, he looked almost her age! ‘Mataji’ took the vegetables and left as soon as she could.

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Of course, not everyone is like Premila. I can never forget the look of offended amour propre on Pranab Mukherjee’s face when a former British foreign secretary, David Miliband, who must have been half his age, called him Pranab. Miliband meant to be informal and friendly. Mr Mukherjee interpreted it as discourtesy and unbecoming familiarity. And the pain on his face said it all.

To be honest, it all depends on how you see yourself and how you view your advancing years. Growing old is easy to handle once the shock of crossing 50 or 60 has been accepted. It’s when those who only mean to be polite end up implicitly referring to your age that things can become irksome. After all, even 50- or 60-year-olds are entitled to believe they are younger than they look and, perhaps, no older than they feel. ‘Uncleji’, ‘mataji’ or, worst of all, ‘dadaji’ shatters the illusion.

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So let me make a suggestion and it’s one that applies to everyone regardless of sex and age. Let’s call each other by our first names or, if you wish to be formal to strangers or deferential to the elderly, let’s stick to ‘Mr X’ and ‘Mrs Y’. Remember, it was Shakespeare’s fool who called Lear ‘uncle’!

The views expressed are personal

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