Can I ask you a personal question?” That’s the sort of opening gambit I find hard to handle. To say no seems rude or, at least, needlessly defensive. On the other hand the danger of yes is that it could lead to a trap. All I could manage was a smile.
“Even if you don’t like being called ‘Sir’, what stops you calling your guests ‘Sir’?” Then, without pausing for a reply, my interlocutor continued: “After all, most, if not all, are older than you, they’re far more important and they’ve achieved a lot more in their lives.”
Till this moment we had been sitting next to each other without much conversation. That gave me time to notice she was wearing an expensive chiffon sari, a blouse with a plunging décolletage and sparkling jewellery. I assumed they were diamonds. Now that she had spoken I could tell her accent was equally cultivated. But her voice had an edge to it. It wasn’t just her rhetoric that was challenging. So too was her tone.
“Because it would be wrong. That’s why.” But no sooner had I spoken than I regretted what I’d said. My answer was far too perfunctory to be meaningful. Worse, in its style this response seemed to mimic her question. Instead of fending off a long conversation I had just laid the grounds for one.
“And what does that mean? How can it be wrong to call your seniors ‘Sir’?” She turned to look straight at me. She joined her well-manicured hands and rested them on her left knee which was delicately crossed over the other. I felt framed in her sights.
“It’s all a question of what the word ‘Sir’ conveys. Let me explain. An interview works because of the assumption of equality on either side. Whatever the relationship elsewhere, during the interview it’s a conversation between equals. Yet if the interviewer calls the interviewee ‘Sir’ he shatters that illusion and places the guest on a pedestal. By the same token he also conveys that he is himself inferior.”
“But why should that matter?” She wasn’t convinced. “After all, if that is the truth why should it be hidden?”
“It’s not a question of hiding things. It’s a question of carrying credibility with the audience. You can’t be tough and assertive if you keep calling the interviewee ‘Sir’. Just consider the difference between ‘You’re wrong, Mr Karat’ or ‘That’s not true, Mr Jaitley’ and the same sentence with a ‘Sir’ at the end of it?”
She responded with silence. Yet her eyes kept staring at me. I couldn’t fathom whether she had accepted my explanation or found it incredible. I was unnerved and soon found myself speaking to fill the gap.
“You know, of course, that the opposite is also true?” But this time my voice sounded placatory. My desire to explain suggested I wanted to be understood.
“Oh?” It was the briefest of words but enough to justify my carrying on. I did so with caution.
“It’s equally wrong for an interviewee to call his guest by his or her first name. That suggests chumminess or familiarity. And, once again, you can’t be tough on someone who you seem to be friends with. But, worse, in this case it could also alienate the audience. If you call your guest Prakash or Arun you suggest a relationship that excludes the audience. It’s like a club or a clique they don’t belong to.”
“So what’s the answer? Don’t call them anything? Just carry on a conversation without taking a name or calling them ‘Sir’?”
She was about to laugh. It was disconcerting. Her manner suggested she had spotted a fault in my argument and her tone had a hint of ridicule.
“Not at all. That’s why I call them Mr. Karat or Mr. Jaitley or Home Minister and Defence Minister. Or even plain minister. It’s polite, it’s accurate and it’s neither deferential nor familiar.”
“And what would you call President Bush?”
“Just that. President Bush.”
“And the Queen?”
Suddenly I was stumped. I suppose you could call her Queen Elizabeth but then ‘Tell me, Queen Elizabeth’ isn’t quite the same as ‘Tell me,
It feels odd. Nor could I call her Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor. She might not even recognise the name herself.
“Well, frankly, it ought to be ‘Your Majesty’ but you’d probably claim that was too deferential,” said my interlocutor, answering her own question. “I bet you’d call her ‘Mrs Queen’ instead!”