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'Respect' in a First Name Basis vs Hierarchical Culture

One world many cultures. Before you start getting any ideas, I am not hinting at any religious angle or any beliefs or age-old practices across faiths or geographies. The aspect of culture under consideration is that of respect, among different cultures, quite evidently noticed in the way people use salutations, bringing to mind – is respect granted by seniority in age, position or power or is it earned and voluntarily paid or given?

The spectrum is quite wide, right from touching a person’s feet to a warm, embracing bear hug. From bowing down making a right angle with your body to a nonchalant fist bump. A squeaky voiced, subdued address using titles, to a confident and casual camaraderie! Call it rules, policies or practices that command these behaviours, but in effect these find their roots in the culture of the group/organization/society/geography that they prevail in.

In my personal experience and having spent reasonable time to warrant an opinion, in two starkly different lands – India & Australia, I have observed this aspect of culture in both these places. Do rewind your memories to all the different cultures you have experienced and try finding these nuances; promise you, it will get you a whole different level of insight. It actually took me over a year in Australia to shed the conditioning of 20+ years in India and thereafter find it incredibly difficult to fit into it once again, now that I am back. Ironic, tragic, and to quote Trevor Noah – “you laugh, but it’s true.” It is almost as if a parrot was caged for 20+ years, finally set free, struggled to soar high, built its capabilities and BAM, got his wings clipped! Trust me on this, nothing mentioned in the previous statement has even a tinge of exaggeration, victimization or drama, to the point where even the bird of choice is perfectly selected. Here is why I say this…

Indian Perspective: Right from the get-go we are taught to respect people on certain set in stone factors – age, power, hierarchies, without ever really going a level deeper to make us understand – why? Young, impressionable minds learn and follow that right till the end or until a point it becomes so off-putting, that their non-compliance seems like rebellion. So much so that it is actually hilarious to see a set of teenagers at any family gathering, almost like a live boomerang video, go from one elderly person to the other, bending and touching their feet, recoiling and plunging again. Worse still, sometimes not even knowing whose feet are they essentially touching for the promised reward of blessings. It is every bit as funny as the imagination or anecdote running in your head! Whether financial supremacy, or seniority even if a measly 2 years or 2 generations, it mandates a different form of addressal, by adding a respectful prefix or suffix to the name of the person in question. This starts from uncles, aunts, elder siblings at home, to teachers at school and absurdly to colleagues at work, which I will get to soon, in further detail.

Guilty as charged for abiding by this and maybe even schooling younger siblings at times to follow the norm, but always questioned it in my already crowded mind as to the justification of the same. Why does arriving earlier on this planet become a hall pass for commanding respect. Shouldn’t it be something that emanates from the opposite person’s heart and be completely optional, or be something earned by actions, deeds or even just the vibe or aura. Shouldn’t respect be for those who deserve it and not just for those who demand it.

Throwing light on the parrot metaphor, from a corporate point of view, unlike the freedom evidenced in the working styles abroad, there are shackles on not just the scope, but also the creativity of people here, resulting in only predetermined norms and boundaries being allowed, making rote learning and blurting it back exactly like a parrot, the normal scenario. This transcends to a very rigid hierarchical working system, with a lot of emphasis on paying respect, following orders, excessive bureaucracy, all of which as a package make things a lot messier. The sir/madam, sahib/memsahib culture only breeds divide, fostering flattery, and appeasing egos, not real respect or admiration, but frustration, even stretching to disgust & hatred.

Australian Perspective Quite true to its popular reference – ‘Down Under’, everything in this context seemed the opposite and flipped over. First day in Sydney - got my orientation from a family friend stating that out there, a person’s a person, no matter how small. Come sun down and you can find the handyman sipping on his beer in the same pub as the CEO and even during the day, they operate on a first name basis, with no distinction or divide due to the financial disparities or being above or below in the food chain. This not only makes the culture a lot more welcoming and equalitarian but takes away the pressure of always being on point or on edge around seniors or ‘superiors.’ Even away from the corporate setting, whether your landlord or the professors at university, all of them not only expect to be called by their first name, but rather prefer to be called so. All this seemed good in theory, the real test was to see it in action and boy, I did! Right from the counsellors to the senior-most professors could be addressed by their first names and not as part of a whitewashing exercise to paint them as your friends, but genuinely as part of an overall culture. Age – no bar, difference in status – no bar, financial disparity – not a concern!

The unfortunate reality is that we often talk about Western or foreign influences in a negative light or liken it to a bad influence. While it may hold true in few things, but we need to accept the positives equally too. While the India vs Australia perspective seems too good to be true, or could be singled out as a specific experience, there is lot more to it. Generations of conditioning has made this style of operations so ingrained in us that no matter where we go, we tend to carry it with us and in several cases even spread the rot. As embarrassing as it sounds there’s literally an unwritten rule that goes around out there – do not work in a desi restaurant. Yes, warned sternly in my first week itself, with the reasons being - humiliating treatment, poor working conditions and lower pay.

As you may have guessed it correctly, my first job was fatefully as a waitstaff in a desi restaurant. Well, necessity, helplessness & mounting expenses in a cruel exchange rate can make you do things against your better judgement and sufficient warnings. One of the most popular restaurants in the city, extremely busy & highly demanding, to which I responded with equal gusto. How I wish I could prove the warnings wrong and narrate a happy story; wasn’t meant to be. After 4 high pressure shifts, each with its share of insult, I was fired at the end of the week, humiliated, with the entire kitchen staff in attendance, some of whom by now had become quite fond of me and thus felt a pang of pain too. Shown my place in the pecking order and asked to leave immediately with the looming uncertainty of not getting paid. Further establishing the infamous tip I was given.

The next stint came in a couple of months later at an Australian retail store, starting at the bottom, processing their stock. Despite being just a casual employee, removable at any given instance, there was a clear sense of professionalism and surprisingly even a sense of warmth that said they cared, for our safety, comfort and would treat us as equals – and they did! In the words of Richard Branson, ‘Respect is how you treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.’ That sense of belonging instilled such a spirit, that despite not being suited for the job – lifting heavy boxes filled with stock, manually lifting wooden pallets, helping with moving tables and mannequins, just gave it my all and rose through the ranks. Made up for feeling like a minion in front of the local lads, who were much larger and stronger than I was, with a faster work rate, working tirelessly and outdoing myself as each day passed by! Testimony to this fact is the heart-warming farewell that was organized on my last day of work.

From being humiliated and thrown out, for doing the right thing, by ‘our own people’, to being sent off with a heavy heart, couple of cakes and a teary farewell by a set of foreigners. Pretty neat, eh?

None of what you’ve just read is a ploy to malign a particular section or generalize anything that isn’t already widely prevalent. Respect is a two-way street, if you want it, you have to get it and shouldn’t just be served on a platter because of holding a position of power. Culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart, not otherwise and we can change culture if we change behaviour.

What are your thoughts about this? Would you be open to being addressed just by your name, setting aside pride, ego and glamour of your position or be offended?

On the other hand, would you be comfortable addressing your seniors as your equals or would the years of conditioning and hard wiring stand in the way of accepting it?

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