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     Volume 7 Issue 20 | May 16, 2008 |

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Floundering in the
Etiquette Cauldron

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Social etiquette is something that few of us can ignore, unless of course we are stranded on an uninhabited island 'though one may argue that even animals have their own way of saying hello'. It is an essential component in life, vital for interaction with fellow human beings. But sometimes it is hard to master this rather complicated set of rules as they differ from culture to culture and even from generation to generation. So one man's echoing burp to show appreciation of food may be another man's social suicide. Being part of a culture as complex as ours it is not very difficult to get misunderstood.

Take the use of the ubiquitous 'Bhai' or 'Apa' in certain social contexts such as family but also in many organisations (newspapers for instance) where informality is the norm. So it would be perfectly normal to call the head of the organisation as X Bhai or Y Apa and also address the office assistant or telephone operator also as 'Bhai' or 'Apa'. Of course there is always the problem of two or more people having the same name so that 'Shamim Bhai' could mean anyone from the senior correspondent to the graphic designer to the security guard. Thankfully in such an informal set up which intentionally or by default practices a certain amount of egalitarian spirit, apart from the confusion of who is being addressed, there is not much to worry about.

The problem starts when one who is used to being in such an informal environment suddenly finds oneself in the middle of a very formal setting where the head of the organisation, say the Vice Chancellor, may splutter on his coffee if addressed as 'Bhai' or one's grandmother's classmate becomes cross-eyed at being called 'Apu'. Here of course the traditional 'sir' is the most appropriate form of address. Interestingly, there is no hard and fast rule to this as has been displayed by none other than our own two female leaders who had the privilege of being both head of state as well as head of their respective political parties. Now while Khaleda Zia (possibly because she was at one time, the wife of an army chief before he became president) was quite comfortable being addressed as 'Madam' , her counterpart Sheikh Hasina (again perhaps being the daughter of Bangabandhu whose charm lay in his informality) preferred being called 'Apa'.

Thus one's personal influences, not to mention hubris level, may determine what one considers to be a proper form of address. Here one must add that this does not mean that a person who likes being called 'Bhai' is no less of an megalomaniac than the next 'Sir' type who comes along. It is equally possible that a person who has been addressed as 'Sir' or rather 'Saar' all his life is the most modest and self-effacing individual one has come across. He is your favourite Math teacher who used to grumble mournfully at your horribly wrong solutions on the blackboard!

But then you can be in another type of situation which can be described as 'bizarre' at best and just darn bad luck at worst. This is when one is at an awkward age, no not the pre-pubescent days,s it is an age when one is neither here nor there. You are old among your younger peers but not quite in the senile category; at the same time you are considered, rather erroneously, as part of a missing generation, by people who are blissfully and unashamedly in their senior years and loving it). Now how does one conduct oneself in say, an editorial board meeting where the majority of members belong to your parents's generation? One may be approaching the gentle slopes (downhill from there onwards) of middle age but these generous (and perhaps a little short-sighted) individuals may look upon one as they did when one was in the bloom of youth - teens or twenties. They can easily address one by one's name and use the informal 'tumi' without batting an eyelid. Meanwhile one is biting one's receding nails over how to address these dignitaries without making a major fauxpas. If your mother calls someone as say R and he calls her 'Apa' do you address him as 'R Mama' in compliance with our general flow of relationships or do you address him as 'Bhai' as the others in the team do? Calling someone 'Mama' in a formal setting may reek of over familiarity while 'Bhai' may seem offending and presumptuous. It gets even more complicated if you think that there maybe one or two people you just have to call 'Chacha' or 'Uncle' which makes it weird to call the others 'Bhai' but what if they are offended…

There is a lame way out of this predicament although it may make one come off as a bit aloof and a little stupid. This is to avoid using any form of address at all but just starting sentences as if randomly, in the middle of a conversation. Thus one uses a lot of 'Ji' (formal yes) to make up for the discourtesy and limiting one's small talk to the tiniest levels. It is painful, excruciatingly awkward at times but perhaps the only way to deal with the situation.

The moral of the story therefore is, no matter how clear the lines of etiquette have been chalked out by the elders of society, there will always be those hapless souls, who will almost always, get it wrong.

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