I was reading the latest post on the Flipkart Blog where they talked about how they lost a customer because they addressed him informally in their correspondence with him and it started me thinking about how important it is to make sure that you address a person correctly. The problem is that the ‘correct’ mode of address changes depending on where you are and who you are addressing.
Till I went to college (before 1999) mode of address was easy, anyone in the same generation as you but older was called Bhaiya/Didi (elder brother/sister), anyone younger than you was called by their name. Any person from the older generation was either called Uncle/Aunty or by their relationship to you. Oh and teachers were called Sir or Mam. Over all quite easy to remember.
When I went to college in the US everything changed and it was a shock. Suddenly I was supposed to call my professors by their name which I felt was rude and when I started working I kept calling my bosses Sir/Mam. It wasn’t me being formal but just showing respect which thankfully they understood. Still I was told to stop doing that and call them by their names. For a person coming from a background where you never call your elders by name it was a big deal and took me quite a while to get used to it.
Then I came back to India and was lost again, because by then I was used to calling everyone by name even when they had kids older than me. In personal interactions it wasn’t that big a problem but professionally it was an issue. If you called someone by their name they felt that you weren’t giving them the appropriate respect. So I ended up calling everyone senior to me Mr xyz or Ms Xmy.
Luckily for me all the companies I have worked for had people who dealt with Americans or had studied in the US so if I accidentally called someone by their first name it wasn’t an issue.
Now I have a simple policy in this regard, if you are my age or 5-10 years older I will call you by your name unless corrected and if you are older then that I will call you by your last name. This is for in-person meetings, for conversations over the phone I take my cue from whoever introduces me to them; if they called the person by their first name I do the same otherwise its was back to formality. (Though I have stopped calling anyone sir or mam and I tell all my juniors to not call me sir.)
The mode of address is a small part of dealing with a customer/co-worker but is quite important. You want to come across as an approachable person but not get too familiar which some people might find offensive and its quite a balancing act.
I sympathize with Flipkart that they lost a customer but in the customer’s defense he told them that he wanted to be addressed formally but they still addressed him informally so its understandable that the person got ticked…
Another way to annoy a person is to get the gender wrong when addressing them. I have made that mistake but thankfully the person I was corresponding with had a sense of humor and corrected me without getting upset. Since then I try to be extra careful when using gender based vocabulary in an email but to my dismay the name doesn’t always tell if a person is a male or female especially when you are dealing with names from another culture. So I rarely use gender specific words when I don’t know the sex of the person I am emailing/chatting with.
The funny part is that my name has been mistaken for a girls name a couple of times so I know what it feels to be on the other side. But still, I think most issues can be overcome if both parties are willing to work for it and have a sense of humor (Yes, I know sometimes humor doesn’t translate well across cultures but that’s for another post)
Well this is all for now. Will post more later.