The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Sara Hummadi, Video Editor • May 18, 2024
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Addressing third persons can be tricky across cultures

One of the most important lessons that a newcomer to the U.S. from India has to go through is the very simple fact of how to address people. This problem is as simple as it is surprisingly tricky for Indians.

The root cause of this problem is the varying levels of politeness and hierarchy of addressing others in almost all Indian languages: what sociolinguists define as TV distinctions. Adding to the complexity are the many forms of honorifics used when addressing anyone with a higher social standing- either with age or power. English of course, has no TV distinction at all. Everyone is a “You” compared to French that has “Tu” for informal speech and “Vous” for expressing respect. (Thus the term TV distinction)

But there is another peculiar characteristic of Indian languages that really mystifies the Western world. Across the various languages and cultures within India, any third person is actually addressed as “Uncle” and “Aunty.” And the politest way is to add their first name with it. So your neighbors could be “Jimmy Uncle” or “Sarah Aunty.” Your doctor is “Doctor Uncle.” The security guard of your apartment complex or the bank is “Watchman Uncle.”

Also interesting is the fact that we tend to address the elderly with terms for relatives. For example, most often, a senior citizen is addressed “Dada” which is either Grandfather in Hindi or “Elder brother” in Bengali. In fact, the current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee is lovingly and respectfully known as Dada.

Thus, you can see why when an Indian suddenly moves over to the U.S., the system here can be confusing. It is a sin and a half to call an elderly person by their name back in India without attaching an honorific to the name. But here, it is only polite to address someone just by their last name and a “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Of course, calling a random person on the street or a shopkeeper as “Uncle” or “Aunty” could have undesirable consequences in the U.S.

In one of my earlier columns, I talked about: the way students address professors. All my life, I have called my professors as “(First Name) – Madam” or “(First Name) – Sir.” And in school, all of my teachers were just “Sir,” “Madam,” or simply, “Teacher.” This is something that I still involuntarily do.

Some of this difference, especially the way we address professors in school, is an influence directly from the British. But other differences like the “Aunty- Uncle” routines are an influence inherently from Indian languages, which, as I had mentioned, allocates endearing family members’ labels to strangers as well.

Indian languages are definitely not the most complex. Korean, in fact, has seven different levels, including further distinctions for gender. Various other languages have similar variations.

No particular way is necessarily better or worse than the other, of course. Society, and most crucially the language, define how we address others. It would simply be a cliche to assert that addressing everyone in English with a “You” is a neither a better or worse way than making a distinction with “Vous” and “Tu” in French.

This would explain how nervous I feel when the wonderful Carol Casey who heads the International Friendship program at SMU insisted that I call her Carol, as a good friend. It took me a lot of determination to get over “Madam” to simply call her, someone who is perhaps as old as my mother, “Carol.” In India, she would have been simply “Carol Aunty.”

Sunil is a graduate student in Lyle School of Engineering.  

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