The Sir Culture

In the 1997 Hollywood comedy ‘Liar Liar’, Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) is afflicted by a strange condition that leaves him incapable of lying for 24 hours – his son’s birthday wish comes true. Cashing in on the opportunity, one of his rivals in office asks him to tell his boss what he actually thinks of him. This is what liar, er, lawyer Fletcher had to say:

“He’s a pedantic, pontificating, pretentious bas**rd, a belligerent old fart, a worthless steaming pile of cow dung, figuratively speaking”

Some of us may have held a similar view of our bosses or somebody senior, but since we didn’t take the truth serum, we use the alternative expression – Sir 😀

In the 1979 Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic ‘Golmaal’, Ramprasad Dashrathprasad Sharma who is desperate for a job warms up to his potential employer, industrialist Bhavani Shankar, with a phoney moustache and a buttery ‘Sirrr’ with great results. In the same movie, ‘Lucky’ – his real self (a double role essayed brilliantly by Amol Palekar) falls foul of the same boss with his long hair, clean shaven face, bell bottoms and irreverent attitude. Through most of the movie, Bhavani Shankar is baying for Lucky’s blood while extolling the deferential twin brother.

Growing up in a family with three other siblings, our elders always rued the fact that we called each other by name, regardless of the years that separated us. “Why don’t you use the suffix ‘etta’ (elder brother) or ‘chechi’ (elder sister) while addressing your elder brother or sister? it cultivates respect” was their constant gripe. We had other ideas. Then came Naval Academy and a military career of 25 years. Anybody even a month senior became ‘Sir’, their spouses became ‘Ma’am’, regardless of the most wonderful names from Indian mythology that their parents had chosen for them. I was initiated into the ‘Sir Culture’.

As a civilization that respects experiential knowledge, Indians hold the ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’ in high esteem. In this tradition, knowledge is passed from guru to shishya through the spiritual, intellectual and emotional bond between them. Flow of knowledge is one-way only. Such a relationship requires the shishya to be obedient and devoted to the guru, a sort of unconditional surrender. This tradition lies at the heart of ancient Indian culture & learning. Then came the British and their oppression. They wanted white-collar clerks who were Indian in colour but English in their tastes and mannerisms. Under colonial raj, all Englishmen became ‘Sir’ or ‘Saheb’. Somewhere in the transition to a modern India, the parampara was all but obfuscated. Now we associate ‘Sir’ with respect. Names are for equals. While the British have long moved on, we continue to excel in subservience.

I am not sure if this is a military thing but the ‘Sir Culture’ usually pervades steeply hierarchical organisations in India, particularly those that are wholly or partly government-owned, & Public Sector Undertakings. These are generally relics from the colonial era or the period immediately thereafter that have endured for decades without breaking the mould. Don’t believe me? Go to any Indian post office, State Bank of India or Police chowky. ‘Sir busy hain’ (Sir is busy), or ‘Madam se poochna padega’ (I will have to ask Madam) are common refrains to any query! Babudom and bureaucracy reign supreme here and calling superiors by name is taboo. And yes, many wheels in the government machinery do not turn without ‘gurudakshina’ or ‘chai paani’ 🙂

To be fair, some institutions like the military require clear chain of command & unquestioning loyalty. All hell will break loose if we tinker with military protocol or blindly ape the West that has a different culture and ethos. If our troops were allowed to question every decision, nobody would have battled impossible odds like the Indian Army did while flushing out well-entrenched militants and regular Pakistani troops who had infiltrated into Indian positions at altitudes over 16-18,000 feet in the Kargil sector (Operation Vijay, 1999). Such episodes of action punctuate long periods of peace when all that goes on is training and more training.

In my experience, the overriding importance given to protocol and honorifics stymies original thought, professional dissent and innovation in organisations steeped in the ‘Sir Culture’. Classic examples are meetings. Discussions tend to be ‘steered’ by seniors who talk down rather than talk to you, people listen to question rather than understand, egos clash, with the senior lot reeling under seniority stupor. In such a situation, how can we hope to encourage young minds to contribute – let alone flesh out – that nugget of a ‘disruptive idea’ playing in their minds?

Then again, why carry this protocol all the way to the grave? Military personnel seem to be most prone to this culture and are unable to come to terms with first names without the rank and ‘sir’ even decades after retirement. Some even load the respectful Hindi suffix ‘Ji’ to Sir and go “Hulloo, Sirji!” Who hasn’t heard bloopers like ‘Admiral Sir’, ‘Captain Sir’ and even ‘Mrs. C-in-C’? Heavens!

When my son recently mentioned Shashank in a discussion, I asked him which grade Shashank belonged to. Turns out Shashank was one of their professors – an Oxford-educated scholar. Students in Azim Premji University are encouraged to address all faculty, including the Director, by first name. They have no-holds-barred discussion on all topics; nothing is off the table. I have seen the difference in him after attending first semester. He no longer takes my advice as Holy Grail. Neither do I profess to hold all the answers.

The questioning atmosphere under which modern students live and grow leaves them less amenable to the ‘Sir Culture’. Why not leave the ‘Sir’ baggage where it belonged and move with the times? You will likely see invisible barriers to communication come crashing down. Free exchange of ideas get a boost and egos get checked at the door. Try it at least once if you think your office is plagued by the ‘Sir Culture’. Maybe your boss may yet approve it. Like Fletcher Reede’s boss tells him after his outburst I like your style, Reede! That’s just what this stuffy company needs – a little irreverence!

Here, enjoy some ‘plain speak’! Warning: Do not copy Fletcher’s reply to his boss!


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. Movie clip courtesy Youtube.

10 thoughts on “The Sir Culture

  1. I agree that hierarchical titles must go along with the culture surrounding them. Unfortunately in neoliberal India we only lose the title, sir and ma’am. Hierarchical relations based on caste, class, rank and gender continue. To quote a young Indian student in a university where faculty were called by first names … this informality simply lulls the student or junior into a false sense of empowerment. The same was found to be true in my research on the IT industry . The hierarchy is still there but is now masked and therefore difficult to challenge. But that said, this is a refreshing perspective from a military officer., Sanjeev.

    1. As always, very pertinent points and I am sure you speak from your research and not based on ‘gut feel’ & ‘straight from the heart’ like me 🙂
      That said, your observations and those of my learned friend Sujoy Ganguli have added the required scientific direction to this discussion. I don’t think i have all the answers, I am merely highlighting what I see around me. I am sure we have a long way to go besides dropping the sir & ma’am! Many thanks Jyothsna

  2. Well written blog. I think the Sir culture is going away though it may remain in military and government offices.

    There is a cultural element to it as well. The society has started speaking it’s mind and Indians are turning assertive..

    Enjoyed reading this article..

  3. KP. Wonderful article ….as usual. A small aside. Do read about Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, specially about power distance. We Indians are plagued with high power distance.

    I tend to agree with Jyothsna’s comment. Sir is merely a form of address. Whether or not to attempt to equate it with social , cultural or intellectual equality is a knotty question.

    Mere reversion to first name does not obliterate the inequality……nor does it encourage free thought.

    Cultural and intellectual dissent is , to my mind beyond sirring or first naming. It is an attitude

    God bless

    1. Thanks Sujoy for lending an intellectual perspective to the discussion. Jyothsna is a researcher i respect immensely and speaks from years of painstaking research. You are my buddy from 1987 and I know your reading habits are far refined than me. Prof. Hostede’s figure for power distance index for India seems to be 77, far more than US which sits at 40. This is an important comparison for people like me who have to sometimes fly with expatriate pilots of different nationalities. Rostede’s foundation has also developed some kind of a tool for comparing how to approach the subject of cross-cultural integration while working with other nationalities (Culture Compass). I agree merely dropping the salutation is not going to improve matters. However, the sir culture I described is simply food for thought as to what kind of power distance index we want to reach in the future. Shedding some of the exagerated importance given to individuals and institutions may perhaps serve as a beginning. Thanks for your reading and I value your comments. Warmly

  4. Mankind has always loved power… the social structure in ancient and medieval india was so hierarchical as was the structure in the west.. and i mean the Europeans when I say the west… so this culture is not new.. it just changed its form with time… and with the advent of the British, possibly grew worse where we were happy to look down upon the peers for a few favours that the so called saab bestowed.

    it is the Americans with their different line of thinking who broke this “sir” culture.. Whrn I joined GE in 2002.. i use to call the CEO by his first name and we were encouraged to speak up wherever we felt the need to. That was the norm..

    But i see the culture deep rooted.. not just in verbally calling someone sir.. that is merely superficial and people use it all the time like they use the word sorry… i cannot generalize but man will always succumb to this method of rising up the ladder.. there will always be those who will not.. they will either be noticed because they are talented enough to shine on their own or will be unnoticed just becuase they did not follow the usual tactics.

    But this cant let us despair.. Sir Darwin didn’t call it survival of the fittest for nothing

    Usha Narayan

  5. One is reminded of our Oi/c at ETS. He never hesitated to Sirji, offer a seat and cup of tea to anyone visiting his office, be it the MES JCO or a civilian vendor. Once the SDG, an elderly looking Jat, while visiting his office and visibly embarrassed at being addressed Sirji pleaded, ‘Sir please don’t call me Sirji …..I’m a very junior officer…….’.
    ‘Aarey Sirji hum toh Gadhon ko bhi Sirji boltey hain. Aap toh SDG ho!’, was the Oi/c prompt n jovial reply.

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