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From the earliest civilizations, to date, concepts of culture and language have evolved side by side. The way members of a particular cultural group wield its language is closely tied with the norms, customs and values of that particular society. Sri Lanka, being the great melting pot of cultures that it is today, displays one unique feature across many of the different cultural groups; the tendency to address non related people as close relatives.

For example, they address middle aged persons as aunty or uncle elderly people as achchi (grandmother) or seeya ( grandfather) and the younger people as akka (elder sister), aiya (elder brother), nangi (younger sister), and malli (younger brother). In urban areas middle aged persons are addressed using the English terms, aunty or uncle. In rural areas they are addressed using the Sinhala terms nanda and mama respectively.

The roots
Traditionally, the Sinhalese were a race that valued interdependence and harmony. As agriculture and farming was their main livelihood, they found strength in numbers. The more farm hands they could gather, the better. This gave rise to a sense of mechanical solidarity. “What we have is a kinship based on primary relationships. During the olden days, usually a village consisted of members of one family, who belonged to a single caste. Using such endearments was their way of expressing their love and respect for their own kind. The then social system was based on collectivism and they depended on each other for their livelihood. This gave rise to mechanical solidarity among them,” said Sri Jayewardenepura University,  Sociology and Anthropology, Senior Lecturer Dr. Preneeth Abeysundara.  With time, this heartfelt sense of belonging has become deep rooted within the society at large.

During the period of Kandyan dynasty, due to the prominence bestowed upon caste system, the practice was to address members of the same caste as family, and members of lower castes were called by their names. It was since the British colonial rule that traditional Sinhalese culture underwent transitional changes. With the rise of the English speaking elite class, it was replaced by popular British values. The ‘caste’ system was replaced by the ‘class’ system and the custom was to address people formally using the title (e.g. Mr. /Mrs.) and the surname, or if they were close friends or cousins, they were addressed by just their name.

Across Asia and Middle East
This is not a custom restricted to the Sinhala people. It is found in both Jaffna and Batticoloa Tamils, as well as in the Moor community. In addition this practice is observed in Middle Eastern countries. For them, this is the expression of respect called for by their religion. Indians also consider this a mark of respect, especially when the person is a stranger. In Bangladesh this is a tradition even in the professional cultures. “We call our administration office guys ‘bhai’,” said one Medical student who studies in Bangladesh. For Indonesians and Japanese, this is a mark of respect. Especially, since harmony and interdependence is of foremost value in Japanese culture, addressing non-related people as relatives is almost second nature to them.However, in professional environment they avoid this practice. Instead, they give priority to seniority and status.

Mormons are a US based religious group, who address everybody from their extended family to complete strangers, as brothers and sisters. They believe God has created their spirits, making him their ultimate father, which makes them all members of the same family.

Appropriate in formal setting?
It might give you a sense of belonging if you address someone as your kin, even in a professional environment. It might be the catalyst that breaks the ice and drives the conversation, at times.

As Danaja Maldeniya pointed out, “Sometimes it makes us feel professionally comfortable when we address each other as aiya or malli. It is the way juniors acknowledge their respect. Most of the time even the managers are more helpful when we call them aiya, rather than ‘sir’. So it actually helps you liquidize an interaction which would otherwise be frosty around the edges. However, this depends on the person you are talking to. Therefore, you have to be perceptive enough to figure out each person’s preference.”

Today, there is a conflict with regard to the correct way to address a non-related individual. While addressing them as relatives is usually accepted in the informal environments, it is deemed inappropriate in professional settings. Most professional trainers frown upon co-workers who call each other aiya, akka, nangi, malli, especially if they work for the service sector.

However, according to author and physician, Dr Priyanga de Zoyza, how an employee addresses co-workers should depend on the specific organizational culture and the leadership. “In an organization that is hierarchical, this would be frowned upon. In an organization that bonds like family, this would be given preference. There are also organizations with mixed cultures where employees would be addressed both professionally and as family. Then again, this depends on personal liking and the prominent employment hold. For example, higher officers might prefer calling each other by name while minor officers might feel more comfortable addressing each other as aiya, akka, nangi, malli. It is a relative concept,” he concluded.