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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dear Bhais and Apus

Originally posted on September 6, 2007
"It’s the way we do things out here". I don’t remember who quoted this while defining corporate culture, but this was the easiest to understand definition of corporate culture I have come across so far. I remember the quote but have forgotten the author (no wonder I flunked in Marketing once). I guess it essentially implies that there is nothing right or wrong about corporate culture, different countries have adopted different corporate cultures according to the local values, customs, language, religion etc. Discussing corporate culture in the context of Bangladesh could be a very interesting issue, but the scope would be very broad. I thought to focus on a very small aspect of it—the way in which we call each other at Bangladesh Corporates.

Bhai and Apu are the most widely practiced ‘caller ID’ in our work places I suppose. Calling the boss as ‘Sir/Madam’ still exists in a few organizations. Especially government offices still fondly harness the hierarchical call protocol. On the other hand, in the private sector corporates, where the substantial number of worker-base is fed by private universities, ‘Bhaiya-Apu’ call culture is widely popular and practiced. Having completed three levels of education and work experience in three different countries, I have come across quite varied work place cultures, allowing me to witness different vibes at different locations. Different context and country require different culture…as long as the job is done effectively and efficiently, culture is not a barrier. However just a few observations for today, nothing more.

To be on the safe side, we call our (apparently elder) female colleagues ‘Apu’ and the male ones ‘Bhaiya’. I have come across a few situations where I was called bhai by a few persons during the early days of interaction. This could be due to the fact that I look like an Abba (close friends’ harsh remarks)…..older than I really am. However from this talk to that, whenever those persons came to know that my year of passing SSC/HSC (a popular standard for measuring seniority/juniority) is way later then theirs, they immediately switched to ‘tumi’. This initial hesitation, confusion or whatever you say…in deciding upon the caller suffixes intrigued me. I realized that if my colleague is older than me, by age and by work experience, he receives a professional security cushion if I call him Bhaiya. Similarly calling an apparently elder female colleague Apu creates the necessary distance, room and respect she might require. So this bhaiya-apu culture creates the status quo, decorum we expect in our work places to get the interpersonal relationship going. Calling a boss at any level with caller IDs i.e. bhaiya, apu, dada, sir, madam is understandable but I really don’t understand why do we need to make use of these amongst peers? Even if someone is younger than me or older than me, by age or work experience, if we are on the same boat, why create more levels within us?

Perhaps this tendency is inbuilt in us from our very childhood. I remember getting slapped by a school senior who was only one class senior to me, for smoking in front of their ‘band of boys’, and for not showing them ‘respect’. However I returned the respect in the form of a tighter slap followed by Bangla slangs with not apni, or tumi…simple and straight tui tukari! It’s a different issue however, the point is that this very culture of hierarchy is within us and we like to keep it that way even when we work.

I don’t know if you would agree or not, but when I call (apparently junior) colleagues by just the name and tumi, it gives me some sort of invisible authority over them. It also does give me more comfort while I work with them. When I call colleagues (both elder and younger) by just the name and apni, it gives me comfort when I work with them, however the professional and personal respect is also maintained with the apni salutation. But whenever I call colleagues (senior, both male female) with the name followed by bhai or apu, it gives me a sense of ornamental distance followed by a sense of ‘juniority’ (which I may not be in cases even in terms of experience and expertise). It also requires me to be more diplomatic and politically correct when I need to oppose or offend or argue against any of their propositions. All this appears, sometimes, to be redundant and ‘just for the sake of it’.

English is a good language for business use. The word ‘you’ is safe from communicating any hierarchy in it. Most other languages including Bangla, have a division in the ‘you’ word. French has ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, German has ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, Chinese has ‘ni’ and ‘nin’, Hindi has ‘tum’ and ‘aap’ and you might know more about what Arabic, Italian and Japanese have. Even though these words are used extensively in the businesses in those countries, I wonder if they have attempted or not to make the workplace feel more like an extended family of brothers and sisters with words such as bhaiya and apu. I also wonder how it is in Pakistani work places…do they call their colleagues as bhaijaan and baaji/aapa? Maybe someone can shed some light on it.

This bhai-apu practice is surely an integral part in Bangladesh corporate culture and I am in no way trying to oppose it or change it. Its just a personal opinion that we do not have to necessarily patronize it too. Calling somebody by the name they were given by their parents or by what the person her/himself prefers…is a safe option. Respectful words while salutation make more sense if that respect is earned by a person over time through his/her character, experience, expertise or position…not merely by age or by job duration or looks.


Rezwan said...

Excellent post red and green. This is a perennial problem in the work culture of Bangladesh.

There are certain schools of thoughts regarding this. In the government institutions (and the army) its like you are senior to your batchmate/academic senior if you are absorbed one day earlier. So you are entitled to say tumi to him/her and its natural to qute your seniors sir (bhai for batchmates). I don't like it but this is the reality. This goes as far as protocols like who will sit where in a car according to seniority.

In many NGOs and entrepreneurship its informal and basically bhai/apu and/or boss.

But in corporate culture I have seen different mixtures. It depends how the management sets the environment.

When I was working in a joint venture where we called one director sir and one director bhai. When our organization was bought by a multinational then we had one Indian director whom we called by name. Soon we adopted the culture of calling by name and just adding Shaheb/apa.

I don't know about Pakistanis but I have seen Sri Lankan and Indians calling colleagues by name. However the culture may be different in different institutions.

I think this is workable in Bangladesh corporate culture: For persons with close relations bhaai/apa and for the rest calling by name and adding shaheb or madam. And to call apni irrespective of seniors/juniors.

One thing to be noted in corporate culture: your junior can get quick promotions and be senior to you after some years. So think before you start calling him tumi.

Anonymous said...

i strongly dislike this bhaia-apu Mr.rezwan mentioned that he tcalled his sri lankan or indian boss by their name and i am happy to share that i used to call my 33 yeras old CEO by his first name while working for a multinationals in delhi when i myself was just 21 years old.we should get rid off this typical public sector culture and be grown up to adapt the culture that has already practised almost all over the world!