20 October, 2020

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Dependency Within? Sri Lanka’s Sir & Madam Culture

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Elsewhere I have written about economic, social and cultural dependency of the country at length. In this article, I like to write my thoughts about psychological dependency arising from social norms, etiquette, age-old practices etc. This is because dependency is not only materially, politically and culturally conditioned but it can be ‘a state of mind’ constructed by historical and social forces and conditioned to emulate. One example of this state of mind is the practice of Sri Lankans to address those located in upper echelons of various hierarchies as Sir Or Madam (this is practice common in South Asian countries). Even when the country has experienced social, economic and cultural change due to colonisation and its corollary globalisation for a considerable time, this practice continues. In fact, the practice has its origins in the British colonial period if not earlier. Terms like sir and madam are English words and they imply Mahattaya and Nona in Sinhala respectively. Nona is a word found among Italian speaking populations. Some Italians came to Ceylon for work during the Dutch period and they formed part of Dutch Burger community. Mitch Rabot who lives in Melbourne has written about Dutch Burgers.

In the expanding commercial world also shop assistants use these terms. However the manner of using these terms in this context is quite different to how they are used in day-to-day life in Sri Lankan society. For those who live in Western societies, if someone addresses using these terms in public, it is an embarrassment. This is because in Western countries people use first names in addressing each other if known previously. It makes communication easy. One could argue that the use of terms like sir and madam in a hierarchical manner makes communication easy among Sri Lankans also. There is some truth in it. However, the problem is, it is a reflection of the dependency syndrome that colonial subjects inherited on one hand and such practices keep reproducing dependency, hierarchy, subordination etc. on the other hand at a psychological level. When young people who grow up in such a culture meet others from countries where these habits have long been abandoned, the difference becomes stark.

In many circumstances, the status gap between a person with authority and someone with less authority in a formal or informal setting is minimised if the latter uses these terms to address the person in authority. The person in authority pleases himself or herself when someone with less status addresses by using terms such as Sir or Madam. More often than not, the person with higher status adopts an attitude to help the person with less status. In other circumstances, those with seniority in formal organisations are also addressed by using these terms. Use of the terms is associated with granting respect also if the person is senior and elderly. Thus one can argue that this practice allows for the reduction in status gaps. However, one could argue that it increases status gaps in society as in many circumstances the persons in authority uses interactive situations to display their wealth, power and higher status to the subordinated person.

Why do such practices that imply domination and subordination continue in a country like Sri Lanka where we boast about independence, sovereignty, self-determination, reconciliation and so on in very public forums? As I have stated elsewhere recently, Sri Lanka is a ‘status society’. Though the leaders have been advocating the merits of a free market economy, globalisation, communication, and social media etc. none have taken steps to discourage these habits. Is this because they prefer to maintain their privileged status?

The use of this practice in tea plantations, political parties, government bureaucracies, security forces etc. has to be contrasted with the use of these terms in educational institutions. In the latter, students often use these terms with admiration of their teachers also. Though the hierarchy and its power is recognised, there is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the service rendered by teachers in this context. But the question is when education is supposed to liberate the minds of young people, is it morally acceptable that practices that reinforce hierarchy, domination and subordination continue? Why can’t students or those in junior positions even in universities address teachers and those in senior positions with Mr or Mrs so and so? If they do, what repercussions do they face?

Sri Lankans, as in other colonised countries, are known to maintain habits inherited from the colonial past without critically interrogating them and changing. Those who are suffering from the consequences of dominating practices in particular need to take proactive steps individually and collectively to critically interrogate such practices and change behavior accordingly. They need not continue these practices and reinforce their own dependencies even though it is not an easy task to change a whole system that produces subordination rather than equality. This is why I have recently argued about the need for social development in addition to economic development for Sri Lanka. Changing Sir and Madam culture is part of social development. It can be achieved without foreign aid, foreign consultants or project teams. It is necessary to achieve an egalitarian society compatible with 21st century developments elsewhere in the world and modern aspirations of people, in particular the young people. We are doing a disservice to them if we continue habits and practices inherited from the colonial masters who thrived in master-servant relationships produced by the colonial administrative system, relations of production and culture of domination. In a context where citizens are supposed to be free from colonial bondages, there is no reason or justification to use terms like sir or madam that imply status gaps and unequal relations as well as produce subservient minds plus associated psychological conditions. These sort of practices raise the question as to whether there is an internal colonialism in Sri Lanka and other countries of South Asia where the elitist groups that inherited the mantle of power and privilege when the colonial rulers left started to behave like the colonial masters when it comes to less privileged masses and those who occupy lower status in society and its institutions? If this is the case, sociologists and other social scientists have an obligation to do research to not only expose this phenomenon but also to devise strategies to combat it.

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Latest comments

  • 16
    0

    Dr Gamage,

    You fall into the same myopic trap that most Sri Lankan commentators fall when raising such issues as you have raised. That all present ills are the result of actions instituted by our colonial masters. It is only somewhat true that Sri Lankans are what Sri Lankans are due to being a colonised nation.

    With regards to kowtowing to authority Sri Lankans are past masters. We acquired this imbecilic and pride killing habits a long time before the western barbarians arrived. The ancient kings, the radalayas, the Buddhist and Hindu clergy, the soothsayers, the petty officials all connived to make the average Sri Lankan a ‘wakutuvena haraka’. The colonials only built up on that strong foundation of an already well established ‘wakutuveyang’ society. Correct me if I am wrong you yourself is a product of this very same society. From our youngest days we are made to fall on our knees and worship the teachers and parents even when they are the worst of the human race. We so readily fall prostate at the sight of saffron robed men, whether they are genuine monks or charlatans or thugs in camouflage. When politicians come to our villages, whether big or small this very same ‘wakutuveyang’ men run hither and thither cutting down arica nut trees and pol mals to make pandals. The subservience in our blood are thousands of years old and not a mere five hundred years old. Even our leaders have shown no shame in going overseas on countless occasions with a begging bowl in hand. Unfortunately we will continue to be a ‘wakutuveyang society’ for a long long time to come and a trousered Johnny will always be superior to a sarong Johnny..

    • 9
      0

      Good explanation if we can get it in positive way and be better people in the future. West has colonized many other countries in Asia. But number of “Pereras”, “De Silvas”, “DeMels”, “Dabares”, “Almedas” in Lanka is incomparably high compared to other Asian countries. Is this also because of “Wakutuweyang” genes we have?

    • 9
      0

      BBS Rep,

      Nicely put!

      It is true that rank-depicting salutations have existed ever since one man found it was possible/necessary to dominate another.

      There are indeed a lot of hoops to jump through before we eliminate this practice from our behaviour.

      Meanwhile, there are a lot more important battles to be fought.

    • 5
      0

      BBS Rep

      “With regards to kowtowing to authority Sri Lankans are past masters. We acquired this imbecilic and pride killing habits a long time before the western barbarians arrived. The ancient kings, the radalayas, the Buddhist and Hindu clergy, the soothsayers, the petty officials all connived to make the average Sri Lankan a ‘wakutuvena haraka’.”

      Please download and circulate this article to the most righteous people in this land:

      THE HISTORY OF TORTURE IN ANCIENT SRI LANKA
      by UCP PERERA

      http://torturemag.org/?p=419

    • 5
      0

      Not only are we excellent grovelers, we also become great abusers when we do wield power.

      The national ethos is to

      Grovel towards those who have power.
      Abuse power when one has power and make others do the grovelling.
      When in power, to listen only to tales carried by those who grovel.

      This has been the secret to our success.

  • 2
    0

    Very relevant article on a matter that I took up with a Sri Lankan Association in Melbourne, recently. I was disagreeing with some members who still expect to be addressed as SIR based on their positional status at work back in Sri Lanka.It is not surprising that these members are still in absolute colonial mindset even after coming to Australia and demand the same from their erstwhile colleagues.One member justified it as a Sri Lankan way to show respect. But they also talk of Mathroboomi in a non colonial setting. May this article educate and enlighten the membership, They will be happy if an Aussie addressees them Tom ,Dick or Harry.
    Hope and pray that our political leadership shows the way for the abolishing of such practices and make it mandatory they be addressed by a given name i.e Ranil or Maithri – No uthumaneni’s and thumani’s

  • 3
    10

    Madam= A woman who runs a brothel Ex: Rosy Senanayaka

    • 7
      2

      SF. I do not think as you mentioned,so she was ex MRS SRILANKA.
      Dont character assassinate without double checking.

  • 5
    0

    This aiya / malli culture is a curse too. Even our sportsmen use it. I don’t know if it comes from colonila era or not..

    • 3
      0

      nishan,

      No! We were prostrating ourselves and kissing feet long before the old masters even knew where our resplendent isle was. The foreigners came and went and we still teach our children to prostrate and worship, and to many who are totally unworthy. That is our long traditional ‘bend over’ culture.

  • 5
    0

    Mahinda is planning a live political debate via hiru or derana. The participants from JO Side are Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapksa, Gommanpila, Buruwannse and Bandula Gunewardena. Yahapalnaya side are Ranil Wickremasinghe, Harin Fernando, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Marikkar.

    Any comments about the planned debate!!!

  • 2
    0

    This article is inaccurate when it comes to US. Here it is common to address others Sir or Madam, but regardless of the social status.
    In common use, such address is indicative of non aggressive, respectable conversation is in progress.

    • 0
      0

      This article is inaccurate when it comes to US. Here it is common to address others Sir or Madam, but regardless of the social status.

      It depends on how useful the person at that moment is.

      He may say “Man” to a person, next moment is he needs something he may “sir” the same person.

  • 0
    0

    BBS Rep: Well said. There was a teaching by Buddha: “Poojacha Poojaniyanang” (venerate those deserved to be venerated). That type of veneration we had for long, long years in true meaning of “venerate those deserved to be venerated”. But after we took over our destinies into our own hands, all the vagabonds and bastards entered the battle field and coined up that valuable teaching of the Buddha to “venerate “ME” in Authority”. This group included the crafty, corrupt and criminal types who acquired power of Governing and all others, such as clergy, bureaucrats,professionals who prostituted their skills, clergy, who hanged on them for survival and personal welfare. The “Innocent” types had no option but to go on bend knees to secure their needs. As described by BBS Rep. that class of people were compelled to follow the command “Vakutuveyang”. So, it does not matter if it is Sir, Madam, Mahattya, Nona, Haamuduruvo, Uthumanani, Maha Rajanani etc. so long as the “Pandamas” (Torch Bearers) and down the class get dished out lavishly and even the bear minimum for survival. This is the present state of affairs; and knowing that very well why name and blame “Suddaha” instead of our own BASTARDS and VAGABONDS who have acquired control of Governance. Don’t you think it is this culture viz the RULE BY BASTARDS AND VAGABONDS that must be ended to bring back that Buddhas Teaching “Poojacha Poojaniyanag” to take root once more.

  • 0
    0

    Asian culture says respect those who are worthy of respect.

    but, the words Sir and Madam just colonial words dfrom the last colonial master Britian.

    Sir is a colonial title. Sri lanka uses it for those who above in wealth or power.

    Even educated professionals sir drug lords. I saw one photo a senior police officer is saluting Duminda de Silva.

    buddhism says that too. As the society become more corrupt, unqualified will rule the qualified.

  • 0
    0

    It is mainly our Sinhala Buddhists in the rural sector who call any idiot Sir or Madam who has a bit of money and power..

    Colonials introduced it.

    And the suckers who followed the Colonials perpetuated it.

    Now we are back at it again with Batalanada Ranil and Bodhi Sira’s new Yahapalana Policies on Education, Health Care, Religion,and constitution.

  • 0
    0

    Feudalism that prevailed during monarchical reign may be main cause. under that system one could not go beyond limitations enforced by kings and his officers.no matter how good you have been and what good you have been doing.people wanted freedom liberate from that system.when Europeans arrived people show some lights at the end of tunnel.All rushed toward it but it was a bottle neck. both high and low caste wanted to become pet of European masters in order to get themselves liberated from paradimes they were put under.egoism came to play.that led to now prevailing situation.appease masters for social and economic liberation and recognition.BUDDHISM was there but leaders did nothing against systems that was not in conformity with Buddha’s teachings.as such new religions came to play

  • 0
    0

    This is a good article. In Sri lanka you address someone Sir or madam to show your subordinate nature. However it will take long time to Sri lankan to change.
    I think it is better to start by addressing someone with so called your superior is to use title of the person. You can address the person with titles like Mr, Mrs, Dr or Professor etc. Then gradually you can start to address people by first name.
    We can start by addressing the leader of the country as Mr president, Ministers by the title Minister without using Honorable in front. Priest without using Athi garu just use Himi. Firstly govenment media institutions like Rupavahini should start this process for it to become successful

  • 1
    0

    Making/teaching kids to bend and worship every Dick and Sheela is also demeaning and subordinating.
    Something we carried forward from our kings?

    Ayya, Malli also another word to represent class.

    Mahatmaya, Mahathmiya are tow great words in Sinhala to represaent Mr and Mrs, I do not know why people are reluctant to use these words very often!

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