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Our obsession with ‘sir’ and ‘madam’

  • Published at 06:40 pm November 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:00 am November 6th, 2017
There were reports in the media last week of a clash at a medical college in Bogra between the intern doctors and relatives of a patient. The patient reportedly died because she was forcibly released from the hospital following the clash, which supposedly escalated from a trivial issue -- over addressing an intern female doctor as “sister” instead of “madam.” It might seem petty to many of us, but it is a big issue in Bangladesh for those in “important positions.” They see it as a grave offense if someone addressed them as something other than “sir” or “madam.” Some of them will not even answer and the polite among them will stare at you until you realise the error in your ways and correct yourself immediately. This obsession with the “sir” and “madam” salutation is abnormally strong among intern doctors who seem to think they should be addressed thus by everyone. Last year I visited a number of hospitals outside Dhaka for a news report, where I personally witnessed how deep this obsession goes. At the Khulna medical college, I found an elderly man in his 70s addressing a 20-something duty doctor as “sir.” I was surprised and asked to know the reason for this so the elderly man told me that he once called a young doctor “baba” (commonly used in our culture by the elderly to address young people) and the doctor got offended. “Since then, I have never called a doctor other than anything other than ‘sir’,” he said. Professional entitlement I am not saying that this kind of professional entitlement is true for all doctors but it is certainly common among them. To be fair, doctors are not the only professionals who are obsessed with this salutation. Our civil servants are also strong contenders on the list. There are many accounts of local government officials who do not respond properly when people fail to address them with “sir.” When I was in journalism, my first policy was to not address anyone with the “sir” or “madam” salutation. However, I had many bitter experiences as a result and could not strictly adhere to the policy.
There is no logical reason why a doctor or civil servant should act like they are superior to any of us, but there is some historical explanation for how this practice developed in the first place
This obsession is also prevalent in private and civil society organisations. I know of a civil society research organisation, rather Western in its policy and attitude, which asks its employees to address top management officials as sir or madam. This reminds me of quote by Rudyard Kipling: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This obsession also prevails in schools, colleges, and universities, where teachers feel disrespected when someone does not address them as sir or madam, including the adult guardians of students. An outdated practice We need to think deeply about this tendency and the underlying mentality in our culture. There is no logical reason why a doctor or civil servant should act like they are superior to any of us, but there is some historical explanation for how this practice developed in the first place. And it goes back to our colonial masters. During the British colonial times, civil servants and doctors were almost exclusively foreigners who genuinely believed they were superior to us and demanded to be treated as such. But this is no longer the case for present day bureaucrats and medical doctors. Now they are our own people. Some of them are our friends, some our relatives, but we are all citizens of this land, with equal rights. We need to think about this flawed and outdated tradition not only because it is offensive to the rest of us but also because it leads to abuse of power and lack of accountability of our doctors and civil servants. It ultimately rests on the false premise in the minds and hearts of many government employees, doctors, and teachers, that they are superior to the rest. We should remember that our profession does not determine our character and neither does it make us more deserving of respect -- it is our behaviour that does. I strongly believe that if we abolish this tradition of addressing doctors, civil servants, and other professionals as sir or madam, many other problems related to governance and public services in Bangladesh will be solved. We must seriously consider reviewing this unofficial policy as our land is no longer ruled by disdainful outsiders but an independent state and we are its free people. Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently working in the development field.
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