Sri Lankans generally love to fill up their conversations with various terms of endearment. What is in common usage in both Sinhala and Tamil, are plenty, from respectful Ayya, Akka to somewhat patronising Putha, Duwa and many dozens of other words falling in between.
Our everyday language is enlivened with these terms used with family ,friends to total strangers .The way we refer to a ‘relationship’ with virtually every one we come across is a factor unique in Sri Lanka .In a nation where the polarisation of communities is a reality to a certain degree , these terms transcend those ethno-religious divides with relative ease.
We Lankans have a ‘problem’. We are not people who love to call folks by their names .Our way is by inventing a ‘relationship ‘to the person who we have to deal with. And when we meet a stranger, the name of him we almost never inquire about. It is as if we do not need to since our style of address makes the name irrelevant.
All this bonhomie is alright, until we take the same custom into business .But then, we simply continue it there as well. Be it customers, clients, or staff our dialogues carry these endearments, with a rare use of Mr. or Ms. in an odd situation. It's obvious that Sri Lankans may consider Mr. and Mrs. /Ms. as too distant and somewhat uncomfortable .
In fact, the actual name of the person gets to be used when we address staff in the lowest rung of the pecking order. All others tend to be ‘kith and kin’, all the way to a level which is a notch below the highest. Beyond that it’s Sir or Madam, which in fact act as an epithet showing respect as well.
Sri Lankans almost never address a senior by name no matter what the rank of the personality is .The norm is by using an endearment .The culture and etiquette of our societies seem to require it that way. Equally, it’s common to notice a senior employee using a similar strategy in addressing juniors.
Terms in popular usage here are far different in meaning to the usage in the West, such as Honey, babe, sweetheart, love, darling etc. It’s extremely rare to hear terms in mother tongues with similar sentiments
But the popular terms like mate has a Sri Lankan version in ‘Machan’, ‘Ado’, and ‘Umba’ –the ever-popular terms that get used across the adjacent ranks regardless of gender. Its typical usage for a senior- in- rank- employee to address a junior as ‘Machan’ . Of course, it would be uncalled for to return kindness using the same epithet.
Typically, the Sri Lankan workspace may use these epithets for making people feel more comfortable by bringing in a softer approach to formal conduct in business, which in fact is the norm rather than the exception. Sri Lankans in general feel out of place within highly formal boundaries, the consequence being the heavy use of these endearments in life and business.
As the Sri Lankan staff gets along for a period of time, banter increases in leaps, aided by the highly rich and versatile languages as Sinhala and Tamil, the formalities and the gaps between ranks get pushed aside in preference to workplace harmony of Sri Lankan style.
It’s common for us to safely refer to a group of staffers as Kollo or Kello, age immaterial. Technically there is nothing intrinsically wrong about these epithets in a general sense in a Sri Lankan setting. Its open sesame at the workplace , unless we operate in a foreign owned business with well-set forms of etiquette.
But then, there is a darker side to this habit among us in the workplace. These terms might sound too condescending at the wrong time and place, made by the wrong person. An older man in a position of power needs to watch his words ,especially the tone as well as the follow up conduct when addressing a female worker. The use of terms such as Raththaran, Wastuwa, Kelle etc. by a man of power is a different issue altogether.
And for all of us, there is a little margin between honest, innocent bonhomie and rank sexual harassment. The possibility of a term being interpreted as disrespectful exists. what we may think as kind and caring may sound otherwise to the receiver. Generally, our conduct immediately after the endearment is what may make the person misunderstand
Putting a staffer at ease would go a long way in increasing productivity, however not at the expense of sounding too condescending. Just as any other aspect in business, a high degree of awareness of the situation and the parties whom we deal with are needed when we resort to endearments.
Here are some views on the use of endearments, some welcome, some not so:-
Anjana: “ In my line of work in hotel industry ,its highly common to use these terms as there’s very little formality among the staff .”
Malinga – “ Despite many anti-harassment rules where I work in the automotive industry, the language is kept free from restrictions. So, it’s the conduct that gets the notice.”
Bhakthi –“ In a highly charged working environment as an apparel industry ,the intensity could be managed better with these epithets ,so the use is common.”
Salman –“ Banking /finance -The behaviour among Tamil speaking staff is completely the same, if not ‘worse’. Banter and camaraderie matters a lot in a high-pressure environment.”