East vs. West: Getting used to being on a first name basis with my boss

"I was surprised and somewhat disturbed when my employer told me to call her by her first name. Whether in a social setting or a formal one, it is not a common practice in either one of our cultures."

“Just call me Rashda,” said my boss. I was surprised and a little bit worried.

When I started working at my current place of employment, I asked my boss how she would like me to address her. Although we were from different countries – she’s from Pakistan and I am from Malaysia – our cultures do have some similar practices.

One in particular concerns how we address others in the second person. In a socially casual setting, it is taboo to address someone, particularly an elder, without a term of respect, i.e. uncle or auntie for our parents’ peers, and sister or brother for our peers. However, in a formal setting, such as at the workplace, the terms Miss, Missus, Mister or Madame are commonly used to address superiors.

Superiors commonly address their subordinates by their first names, often without a salution, according to their discretion or according to the level of intimacy between the two parties. Subordinates, however, never, ever address their superiors without a title of respect.

I have been in a setting where such norms are abandoned. It is important to note, however, that these are exceptions to the common practice. The setting I was referring to was a privately owned architecture firm. There were basically only two levels in the company’s hierarchy: the owners of the company – the principal architects – and the rest, including administrative staff, technical assistants and other architects.

Formalities are often abandoned in the private sector, especially so in the lower levels of the organization. Here, colleagues are generally on a first name basis with each other and formal salutations are usually only applied to those in the highest level of the organization.

On the other hand, the government sector tips the scale towards the formal. Government organizations are more strongly hierarchical in nature. Although there are superiors who abandon the common practice – owing to the level of intimacy between themselves and their subordinates – members of government organizations are expected to address their superiors with the proper salutation. If a person has been bestowed with a special title such as Datin or Dato’ – the Malaysian equivalent of the British knighthood – they are always addressed by those titles.

This common practice has its roots in the Malay culture whereby Malays are always taught to revere their elders. The use of titles in a formal environment, however in my opinion, has its roots in the colonial system which still has its imprints on the Malay culture.

Hence my dilemma in how to address my boss. I have quite a number of friends from Pakistan and I have learned from them that, like my own culture, it is disrespectful to address one’s elders or superiors simply by their first name. I was therefore surprised and somewhat disturbed when my employer told me to call her by her first name. Whether in a social setting or a formal one, it is not a common practice in either one of our cultures.

I was flummoxed. For the first few weeks, I tried every manoeuvre so as not to have to call her by her first name. This included saving up anything I have to say for when she happens to address me first. The feeling that I was being disrespectful towards her was very hard to overcome.

After a while, though, I was able to overcome that feeling since every other staff member calls her by her first name. Despite having come from a vastly different culture, she seems to have safely made the transition to the Canadian culture – one that is more relaxed and less hierarchical. It’s about to time that I did too.