Illustration by Abro

My first encounter with the practice of using first names irrespective of age occurred at a meet-and-greet at a university in the UK. Fresh off the boat from Pakistan and 22 years old, I introduced myself to the 50-something lecturer who cheerily responded, “Call me David!”

Very much taken aback, I blurted, “I can’t do that. You’re my teacher!”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. From his perspective I was a university student, thereby an adult, which put us on an equal social footing of sorts. From my perspective, I was desi and we don’t do such things. Thus, while the rest of my class called him by his first name, I resolutely stuck to “Mr Harcourt.”

Upon returning to Pakistan, I faced the same conundrum. I began working at a place where most of the team was my age, and the CEO was in his mid-30s — about 10 years older than us. We called him Aneek Sahib. Then I met his wife who was also the chief executive in the company. Everyone called her by her first name. Now here was the problem: I couldn’t call her Zehra Begum because, what are we, living in the 15th century? Zehra Sahiba sounded odd — too many syllables, perhaps? I couldn’t call her Ms Mehdi because that was so formal and distancing. Wouldn’t have minded calling her Zehra Apa, but got the feeling that would have come across a bit dorky (note: this was before Zubeida Tariq had burst onto the scene as the all-powerful Zubeida Apa).

It was a most confounding dilemma. I dealt with it by avoiding Zehra as much as possible.

I find it very strange that although we Pakistanis have done so much — fused sitars with guitars, made Oscar-winning films, armed ourselves with nuclear weapons — we haven’t managed to figure out a culturally appropriate workplace term for addressing women.

I then moved to a place where the employees were many, and of different ages. Equality was greatly encouraged, so no Sahibs, Bibis, or Ghulams — everyone was a peer. There I found myself saying, “Junaid, may I have the storyboard by midday?” and cringing with the greatest embarrassment as I pictured Junaid’s wispy, white hair on the other end of the phone call. Unable to carry on like this I decided the rules could sod off and began affixing Sahib to the name of any person whom I would never address with such discourtesy in a social setting.

While this solved the issue of how to address men, the problem of how to correctly address women remained. My creative director at the same place was around eight years older than me. If I ever called my sister — three years my senior — by name, my mother would have smacked the manners right back into my face. But how does one say, “Rabia Baji, the presentation is ready,” in the midst of a meeting with pretentious corporate types without coming across as a bit weird?

Of course some office staff get around all of this by addressing senior female colleagues as ‘Madam’, ‘Ma’am’, and ‘Sir’. But if anything, that sounds even more archaic. And unless my colleague was Madam Noor Jehan, it would sound simply absurd coming from me.

As time passed and I approached my mid-30s, it became easier. Now my colleagues were either my age or younger, and the older ones weren’t that much older. Then I moved to another organisation where the CEO was a lady and was the same age as my parents. Her straightforward instructions were to call her by her first name.

Rats. Back to square one.

I can call a man Janab, Sahib, or even Bhai and it wouldn’t seem odd, but call a senior female colleague Apa and everyone goes all, “Which cave in the mountains did you emerge from, you unsophisticated bumpkin?”

I find it very strange that although we Pakistanis have done so much — fused sitars with guitars, made Oscar-winning films, armed ourselves with nuclear weapons — we haven’t managed to figure out a culturally appropriate workplace term for addressing women.

I can call a man Janab, Sahib, or even Bhai and it wouldn’t seem odd, but call a senior female colleague Apa and everyone goes all, “Which cave in the mountains did you emerge from, you unsophisticated bumpkin?”

But is it unsophisticated to be respectful? Our cultural environment is such that socially, most of us would never dream of addressing an older person by their first name. Why, then, is it acceptable at the office? And why is it not applicable to both genders? If Naeem in accounts can be Naeem Bhai without anyone batting an eyelash, why can’t I be Sarwat Baji?

Some people are of the view that attaching Apa to a woman’s name attaches years to her age. Remember that line, “Aunty mat kaho na!” which was played up for laughs because a woman would apparently sooner die than be considered of a certain age? Do people still think like that?

I seriously doubt a woman, after working long and hard to reach a position of seniority, would be offended that her colleagues didn’t treat her as though she were a blooming teen. Or perhaps calling me Apa will somehow diminish my younger colleagues’ capabilities?

Is that even an issue, considering that this year’s crop of graduates was born probably in 1995, the year I sat for my first O-Level exams? I could say, with absolutely no intention of putting anyone down, that “I was deconstructing economic models when you were still in diapers,” and it would literally be a fact. In any case, expecting a youngster to be courteous towards an elder is not, in any way, diminishing.

Maybe my female seniors would prefer a Saheb-equivalent term to be used with their name, but don’t say so because people might think they were being outrageous or — gasp! — non-modern! I don’t suppose they would like to be called Begum, which is admittedly archaic, and extremely classist, but how about Bibi? It’s a nice word, applicable in most scenarios, with no risk of a possible faux pas — such as might happen when trying to work out whether to address a woman as Miss, Mrs or Ms.

Apa, too, is a lovely term, and Baji goes very well with certain names. To each her own, I suppose, but personally speaking, if the kids in IT wanted to call me Sarwat Baji, I wouldn’t think it unprofessional of them at all.

The writer is a staffer.

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