Kuppulakshmi aka Kuppu is a product evangelist at Zoho Corporation.  She is a passionate follower of “No Sir No Madam” ideology in her life.  She is a communicator at heart, and has more than a decade of expertise in soft skills training and is a communications and voice & accent expert.

Thanks to her experiences while interacting with different customers across the globe and from India, she has a thorough understanding of the prevalence of ‘Sir/Madam’ culture.

At Zoho, creating beautiful software is a craft and passion; and obviously hence, the people and culture are their most valuable assets. An informal and transparent culture, with flat hierarchy, where the CEO himself promotes “No Sir No Madam” policies and encourages people to address each other using first names.  

Zoho runs on Zoho, and we use Zoho Connect to have internal discussions.  The CEO, Sridhar Vembu, conducts ‘Open Houses’ periodically on Zoho Connect, and I remember a time when he talked about how we should let go of addressing people as Sir, Ma’am, or even the now-prevalent “Ji” for that matter.

Kuppulakshmi mentions that employees should not take casual office culture for granted.  Employees ought to show respect to their work and by their ethics in a professional space.  No Sir No Madam theory is the most fruitful when implemented rightfully with responsibilities.

“A completely strict environment or a very casual workplace — neither proves to be an ideal one”, quips Kuppu. “So, an informal workplace where creativity is encouraged, and ideas are accepted from all employees helps us in being the best in what we do,” says she.

It is enough if everyone displays respect towards their work and rightly use the freedom for collaboration, than thinking that addressing their colleagues as Sir or Madam is actually respectful. And informal is certainly not casual.

Kuppulakshmi remarks — the notion of addressing anyone senior to you with a salutation is deeply ingrained into Indians.  She shares her experience of training freshers at Zoho.  She enumerates, “When I was training fresh recruits at Zoho, on basics of communication and workplace etiquette, the first friendly rule for the participants would always be to call me by my first name.

There have been times when the trainees were very reluctant, and instead of forcing this practice of letting go of ‘Ma’am’, we all came up with a fun-idea—anyone who would use Sir/Ma’am during the training period would treat the rest of the class with pizzas at the end of the training sessions. This was fun and the idea actually worked.”

In India, respect has always been a one-way street.  Only the people younger in age, are expected to respect their elders.  This mindset, along with the imposition of ‘Sir/Madam’ greetings by the British has led to a very unpleasant environment in communication, especially at workplaces.

Kuppulakshmi also says that when it comes to addressing the bureaucrats, it is an obvious expectation to address them as ‘Sir/Madam’.  It is high time officials understand that it is equally respectable to refer someone by their first-name.  She is hopeful, that with youngsters taking up government jobs, government-office traditions will gradually change.

In addition, Kuppu also shares her observation that not all jobs are equally respected in India. Even though it is impossible to imagine a day without the housekeeping or that of the garbage collectors, or those who clean up public spaces, they are always discriminated based on their job.

It is important for parents too, to educate their children to respect and love everyone equally, and not discriminate people based on their professional and personal backgrounds. This has to be part of education for children because they start forming hierarchies in their minds at a surprisingly young age.

Educating a million people cannot be done overnight.  Hence, she recommends teaching kids in school about mutual-respect concept and about No Sir No Madam practice. 

Kuppulakshmi gives an example of her daughter who greets her school’s security guard with a ‘good morning’ every day.  The care-giver at her day care gets equal love as much as she would give any aunty/‘akka’.  Tiny acts like these go a long way to brighten up someone’s day and makes them feel happy and valued.  Similarly, everyone can begin with one such small, conscious gesture and spread parity all around.

Overall, Kuppulakshmi imparts — Engage more with younger population, as it will be easier to imbibe first-name habit into them.  Rightly so, they are the future leaders, who need to be nurtured with the right values from the beginning.  And, letting go of Sir/Madam or any such titles is just the first step.

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