The culture of respect ?

“Ibu, aku terlambat , pesawat belum datang.” I heard a part of what my colleague was saying on phone. We were in Lombok, on an assignment and stuck at the airport. The plane taking us back to Jakarta had gotten delayed by 4 hours.  I had already called up my husband to inform and was waiting for my colleague to finish his call, before we went back to work related discussion again. “Ibu, nanti aku telepon ketika pesawat mendarat”. …

I was sort of surprised + impressed that he still calls his Ibu (Mum) first, even in his mid thirties. Indonesians are very close to their family – mostly like Indians, I had heard, but this was little out of ordinary for me.  I wouldn’t call my parents immediately under such circumstances, they need not know that I’m getting delayed and then worry about me. Maybe, he lives in a joint family. ‘The analyst’ started making her assumptions. Anyhow, after he hung up, I asked him how came he called his mother because she might worry unnecessarily. Indonesians do tend to ask even more personal questions and even to casual acquaintances or even strangers. Though I knew he wouldn’t have minded – he’s a friend.  Anyway, he did a double take – “Mother??, no, I called my wife”.  Then it was my turn to do a double take – “you  address your wife with ‘Ibu’?”. Till then, to me, Ibu meant only following things:

  1. Ibu is your own mother
  2. In formal situations, it is a title of respect – similar to ‘Madam’ – for someone senior in age / designation – mostly aged 30s and above.

So I was even more impressed with this colleague, who was addressing his wife ‘Madam’. Not jokingly, I could tell from his expressions. He added, “Of course, that’s what I always call her”.Having returned home, I mentioned this to a local friend and he set me correct. “We always call our spouses with the relevant title”. This was a shock and relief to me. After hearing the Bahasa Indonesia word for the word ‘husband’ – Suami, which has been derived from Sanskrit ‘Swami’ (master), I had been flabbergasted. So this new information was a happy shock.

 This means, husbands will call their wives – ‘Ibu’ (Madam) or Mbak (Miss) while addressing and wives will call their husbands  – Bapak/Pak (Sir), Mas (young sir I guess?) while addressing them. This to me initially seemed too formal, until I recollected that in many parts of India there still is culture of addressing significant other ‘aap’ (respect) irrespective of gender. Even kids . India always has culture of addressing husband as ‘aap’ – being the patriarchal society that it is. But in some areas even the wives are addressed in kind. In Maharashtrian culture too probably till last century I guess, the culture of calling significant other “tumhi” (respect) existed. However, I don’t think adding a title for those considered ‘junior’ was ever a part of our culture. Fortunately, today we have again gravitated to an era where genders are on equal footing when it comes to addressing each other (genders to come on equal footing in India in real sense will take probably couple of centuries more… but that is besides the point).

So, coming to the point, so far in my interactions, I haven’t come across anybody in this country, irrespective of his/her age, situation,  social status, profession etc, being addressed without title. Titles – Pak/Bapak, Mas, Mbak, Ibu, Nona (for young miss) etc are used in formal as well as casual situations. I guess, in situations with extreme familiarity, sometimes, you could be addressed only with your first name, parents calling their children etc.  I call some of my friends on first name basis, but I think their acceptance of it could be more to do with the fact that they understand differences in cultures.

To me it is amusing how the use of titles does not really impact the level of intimacy in this culture. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Indonesians are very genial? – that they always have given respect to anyone irrespective of their status / situation by addressing them with titles?  I can only make guesses.

3 thoughts on “The culture of respect ?

  1. I have heard some Maharashtrian women call their husband ‘majhe maalak’/saheb. Used to find it deplorable. But then I understand only hindi, marathi and my mother tongue in Indian languages, I’m sure more such examples exist in other languages.
    My colleagues used to pull my leg for addressing the husband as ‘aap’. But they didn’t know that for me everyone who is older is ‘aap’. My mom (maharashtrian friends used to find this weird…mother is such a intimate relation, why the formal ‘aap’ ?), dad, older cousins, people I had just been aquainted with (like the formal Sie in deutsch ) all are ‘aap’. Even young children, I address as ‘aap’. This last bit is because in my mother tongue we indulge little ones by addressing them with the equivalent of ‘aap’. In hindi also, young children are addressed as aap.
    In Japan, people add the formal ‘san’ after the name….
    Eastern cultures are so very interesting!

  2. Hey,

    Yes few Marathi-speaking communities say ‘Malak’ or even ‘Dhani’ / Ghar-dhani (Dhani here =Owner, probably derived from Dhani = rich and owner of assets) and yes, I think words with similar meaning could be used in other parts of India as well.
    Do you address ‘aap’ as per your mother tongue or it is something that you have decided for yourself? I mean especially calling mother / intimate relations. Is your mother tongue Tulu? I sort of am confused – because you are from Karnataka I think – though you don’t speak Kannada for sure..all these days I have been thinking that you speak Tulu. I could be wrong. Funny we never spoke about this 🙂
    By the way some Marathi-speaking communities also address their mothers still as ‘aapan’ / ‘tumhi’..,with ‘aapan’ being even more respectful than ‘tumhi’ and I know of a wife that recently had to face the flak of her husband for addressing her mother in law with ‘tumhi’ instead of ‘aapan’ in a family where everyone addressed their mum with ‘aapan’ 🙂

  3. Yes, I speak Tulu. And Im from Mangalore which is in Karnataka…2 distinct languages. Tulu is a dialect, no script. In Tulu, most people address elders including parents as ‘áap’. But now that most of my cousins have been born and brought up in Mumbai, I’ve seen some address mom to the equivalent of ‘tu’. Most of us frown at that! hahaa
    I’m a formal person most of the time, and I prefer using ‘aap’. Just feels more polite to me…
    It may not sound very friendly though….
    I’ve seen ‘aapan’ being used for mothers/mil’s in some marathi serials….

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