One of the first instances I came across this practice of addressing people by their first names was in my college basketball team. I was in my first year and one of the seniors, Anoop John, who knew I used to play in the school basketball team asked me to come for selection trials for the college team. I did turn up and that was my first run in with Xavier. Before I go on, a note on Xavier. He is one of the most fantastic human beings I have ever come across in life. More on that in another post perhaps.
So Xavier was a final year student and also the captain of our basketball team. A gifted player, he once shared with me his story of how he ended up in engineering college. He never fancied himself doing engineering much less doing engineering from CET apparently. A key trivia Xavier while narrating to me how he ended up in engineering college was that he had made use of the backside of the entrance examination hall ticket for tabulation of the scores of the card game that very night after the entrance. It so happened that he did manage to secure an admit in CET via the sports quota. Xavier was unsure to whether or not to take it up and that’s when his the basketball coach, Antony Sir, that guided him not to turn down the opportunity.
Towards the end of the selection trials, Xavier remarked that it appears that I can play and asked me to start coming for practice sessions along with the team. To which I ended up replying — വരാം Xavier ചേട്ടാ. And that’s when he stopped me right there. “എന്തോന്ന്, Xavier ചേട്ടനോ? ആ പരിപാടി ഒന്നും ഇവിടെ വേണ്ട, Xavier മതി” — എന്നായിരുന്നു Xavier ന്റെ മറുപടി. On the face of it, this might seem trivial. But anyone who is familiar with how ridiculously hierarchical and absurdly rigid some of these social constructs in our colleges are, of which the culture of addressing your seniors as ചേട്ടാ / ചേച്ചി is a deeply ingrained one, would understand that this is pathbreaking stuff.
So as a result of this culture set in motion by Xavier, we all addressed each other by our first names throughout. Few years down the line, when I took over as captain of the college basketball team, this addressing people by first names remained one of the cultural edifices around which our team was continued to be built and one that I carry forward to this day in my personal and professional life. We were all peers working towards a common outcome—contributing in our individual capacity in ways that each of us could. While this was what was happening, it was not Xavier who articulated it that way. That was to happen few more years later.
My second run in with the culture of addressing people by first names happened in Infosys. It was during the induction period with one of the learning facilitators. Unfortunately I do not remember the name of the person. After one her sessions, I walked up to her and ended up addressing her as <name> madam. That’s when she stopped me and guided me to address her by her first name. When I conveyed my discomfort in addressing someone much senior and elder to me by her first name, she helped me understand that it was the professional thing to do and that Infosys was an organisation that abided by that practice. She then went on to say that even if I run in to Nandan or NRN, you address them by names and not with Sir tag. And at that point, what she articulated has stuck with me since.
We are all peers working towards common outcomes, with each person contributing in ways that he or she can.