Thursday, August 27, 2009

Uncles And Aunties

By Promod Puri

It is smart, respectable and somewhat practical trend these days when youngsters in the Indo-Canadian community address their parents’ friends as uncles and aunties.

Instead of calling them by their first or last name, with prefix of Mr. or Mrs., these unrelated nephews and nieces make the acquaintances more personal and to some extent honorable.

Although the use of uncle and auntie is very common in most other communities to express endearment, these English words are favorably adopted and are very much in vogue these days in the Indo-Canadian culture.

And if one goes a step further to show more reverence, suffix “ji”, pronounced like letter “g”, is added as uncleji and auntieji ; thus giving a new twist or transformation to this customary expression to establish a more pleasant, amiable and closer connection.

The conventional practice of using Mr., Mrs. and especially the more-than-one meaning word madam is not only becoming obsolete in casual encounters and meetings, but these appellations create a very stiffen and reserved occasion. Whereas, when our instant young nephews and nieces appear on the scene, the on-the-spot kinship makes the atmosphere more intimate, informal and still courteous.

The uncle and aunty trend is popular not only to address parent’s friends, but for close relatives or anybody older as well. The expression makes an all-in-one entity that can for all practical purposes wrap up all the close relatives from both sides of parents.

Otherwise in the Indian culture children address relatives by their designated names. For example in Punjabi customs, from the dad’s side, his younger brother is called chacha and his wife chachi; older brother is taya, wife tayi; sister is addressed as bhua; her husband fufar (really a mouthful pronunciation). And from the mom’s side the brother (thankfully no distinction between younger and older) the classification is maama and wife maami; sister maasi and her husband masser (a bumpy pronunciation).

All these distinct titles certainly are hard to keep in ethnic memory cells for youngsters, but these can be easily replaced with one sweep by simply using the all-purpose generic uncle and aunty formula.

However, the traditional names of relatives are still being proudly reserved as part of cultural identity and are used to express respect. But for non-relatives the uncle and aunty application is very common, convenient and functional.

A close family friend’s son is very traditional as far as tackling his parents’ brothers and sisters is concerned. He respectfully calls them with their respective titles, but when it comes to dealing with his parents’ friends, he refers them as uncles or aunties. But here, he has some different, but valid reason.

In one family business function, this pleasant and sociable young man was introducing guests to each other. While in this formal exercise he was often heard saying “meet my uncle; meet my aunty.” However, when somebody pointed out to him ”how many uncles and aunties you have,” the poised “nephew” had to tell the truth and with confidence and smile on his face he said “no they’re not my real uncles and aunties, but by addressing them so, I don’t have to remember their individual names.”

It was a pretty honest and smart answer to which everybody smiled and accepted the explanation in its stride.

And when it comes to play smart South Asian working youth have another reason from business point of view to use the workable uncle-auntie technique.

These young enterprising and fairly innovative salespeople, while doing business within their community, very often address their clients, even if they’re little older, as uncleji and auntieji to establish a respectable and trustworthy relationship.

In fact the uncle-aunty approach which nobody minds, is also successfully applied to please older employers, or at any place else to get the things done in a polite and expecting way.

The uncle-aunty phenomenon may be exploitative from business and social points of view, but it’s indeed a cultural evolution which is very helpful in successful marketing and establishing contacts.

This small but worthy- of -note motivating evolution should find its place in Canada’s cultural diversity.

If multiculturalism is a business as well, then the uncle-aunty mantra can help in its boom.


promodpuri said...


I agree with your point of view, but at the same time i would like to say,as you have also agreed in your article that commercially the uncle ji-aunty ji is o.k , but socially not so,It is aptly asked that how many uncle ji and aunty ji you have. your real Taya is your uncle and at the same time the old man sitting out side your office chamber is also your uncle What distinction does it make between your father's brother and that strange man.It may be a false ego ,but it is truth that i feel honoured when Kapil, Simmi, Naveen call me Phuphar ji and when they call uncle. it is o.k.
Om Duggal.

Interesting observation. I too find that uncle-ji and auntie-ji are more
personal and engaging than the formal "Mr. and Mrs. ...." but agree that in
the case where actual relatives are involved, the proper title (e.g. taya-ji
& tayi-ji) is a step further in familiarity and perhaps is also more
respectful, whereas uncle-ji and auntie-ji are better reserved for family

I also find that Uncle-ji and Auntie-ji are sometimes used disingenuously by
people in business relationships. My own opinion (and I could be quite
wrong) is that I'm more comfortable referring to someone by a more former
title (Mr. or Mrs. X) until we've established a personal relationship.
Otherwise any Indian person I meet (that looks like they are from my
parents' generation) might automatically qualify as an uncle or auntie,
despite that I don't know them at all...

It is interesting how we apply order to our complex social structure.
Naveen Gopal.
Hi Promod,

This is very intersting. To add: when travelling in Guyana and Surinam I found that all older women were addressed as "aunites." When we went to the market aor met women selling things on the street, the right thing to do was to addres them as "anutie." Actually neither their ethnicity nor their age was particularly important. It was a mode of address that was at once respectful and affectionate.

The same phenomenon greeted us in India in some situations: a young taxi driver we hired in Delhi always called me "uncle" during our stay. I got off a train and found a man approaching me with the greeting "Uncle" because we had told the taxi driver when we were rturning to Delihi from a trip to to the hills.

Chin Banerjee

Thanks. It is,indeed, very interesting and makes a good reading. This 'trend' is quite popular here as well, especially amongst Punjabis. Perhaps it may not be so much amongst Indo-Canadian communities, other than, Punjabis., say from Kerala, Bengal, Maharashtra.
That was very well thought and written. I
agree wholeheartedly that addressing people with
Auntie/Uncle expedites the relationship to one of
trust and
respect. It is establishing interpersonal boundaries
at the
outset of communication and very fundamental to
rapport with that person whether it is a professional
personal or business experience.

Thanks for sharing yopur thoughts.
Bal and Amrit

promodpuri said...

Pl.ignore "promodpuri said" at the begining of each comment in the Uncles and Aunties article.The name of the writer of each comment is at the end of the comment.

promodpuri said...

Uncles and Aunties- I have mixed thoughts on this issue. I do like the
traditional manners we are born into and appreciate the respect that these
titles bestow. However, we have chosen to leave our homeland and taken
refuge in the foreign culture and have brought up our children in the
Canadian environment. It is the Canadian way to address people by their last
or first names regardless of the age and I feel there is nothing wrong with
that. Children of my English, American and Canadian friends always call me
Mr Tangry while a kid of my friends calls me Dave. I am not offended by
these at all. I have had my own kids (when they were young 4-6 years of
age) question me as to why do they have to address my friends as Uncles and
Aunties. I remember Roger asking me " Dad, why do we have to call them Uncle
as they are not my uncles - Don't I have a real uncle ?). I tried to use the
explanation of tradition and customs but I think I only succeeded partially.

I strongly believe that we should let our next generations decide how they
wish to conduct themselves and perhaps their offspring's will be one step
ahead of them and not even remember where they came from. We are very much
influenced by our ways of life and perhaps would not change. However, we
should not impose our traditional ways on our children.
Dave Tangri