The words we use

We had our ISB batch reunion in Chennai on the 20th and 21st. During the sharing session on the 21st one of my friends described a situation in his office and addressed his employees as “his girls”. Many of us got anxious thinking he meant his young daughters till he clarified saying these were two young female employees. We completely understood how he felt about them, because they were so much younger, the affection was that of a father, more so because he had two daughters of his own. Nothing wrong here, right ? J. Our friend is a good human being and a compassionate employer, who thinks of his employees as his children. This is a fact. But the words he used got me thinking.

What’s wrong here ? Do you see yourself using the words “son”, “child”, “beta” (Hindi word for child), etc? I heard the word “beta” used at work, for the first time when I joined Pizza Corner in 1999. I didn’t understand why I didn’t like it then. In the hospitality industry in India the word “beta” is probably taught during their training period and becomes a part of the vocabulary. All senior folk call the junior folk “beta”. Then in the BPO industry where I moved next, it was used by managers and some senior folk to say, “c’mon son, you can do it” or for the office boys “beta, go get this” and in South India its “thambi, get this done” or “Anna, please help”. Thambi is the Tamilian word for younger brother and Anna is the Tamilian word for older brother. All great words and very respectful, but here’s what’s wrong with them.

When you address someone as “beta” you don’t think of them as equal, mature young people, which is what they are. You don’t mean it badly, but then you struggle to deal with them when they behave as kids. When Rajiv and I were returning after our panel discussion at ISB’s Leadership summit a couple of weeks back, we were talking about the differences between the PGPMAX (senior exec’s with 15+ years of experience) and the PGP (5+ years of experience) and how its difficult to match wavelengths. I actually love interacting with the 20 somethings and we get along just fine even though there is 2.5 decades separating us. I never call them “beta” or “child” or “son”. According to me, anyone who is old enough to have a child – probably the age of 13 as an average is old enough and anyone who can vote, which means they are 18, is definitely old enough to be an equal. All they don’t have is experience but they have uncluttered minds, great insights and fresh perspectives. I many times find it tedious to get my point across to people my age and almost impossible to get it across to people older than me, but those in their 20’s get it. They may not agree with me and that’s fine, but they invariably get it.

When you call them “son”, “beta” and any other word that shows affection of an elder person, you bring a divide and you forgive mistakes that cannot be forgiven. If an employee has done wrong, they need to own up to their mistake and do whats right – I am not about to molly coddle or make it easy for them because, they are adults. If you can vote, you can decide about what action you want to take and you are responsible for the consequences of the choices you make. Our managers/leaders fall into this trap of being “nice” and be the “big brother/dad” at work – nope, it doesn’t work. Your employees are adults who chose to work in your organization. Treat them with compassion, care, respect and give them a great environment to flourish, but don’t call them “beta”, “son”, “thambi” etc. Ideally, start treating your children above the age of 13 as adults and see the marked change in their sense of responsibility.

My father did that to me – he sat me down when I turned 13 and said, “now you are old enough to know right from wrong. Am not going to watch everything you do. If you want advise, ask me and I will tell you what I know. Just remember your values and don’t do anything stupid.” I did go out with boys, I did have “crushes” but my dad made me responsible for my life, so I never went crying to him after making a mistake !! and I was careful about not breaking his trust in me.

I also picked up the “beta” word for a few months after leaving Pizza Corner, but it tasted terrible coming from my mouth J. When I understood why I didn’t like the word, I dropped it forever and have ensured my colleagues, managers on my team etc don’t use that word.

So “beta”, the word we use create feelings in the receivers and in us …. So watch the words you use.

Suggested reading – Awaken the giant within, by Tony Robbins has a full chapter dedicated to the power of words. Its an outstanding book and a must read. 


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