When asking someone’s name, many Indians say, “What is your good name?,” so it’s polite to do likewise. Always address people formally until invited to do otherwise—especially people whose status is equal to or higher than yours and those who introduce themselves with a title. Elders should be addressed as Sir or Madam or – ji (see below) unless they specifically ask you to call them by their first names, but it’s OK to be more informal with youngsters. Traditionally, people are addressed by their personal names only by family, superiors, close friends and elders. Of course, in tourist areas, many people are used to being on a first-name basis with new acquaintances, and they may introduce themselves accordingly.
When addressing a person who has a professional title, such as Doctor, Professor or Pandit, always use it, at least until you know when you the person better. Use Mr., Mrs. or Miss for those without professional titles, followed by the name with which they were introduced to you. For women, this is more likely to be their given name, e.g., Miss Gita or Mrs. (or Madam) Gita. Indians attach great importance to their titles and expect them to be used, especially by new acquaintances. Always use professional titles when doing business or dealing with bureaucrats.
If you are introduced to a Mr. Ram Prasad Sharma, you can address him either as Mr. Sharma or Sharma-ji. Once you know him well, you might be invited to just call him by his given name or nickname, if he has one, or perhaps his initials, R.P If you meet a man named Dr. Satish Shukla, then you would normally address him as Dr. Shukla or Dr. Satish, depending on the introduction, but the form of address can be a little more complicated for women. A Doctor Shankari Gaur may be introduced as Dr. Mrs. Gaur or Dr. Mrs. Shankari, though you could address her as Dr. Shankari or Dr. Gaur.
Titles can be further complicated for both men and women because military and other professional titles may accumulate, and all of them are normally retained for one’s whole life. A woman might be known as Dr. Professor Mrs. Bharati AggarivaL while a man could be Dr. Air Marshall Professor V. P. L. Rawest. Anything is possible. For verbal address in formal situations, use the first title in the string if the tit you’re not sure, but in writing, u se R. K the full name with all of the titles, e.g., Pandit Dr. Prof. R. K. Chaturvedi.
Don’t call a person by his or her given name or nickname until the person has invited to you to do. If you want a small step down in formality, use a man’s last name with -Ji (pronounced jee) rather than the first name. If you are on a first-name basis, you can append Ji to the first name unless the person really doesn’t like to be called Ji, as some people don’t. Ji can be either a term of great respect or great intimacy. As a respectful honorific, it has a similar force to Sir, but it can also be applied to women, You can .also use it with children or anyone with whom you are 71 familiar terms. It can be attached to a first name, last name, title, or nickname, or else it can be used alone. It’s extremely useful can’t pronounce someone’s name or can’t remember it, or even when you never knew it in the first place. Ji (which is Hindi) is so widely used and understood that it’s safe to use it almost anywhere, although other forms may be preferred in various parts of India.
Use Ji when addressing sadhus, yogis, pandits, teachers, police officers, bureaucrats, officials of any kind, etc. However, even when you are speaking to a lowly government clerk, you may want to add Ji. If you need that person to get something done for you, a show of respect is important. You can also use Ji with a title, e.g., Doctor-Ji. Never address beggars or menial laborers as Ji. You would also not address most servants as Ji.
Many people have a guru of one sort or another. A guru is traditionally a spiritual preceptor, but can also be a music teacher, dance teacher, etc. A spiritual guru may be addressed or referred to as Guru-Ji, or Guru Dev. Orange-robed sadhus and sannyasis may be addressed as Swami-Ji or Maharaj. Respected pandits (learned Brahmins) are usually addressed as Pandit-Ji.
Among certain traditional segments of society, a wife won’t address her husband by name, or even say his name aloud. When referring to him, she may use Ji with his last name (e.g., Sharma-Ji) or refer to him as the father of their child (e.g., Anil’s father) or even just as he or him.
Nicknames are extremely common. Often they are merely a shortening of a longer name: Vikas, a boy’s name, might be transformed into Vicky, for instance, and Tejaswini, a girl’s name, may become Teju. Marty men use their initials. English nicknames are common among Westernized Indians. Women may have names like Lucky, Smarty, Beauty, or Pinky, and men might be called Bunny, Bittoo, Munna or Dumpy. Many men prefer to be known by their initials. It is also common for people to shorten a long name. For instance, Mr. Kumaraswamy might shorten his name to Mr. Kumar.
After titles, most people will use their given names first, followed by a family, caste, or clan name. There are plenty of exceptions, though, and you will only know for sure by asking.
The wife and children may take the husband’s or father’s given name as their second name; e.g., Anjuli, the wife of Narayanaswamy might become Anjuli Narayanaswamy. There are also cases where the given name may be preceded by the mother’s family name. After marriage, women may take the husband’s name, which is typically the family name in the North and the first name in the South. It is, however, no longer uncommon for professional women to keep their maiden name after marriage.
Traditions differ in various parts of the country. In the North, Hindus usually have a first and last name, but many names that seem to be surnames are actually caste names, e.g., Sharma, Varma, Gupta, Gujjar, etc., and sometimes surnames will be occupational names, such as Pilot. To avoid being identified by caste, people may take their father’s name or village name as a surname. In the South, men normally use the name of their ancestral village and/or the names of their father, but these names are typically used in front of the given name as initials.
Within a family, relationship names are used more commonly than given names. In Hindi, for instance, the paternal grandfather and grandmother are Dada and Dadi, respectively, while the maternal grandparents are Nana and Nani. The father’s elder brother is Chacha, while mother’s elder brother is called Mama. Each relationship is named in a particular way. There is a whole special set of names for one’s in-laws, so instead of all of one’s spouse’s brothers being called brother-in-law, for example, each has a specific term. A woman’s husband’s younger brother is Dever, and his wife is called Devarani, while the elder brother is Tayi, etc. The elder brother’s wife is called Bhabhi. The wife’s brothers and their wives have a whole different set of names, and so on. The eldest sister is called Didi, but younger sisters are called by their given names or nicknames.
Cousins how are often referred to as cousin brother or cousin sister, however, people may also use these terms to refer to more distance relatives, or sometimes to close friends who are not related at all. In this case, these terms are a way of saying that “he is like a brother to me” or “she is like my sister.”
A man’s name may be followed in writing by s/o, i.e., “son of,” and the father’s name (especially for official documents or announcements). A woman’s name may be followed by d/o, or “daughter of,” with the father’s name, or w/o, “wife of,” with the husband’s name, if she is married.
Sikh men usually have Singh as a middle name or surname, and most Sikh women have the name Kaur. However, not all Singhs and Kaurs are necessarily Sikhs, and some Sikhs have changed their names for various reasons. Address a Sikh by his or her given name preceded by Mr. or Mrs. rather than saying Mr. Singh or Mrs. Kaur. Sikh men are also referred to as sardars.
Muslim names are typically of Arabic derivation. The given name of a Muslim man is generally followed by bin (son of) and his father’s name, e.g., Abdul bin Mohammed, while a Muslim woman’s name includes binti (daughter of) plus her father’s name. Westernized Muslims often drop the bin or binti from their names. The title Hajji (for men) or Hajjah (for women) indicates that the person has made the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), which all devout Muslims hope to do once in their life.
Indians generally address all adult women over the age of about 25 as Mrs. or Madam whether they are married or not. If you are a woman who normally prefers to be called Ms., you will find that insisting on this form of verbal address is generally an exercise in frustration. If you do insist, people will try to honor your request because they want to please you, but their cultural habits are so deeply ingrained that they will inevitably forget—and they may also privately think that your request is silly. It is far better to accept the customs of the culture than to try to change them; after all, you are merely a visitor.
Peons in many organizations have been trained to address everyone, including women, as Sir. The habit is often so deeply ingrained that trying to correct them is a complete waste of time. To them, it’s the same as saying Ji, which is used for men and women alike, so you should accept it as it’s meant.
Depending on your age and your relationship with them, your Indian friends may address you as if you were a relative: Auntie, Uncle, Mother, Father, Mataji (respected mother), Didi (elder sister), and so on. Children are commonly taught to call adults Auntie or Uncle, whether they know them or not.