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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 February 2019

No ma'am: how a Dubai hotel's welcome change sparked a hot debate

One hotel’s choice to scrap formal greetings has put the nuances of niceties in the spotlight

A waiter speaks to a guest at The Radisson Blu hotel in Business Bay area in Dubai. The hotel has banned staff from using formal greetings. Pawan Singh / The National 
A waiter speaks to a guest at The Radisson Blu hotel in Business Bay area in Dubai. The hotel has banned staff from using formal greetings. Pawan Singh / The National 

Should it be 'yes sir' or 'no Mr Smith'? An innocent attempt at a warm welcome can be viewed as a nice personal touch to a conversation or evoke a cold response.

Whether it's ma'am/sir, my dear, boss or cheers, we have all had moments of self-doubt to get that greeting right. It is especially so in the UAE, home to a variety of nationalities.

The National this week reported how the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dubai has banned its staff from using titles such as sir or madam in a bid to make them, and customers, feel more at ease.

Traditionally intended as term of respect, the hotel’s owners chose to scrap the designation as they felt it made many people feel uncomfortable.

The response to the move revealed opinion is divided and that where you hail from can shape your viewpoint.

What makes for a great first impression for an Emirati, for instance, might not sit well with someone from Europe.

Stephen Levins, a senior leader at Frontline Performance Group, has worked with clients across many industries in the UAE, including the hospitality sector. Levins helps improve their service levels and agrees it is a good move.

Great customer service starts with the initial greeting, he said.

Using the term sir/ma'am is very generic and not always welcomed, particularly by Europeans or other western nations who tend to prefer less formal greetings, he said.

And while first names are not always welcomed, he is yet to see a bad reaction from a customer being greeted by their surname, said Mr Levins.

"In fact, some guests actually find it refreshing," he said.

However, they often find it tough to adjust to using someone's surname for fear of getting a bad reaction or purely out of the amount of effort to change a habit.

"This has been the most difficult thing in our coaching and training sessions, showing employees from different cultures and backgrounds that it is okay to use a customer's surname,” said Mr Levins.

The customers were mainly British and they didn’t like it. They’d say ‘am I getting old?’ or ‘there’s no need, please don’t'

Emmanuel, a retail associate in Abu Dhabi

Emmanuel, a retail sales associate in Abu Dhabi, is one of them. He used to work for a British retail brand which did not allow its staff to use greetings like ma’am/ sir.

He has found that tailoring your words depending on the customer or client's nationality is key.

“The customers were mainly British and they didn’t like it. They’d say ‘am I getting old?’ or ‘there’s no need, please don’t’.”

But, now in a new role with a luxury brand which attracts a mix of nationalities, he uses it selectively, although never with westerners.

Yasar Abuheglah, a Palestinian-Canadian businesswoman who has lived in the UAE her whole life, said she still used the titles with clients.

“I use it as a kind of border and to keep the respect,” she said.

“It’s part of my culture and we have specific terms. Instead of calling the name, we say Abu [meaning father of] to show respect.”

Yet to more recent arrivals in the Emirates, the formal greetings used here are often seen as strange.

Natalie, who is British and has lived in the UAE for 12 years, said the title madam did not bother, but that she found ma’am/ sir quite offensive.

“I guess it seems like a reflex rather than actually caring,” she said. “It’s as if you’re not bothering to differentiate whether a person is male or female and seems insincere.”

Monica Bisca, who moved to the UAE from Romania in July, said she found being addressed as ma’am as odd, but that she had heard worse.

“It’s a lot stranger to be called dear or honey,” she said. “I am okay with hello, how are you? That should be enough.”

Marife, a sales associate in Abu Dhabi, who greets all customers with sir or madam, said she finds many western customers' greetings stranger.

“Mostly it’s 'cheers',” she said.

“Or when they are finished and they say 'lovely' – I thought they were saying 'I am lovely' at first. But they are saying they appreciate it. It’s funny.”

Updated: January 29, 2019 04:54 PM

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