21 May 2024

We have heard people expressing their frustration of being called ‘girls’ at work, along with many other workplace micro-aggressions related to race, age and gender in recent years.

Meanwhile, in the Thai language, people are also frustrated with a similar, yet a complicated cultural problem, which is being called “nhoo” (หนู), literally “mouse”.

-What does it mean to be called “nhoo”?-

In Thai, “nhoo” (หนู) is often used as a pronoun referring to young children in an “endearing” sense. Adults would use “nhoo”, as in “you”, when talking to children and, in return, children would call themselves “nhoo”, as in “I”, when talking to adults.

The most common relationship where “nhoo” would be used is between children and their parents, children and elderly members of the family and students and teachers.

“Nhoo sounds very soft, humble and respectful. It is polite, but quite friendly at the same time,” says famous Thai teacher and language expert, Kitmanoch “Kru Lilly” Rojanasupya, as she explains its connotations.

How a mouse became a pronoun for children remains unknown. It is, however, widely believed that the animal is considered small and cute and, therefore, it is often used to refer to young children.

Though the pronoun itself is not restricted to one gender, “nhoo” is often more associated with females than men.

As Kru Lilly explains, “nhoo”, as in “I”, sounds more humble and gentle compared to other female pronouns, such as “chan” (ฉัน) which can sound very blunt, while “dichan” (ดิฉัน) may be too formal and too distant.

At the same time, “nhoo” as in “you” would also sound friendlier, compared to “khun” (คุณ) which is formal but can be too distant, while “tur” (เธอ) can also sound blunt and would only be appropriate when talking to your friends.

“Nhoo” is also much more polite than “mueng-goo” (มึงกู), the most aggressive way of saying “you and I”, which is only used with very close friends or if you’re arguing with someone.

“All pronouns reflect the politeness of Thai culture,” Kru Lilly explains. “In English, there’s only “you” and “I”, but in Thai, there are several levels (to the use of language), depending on the situation and to whom you are talking.”

Similarly, men can also call women “nhoo” to show affection in a relationship. Do be careful though, because “nhoo” with derogatory prefixes insulting women, such as “e-nhoo” (อีหนู), usually refers to young female prostitutes or mistresses.

Meanwhile, the use of “nhoo” also reflects how Thai culture upholds the value of being humble, respectful and obedient towards ‘adults’, which is rooted in the social hierarchy, where people’s social ranking would determine how they are treated.

Due to its hierarchical context, “nhoo” (as in “you”) is often used to belittle women, particularly in workplace settings, to indicate that you are of a much lower status than the person you are talking to.

“Colleagues should not be calling you “nhoo” because that sounds condescending,” says Kru Lilly. “Being called “nhoo” by your colleagues implies that you’re still a kid and you’re beneath them, which I do not believe is right.”

“Nhoo” (หนู), literally a mouse in Thai language, is often used as a pronoun referring to young children.

-How does being called ‘nhoo’ affect women’s credibility at work?-

If you don’t like being called “nhoo”, you are not alone. In fact, calling women “nhoo” is not any different from calling them ‘young lady’ or simply ‘girls’, which says a lot about how women are perceived at work.

Shannon Kalayanamitr, a CEO at a tech and business firm, strongly opposes the use of the pronoun. As Shannon explains, she never liked to be called or to call herself “nhoo”, even back when she was young. This is because the pronoun diminishes her worth, as people would judge her as if she’s still a little girl or someone who is meek, submissive and does not have a voice.

“[The word “nhoo”] immediately puts you in a bucket, in which you will be less vocal or don’t have a say, abiding and just have to do what is required, albeit under someone else. While the person calling you “nhoo” immediately establishes themselves as superior, regardless of their age, status, skills or knowhow.”

For this reason, Shannon does not allow any of her employees at her company to call anyone “nhoo”, so that everyone is equally respected regardless of age and gender, which will enable them to express their opinions freely.

Meanwhile, Witchaya, 31, is also among many female employees who feel uneasy with the term, though she tried to understand that some adults might call her “nhoo” without the intention to belittle her.

“If it’s from someone who I’m not close to at all and suddenly they called me “nhoo” then I would find it condescending and disrespectful,” said Witchaya. “I don’t think it’s appropriate [for people to call me “nhoo”], because other colleagues might underestimate me, assuming that I’m still a baby and therefore immature and not responsible enough.”

Another employee, Jnani, 31, also feels that “nhoo” sounds patronising, as it implies that she is being defined by her age and gender, instead of her potential.

“If someone calls me “nhoo” publicly, such as in a meeting or while I am making a presentation, then it does affect my credibility,” said Jnani. “I prefer to be regarded as an individual person with no relations to the absurd hierarchical social statuses like age and gender.”

Calling someone by seemingly endearing names, such as dear, honey or sweetheart, is among gender-based micro-aggressions, which are harmful for employees in all working environments. Therefore, such belittling pronouns should not be used at all, according to these women.

“At work, we are there, being paid to utilise our skill-sets, our voices and our opinions in what we do,” Shannon explains. “If what people are being called makes them feel that their voices are not being heard equally or as per their job scope, it should not be used at all.”

Calling women “nhoo” is as patronising as calling women “young lady” or simply “girls”.

-How ‘old’ do I have to be for people to stop calling me ‘nhoo’?-

Even though the Thai dictionary defines “nhoo” as a pronoun which adults use to address children, who are considered an adult and a child in Thai culture remains subjective and open to people’s interpretation.

To keep it simple, Kru Lilly suggests that the appropriateness should be determined by which generation you are. For example, if that person is from an older generation than you, such as Generation-X versus Generation-Z, then it is understandable for “nhoo” to be used.

“Let’s say that person is in their 50s or their 60s, while you are in your 20s, then it is okay. However, if that person is only 5 or 6 years older than you and calls you “nhoo”, then I don’t think it’s appropriate, because you are both of the same generation.”

Despite the appropriate age-gap between two parties, Kru Lilly said there is no specific age-limit in Thai language as to when people should stop using “nhoo”. Unlike the word “girls”, which universally refers to young females below 18 years of age.

Above all, the appropriateness would depend on the situation, your relationship with the person you’re talking to and how close you are with them. The speaker’s intention and the tone of voice can also determine whether it is endearing or condescending.

The preference is completely personal. Some people, like me, do not like being called “nhoo” at all, regardless of who it is, while some may not mind.

Nevertheless, “nhoo” (as in “you”) is most likely to offend working women considering its meaning, usage and the underlying hierarchical context in Thai culture.

To prevent such bitter feelings, calling them by their nicknames instead of these pronouns would be much more appropriate, as suggested by these women. Calling yourself “nhoo” (as in “I”) should also be avoided if you are personally averse to the term.

“The point is, we are at work,” Shannon concluded. “The word “nhoo” does more harm than good. We want to push women and men to their fullest potential and, unfortunately, “nhoo” brings it down rather than up.”

Unless your nickname is really “Nhoo”, like Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, we seriously need to re-think the pronouns that we use to address others, especially in this modern era, where many companies are removing the traditional social hierarchies and are placing more importance on equality and mutual respect.

At the end of the day, nobody likes to be belittled, underestimated or treated like a child in any circumstance.

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World