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Mate: Lay Off It

I picked up James, age three-and-a-half, after his first day at preschool in Massachusetts, where we had lately gone to live for a few years.

“How was it, mate?” I asked, knowing already from the look on his face that it had been okay, but that he also was glad to see me after his half-day among these new people with their funny accents.

“Goo-ood,” he said, in a tone somewhere between brave and enthusiastic.

A minute later, though, I heard real enthusiasm, in the disembodied voice of his teacher, emanating from the window as James and I headed down the steps outside the staffroom.

“Did you hear that?” she gushed to her colleague.

“He called him mate. How cuuute!”

<p>AAP/Julian Smith</p>

AAP/Julian Smith

Like AFL, the word ‘mate’ remains part of Australia's unique culture.

Silly as it seems, it brought on a little feeling of expatriate pride, a brief happiness attack, to hear this little Australian word of affection so celebrated.

But it should be celebrated for, as far as I know, no other English-speaking country has a word so usefully flexible for referring to ones fellow humans. Certainly the United States doesn’t have an equivalent all-purpose word.

An American parent, for example, might use “buddy” when greeting his kid as I greeted James. But in almost any business interaction it would be more formal.

It would be “sir” or “ma’am”. It would be “Mr Seccombe”, seldom “Mike”.

More on this in a minute, for it goes to the heart of my objection to the ridiculous directive issued to health workers on the New South Wales north coast that they must not call colleagues or patients “mate”.

But first, let’s go to some other attributes of the word.

It’s very useful, for a start, for people like me who are bad with names.

It is egalitarian, at least in this country. Just about anyone can call just about anyone else mate, regardless of social status. Watch the prime minister out on the hustings, greeting the public with an extended hand and a sunny “gedday mate”, and getting the same in return.

You wouldn’t see that in America. An English friend tells me you wouldn’t see it in Britain either, where the term still has class connotations. David Cameron would not call Rebekah Brooks mate. And, says my friend, such a toff would sound pretty silly even if he referred to a working man as mate.

In this country mate is most commonly a term of endearment, traditionally among men, but pleasingly now often used by and to women.

Yet also on occasions it can signify aggression, as in “You want a go, mate?”

It can serve as an intensifier as in “Mate, is it hot or what?”

Or it can simply be a one-syllable exclamation, as in “Maaaaate!”

But let’s get back to the central argument here, which is that it is a dumb idea to forbid those health workers from calling their patients or even their co-workers “mate”.

The directive asserted a need for professional language within the workplace at all times. It specified a number of terms which were not to be used, including “darling”, “sweetheart” and “honey”, as well as mate.

“The utilisation of this language within the workplace at any time is not appropriate and may be perceived as disrespectful, disempowering and non-professional,” it said.

“This type of language should not be used across any level of the organisation such as employee to employee or employee to client.”

A couple of observations on this memo.

First, the word “utilisation” also should be banned.

Second, the memo probably had a point about those other words – although context matters. It is one thing if a woman member of staff uses them to calm a distressed child, and quite another if a younger male member of staff uses them towards a female patient.

But mate? So long as it is not used aggressively, as in “look here, mate…” I think it should be encouraged.

It’s personal. It’s comforting.

Who cares if, strictly speaking, it is not professional.

As it happens, I was in hospital only a few hours before writing this (nothing major, don’t worry yourselves), and I can tell you, it feels good when an orderly, nurse or doctor, speaks to you personally, not simply professionally.

Like I was saying before, I used to live in America, where they don’t call you mate, but “sir”.

On the face of it, that sounds more respectful, but experience taught me it is not necessarily so. In fact what this formality does is set boundaries.

It says: “You are the customer and I am paid to assist you, in so far as my customer service handbook allows. But this is a professional transaction, so let’s not pretend we have any human relationship.”

Now I don’t want to go all jingoistic and John Howard-like with a treatise on mateship, but I really do think the way we use the word mate is a powerful signifier of Australia’s national character.

It’s like my other favourite Australianism, “no worries”.

To me it signals empathy in a ready-to-oblige, egalitarian, no-fuss sort of way.

And some bloody bureaucrat who uses words like “utilisation” now wants to ban it?

I mean, maaate!

25 comments on this story
by Roxee

Too bloody right!

December 11, 2012 @ 11:40pm
by Jade Connor

A form of language control, no? Good piece, mate.

December 11, 2012 @ 11:45pm
by Dean

Making these, broadly unenforcible, rules serves two purposes. Firstly, and obviously, it placates a complainant. However it also creates an additional basis for the performance management of staff members. If a staff member is performing well in their job but their manager just does not like them, for any reason, then quirky rules such as these can be used to remove them (three warnings then you can be sacked). The more of these rules that exist, the greater the power they give managers over their staff. What have the HSU had to say about this?

December 12, 2012 @ 2:18am
by Easely

But what do you do when your teenage daughter's Australian boyfriend, some 40 years younger than you, when introduced, says: "good to meet you mate"?
Strange Americans are so formal in person, when their Internet dialogue – even from businesses that one's never used, is always on a first name basis.

December 12, 2012 @ 4:06am
by Rogan

Oh! Maaaate!!

December 12, 2012 @ 4:50am
by Geraldine

To Easely: lighten up. If he's a good bloke, you'll be glad you're his mate. If he's not, no worries, mate. He'll get the shove, and she'll be right. Mate.

December 12, 2012 @ 3:27pm
by Mark

Does this also mean the term in describing someone or something - as in Ol Mate o'er there - is also headed for the political correctness chopping block? Seriously, as a term of endearment or descriptor - Old sir/madam - is unlikely to cut it, No worries about that!

December 12, 2012 @ 5:11pm
by Simon

Mate, everything you say is great. Utilisation should be taking out the back and shot. I spent some time living in Chile and was very interested to see that they have a similar word "weon", which they roll out in almost all of the same contexts we would use mate (though coloured with a little more of the British class associations.) Because we already had a natural place in our English syntax thanks to "mate", my Australian friends and I were very quick to take it up as a means of breaking the confines of classroom Spanish and "utilising" a more naturally spoken Chilean Spanish. It was interesting to see the Germans, Americans and Japanese that I was knocking around with struggle to drop "weon" into their conversations. And in a similar vein to your last examples, what about "easy as"? That is a cracking Aussieism.

December 12, 2012 @ 5:23pm
by Anna

Completely agree. I'm a 40 year old professional woman and use it whenever it suits the circumstances - a "thanks mate" to the Indian guy who sells me my train tickets, a "hello mate", to my American boss who thinks it's a hoot, to my daughter's five year old friend when she falls over "oh mate, that looks like it needs a bandaid".... etc. When I was in New York a few years ago I occasionally used it out of habit to a shopkeeper for example, or to a co-worker who provided some information. The reaction always made me smile inwardly - although I stopped doing it when a (black) waiter at a hamburger bar frowned at me when I said "thanks mate" as he passed me the meal. I think it might have been perceived as a racial slur perhaps as in "you, boy"?
Anyway, certainly in Australia it should be something we hang onto for all the reasons Mike mentions.

December 12, 2012 @ 10:18pm
by Joe Logan

Don't forget that most appropriate use of the word 'mate' when instant recall of somebody's name fails. If I called one of my kids 'sir' when I can't remember his name he'd think I was up myself mate.

December 13, 2012 @ 7:54am
by Robert maxwell

It is interesting to note that "dude" has not been banned. Is the banning attack on "mate" really about age discrimination, given it is mostly in use by those of us a little older. So younger ones are allowed to use "dude".

December 13, 2012 @ 8:45am
by MarkWW

The use of sweetheart, darling or love for want of a first name is also better that sir or madam in the right context - usually after establishing some kind of rapport, or when appealing to someones better nature, but can be jarring if used randomly.

Gabo, mate... WTF! Roxon has zero to do with this. Now go away and play with your strawman elsewhere darling.

December 13, 2012 @ 10:10am
by Paul

Enjoyed your article Mike. And all the more when I arrived at your commentary on “utilise”.
It’s one of my pet hates too.

I know it has its place, as in “I use the dictionary to look up the meaning of words. I utilise the dictionary as a door stop.” However, I prefer the advice given in one of my favourite style guides: “Utilise – a ploddish word for ‘use’ that serves no good purpose.”

December 13, 2012 @ 10:56am
by Andy Fitzharry

Hey mate, what's wrong with cobber?

People who utilise 'utilisation' in their speech also still make use of 'whom', and might be heard to say 'old chap', which is why that wasn't banned too, perhaps?

December 13, 2012 @ 11:21am
by Anna Candler

What is disempowering is a memo that talks about disempowering. The language of the memo is exactly what the writer was warning against - it is by its very content - disrespectful, disempowering ( what ever that terms really means) and non-professional.

Telling your staff that they do not have the ability to use contextually appropriate language and need to be instructed on how to speak to fellow colleagues and "clients" is appalling on so many levels.

The person who drafted this memo and the people who vetted it and approved its distribution should be sent to a course on empowering your staff. And BTW when did patients become clients!

December 13, 2012 @ 11:32am
by Andy Fitzharry

Like the dreaded 'advancement' Paul. Not a word we need 'going forward', mate.

December 13, 2012 @ 11:47am
by Rachel Greig

Smells like linguistic cultural terrorism - I shall now utilise the word 'mate' all day long, and 3 sons can now scrub much loved Mum moniker, for you guessed it ...... Mate

December 13, 2012 @ 1:21pm
by Uta

I like what Geraldine says.

December 13, 2012 @ 3:39pm
by Louise Hulton

While I agree that the word mate is beginning to be used across genders, it is still most commonly a word that men use to create a link with other men. In the workplace it can be divisive in that men are mates together and women can be easily left out. Would you say 'Hi Mate how was your day?' if you had a young daughter? Generally not. So while mate is no longer intended as a put down of women it can leave them out of the 'fellowship' so to speak. On the other hand the word guys ironically is more inclusive these days. I often hear women say 'Hi Guys" to a group of men and women at work.

Finally - we are getting better at inclusivity, but we are not quite there yet.

December 13, 2012 @ 6:47pm
by a don

I also lived in Boston MA when my son was 2. We put him into day care a couple of days a week. After a week, he said to us "what's 'doo-en' mean?" We said what do you mean? He replied, "well the teacher says "what's you doo-en?"

December 13, 2012 @ 10:30pm
by DavidF

I'm an American who spent a couple years in Australia. I absolutely fell in love with mate. The author's right. There is no good US equivalent, and I think that's too bad.

So I do use it now and again. Just because it is an Australian identifier doesn't mean it isn't worth exporting for the benefit of us Americans, right?

December 15, 2012 @ 5:49am
by David Glover

Funny, I'm reading this in a (very good, permanently busy) cafe. When I arrived, I was greeted as 'darling' by the sheila on the door, and as 'mate' by the bloke on the floor. I didn't feel disempowered, disrespected or that they were unprofessional. I felt welcomed and in good hands. Incidentally, I'd describe that whole memo as precisely what it criticises. Prescribing how people should address others is definitely disrespectful and disempowering.

December 15, 2012 @ 8:35am
Show previous 22 comments
by Judith O'Brynne

I liked the story. But my comment is congratulations on the new format which I can now read easily on my computer. previously your page would not fit on my screen so I had to reduce the size of the font to get the whole page on the screen and it was too small for me to read comfortably so I almost gave up reading the mail, thank you very much for now making the Global mail accessable for me,.

February 9, 2013 @ 5:30pm
by JJ

Whaddaya mean 'no other English-speaking country blahblah...'? You forgot New Zealand? That's ok, mate, everyone does... Sigh.

May 4, 2013 @ 6:59am
by Clive

Seems we've forgotten 'China' as in China plate.
Perhaps I'm showing my age. Anyway I'm off down the frog and toad to the rubbidy.

May 15, 2013 @ 3:19pm
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