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To think that assuming someone’s mother tongue when thanking them is really patronising?

(105 Posts)
GrapefruitIsGross Fri 15-Nov-19 09:12:09

FIL does this and it drives me up the wall.

If he encounters a person who is from a minority and English isn’t their first language, he’ll say hello and thank you in what he guesses is their mother tongue.

So if a person appears to be Chinese, he’ll say xie xie for example. He does it to be kind and welcoming, but it makes my toes curl. What if they’re Korean? Or German? It feels really patronising to me- fair enough if you know the person, but assuming that a stranger speaks a particular language because of their appearance is just so off.

We’re Irish and he’d be most put out if a stranger assumed he was English, so I don’t understand why he does it to other people!

KnickerBockerAndrew Fri 15-Nov-19 09:15:23

I dunno. It does sound unreasonable when you say it like that, but whenever anyone figures out my mother tongue (which is a minority language) and makes the effort to say something to me in said language, it is a really lovely feeling.

Hahaha88 Fri 15-Nov-19 09:17:08

Well I mean there are two Chinese languages just to start with so how does he know which the person who looks , but may not actually be, Chinese speaks? 🤦

7Worfs Fri 15-Nov-19 09:17:23

If he did this to me I’d politely correct him with my actual native language word and would shrug it off as a quirk and an interest in languages.
But I’m sure many will have a chip on their shoulder about this.

Celebelly Fri 15-Nov-19 09:18:57

I think the issue is that it sounds like he's basing it off appearances, so assuming that someone who looks 'foreign' is foreign, even though they might be completely naturalised British. If he was doing it as part of conversation when he finds out someone is from X country, then it seems fairly harmless.

Doubleraspberry Fri 15-Nov-19 09:20:05

I agree with YANBU because this feels like it has the potential to lead to so many awkward encounters and it makes my toes curl!

My French friend spent the summer working in our local tourist information centre and got so many compliments on the standard of her French, by other French people. She found it hilarious but they were frequently mortified.

I must look German as people speak German to me quite often when I go to European countries.

KidLorneRoll Fri 15-Nov-19 09:22:34

If he is absolutely sure it's the right language, it's polite to at least make an effort to use it and I'm sure most people will appreciate it.

If he isn't though.... it is slightly dodgy to assume that someone who looks a certain nationality is definately a native speaker of that language.

NameChange84 Fri 15-Nov-19 09:24:34

Oh please ask him to stop. I come from a mixed race family and strangers regularly to this to me (assume I'm Spanish when I'm not even remotely Spanish and was born and raised in the UK) and my darker skinned relatives ("NAMASTE!!!" "ASSALAMALAIKUM"!!!).

It's so awkward and embarrassing. We all speak very good English. Just say Hello, Goodbye, Thank You.

SpuriouserAndSpuriouser Fri 15-Nov-19 09:24:54

It’s not necessarily patronising (I would say that depends how he delivers it) but seeing someone who looks a certain way and making an assumption about what their mother tongue is is likely to cause offence if he’s wrong and is (dare I say it?) actually quite racist.

I used to live abroad and for some reason people often assumed I was German (that was the foreign nationality most often found in the area I was living in) I absolutely hated it when random strangers would decide to speak in German to me, it was really annoying.

If it’s an acquaintance rather than a total stranger and he knows what their mother tongue is, it’s quite sweet to try to speak a little bit to them.

FriedasCarLoad Fri 15-Nov-19 09:28:52

It’s very kind... if he knows what their mother tongue is.

Not so if he’s just guessing, based on appearance. confused

Cecily75 Fri 15-Nov-19 09:29:22

@Hahaha88 there are two Chinese languages well no, there are 2 official Chinese languages, but actually at least 7 are recognised with many many many variations which could count as distinct forms. Sorry, derailed.

If I were the recipient of the FIL's attempts, it would very much depend on the context and my mood at the time as to whether I would find it cringey or severely piss me off. As you say OP, he wouldn't want to be mistaken for being English, so why make assumptions about other people.

Camomila Fri 15-Nov-19 09:30:25

People always speak to me in German in touristy places in Italy (I'm Italian, but with blue eyes and light brown/dark blonde hair)

People in England have complemented my excellent English, I laugh and tell them I've been here 26 years!

MsMustDoBetter Fri 15-Nov-19 09:34:40

I think it's the polite thing to do when visiting another country. So if visiting Spain I'd thank everyone in Spanish.

However, to do it here is weird, especially when basing it on appearances.

RaininSummer Fri 15-Nov-19 09:37:25

I think he is doing it for nice reasons but obviously not a good idea as he is just going from appearances. He could upset people and they may think he making some sort of subtle dig.

Babdoc Fri 15-Nov-19 09:39:33

I think everything depends on his motivation. If he’s doing it to be friendly and welcoming, that’s lovely, although embarrassing when he gets it wrong. If he’s doing it from conscious or unconscious racism, to mark the person out as different and foreign - “not one of us” - then it’s ghastly. If he’s doing it to show off his linguistic skills, it’s a bit pathetic.
I once worked with an old surgical colleague, back in the 1970’s, who had memorised the equivalent of “Hello, how are you?” in about 200 languages. He always asked patients attending his clinics where they were from, then greeted them in their own language. They were invariably touched that he’d made the effort, and it eased the tension for them when they were fearing a cancer diagnosis or embarrassing examinations. His motivation was kindly, and in the racist 70’s, pretty revolutionary!

strawberrieshortcake Fri 15-Nov-19 09:43:11

It’s just very odd and awkward. If you are in a foreign country and he is saying thank you in the national language of that country then sure. But it’s very strange that he tries to guess what language people speak by their appearance. I cringe to imagine how many times he has got it wrong and made people feel uncomfortable.

Especially people who may think it was a racist dig as they don’t know him. I would advise him to stop.

Beesandcheese Fri 15-Nov-19 09:43:57

I was in awe in NZ when at a Maori demonstration of culture and history. The host had memorised so very many greetings and turns of phrase. It became a game where around 100 of us tried to catch him out. He knew Welsh and Scots gaelic. It was quite lovely and everyone wanted to chat to him after the talk bit. His aim in doing it was for everyone to learn a bit of Maori. It worked 😁

Screwtheclockchange Fri 15-Nov-19 09:45:20

Agree with previous posters that it's the part where he's making assumptions that's very rude. If you actually know what someone's first language is and you have a few words in that language, then taking the opportunity to practise them is unlikely to offend. But, yeah, assuming that English isn't someone's first language based on their appearance is awful and I'd share your embarrassment.

Beesandcheese Fri 15-Nov-19 09:47:13

But I would generally respond to a person in the language they used unless it so happened I could speak some and they appeared to be struggling for a word

GrapefruitIsGross Fri 15-Nov-19 09:47:14

* mark the person out as different and foreign - “not one of us”*

This is exactly why I get annoyed about it.

The person has made an effort to come to this country, got a customer facing job, potentially had a baptism of fire getting grips with the local accent, and then someone (although kindly meant) just points out that it’s really obvious you’re a forriner.

MikeUniformMike Fri 15-Nov-19 09:49:50

I do it and people are usually delighted.

PurbeckStone Fri 15-Nov-19 09:53:45

I witnessed similar in an Asian supermarket recently. The man in front of me started talking to the Chinese looking cashier in Mandarin (I think) and then got annoyed when she didn't understand what he was saying. Extremely cringeworthy. Definitely tell you FIL to stop!

RockinHippy Fri 15-Nov-19 09:56:23

He's making a bit of a fool of himself, but though people will be laughing at him, most wont have such a chip on their shoulder to be angry with him, plus for the times he gets it right, they'll likely appreciate his effort.

I worked for a Greek company for many years, I'm not even remotely Greek, but I often had visitors to the company presuming that I was & greeting me with Greek pleasantries, I'd usually just reply with a smile that I didn't realise that they were Greek. It was bloody hilarious though grin

simplificate Fri 15-Nov-19 10:06:00

@MikeUniformMike and people do this to me, and I am never not embarrassed for them, but never make a fuss (being born and bred in England and all that)

Cohle Fri 15-Nov-19 10:07:14

My DH doesn't speak any of the languages that your FIL might guess from his racial background - because he grew up in Surrey.

I do think there's something very "othering" about assuming anyone who isn't white must not be British and will be more comfortable speaking in another language.

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