Asking people for vocabulary in their first language - is it rude?

I have a couple of friends who never hesitate to ask “Where are you from? What language do you speak? Can you tell me how to say ‘I’m a nosy bastard’ in that?”

I should note that I live in the NYC area - specifically, ten minutes from Manhattan, in a city which is the most ethnically diverse in the nation. I live in Little India; six blocks away there’s a concentratedly Egyptian section of town, and just around the corner are a whole lot of Polish people. When I first moved here I lived on a Pakistani block which was in the middle of a Cuban neighborhood. There’s a lot of different languages and cultures around, is what I mean to say, so the opportunity for this kind of thing is frequent.

Yet I never feel comfortable taking it. I started another thread in GQ about the ‘Egyptian cheese’ I often buy, which doesn’t seem to fit any descriptions I can find online of named cheeses. I could just ask the deli guy ‘Hey, if you weren’t talking to me, what would you call this?’ We’re friendly enough. I’m in there all the time, enough to be recognized. Yet I can’t bring myself to ask, because somehow it feels…rude.

It kind of feels like I’m treating this person like my personal guidebook or reference volume. Even though I’ve seen my brother have great success with his policy, and often get a warm reaction, I still feel wrong about it somehow. Does anyone else agree, or have some advice that can snap me out of it, perhaps?

I’m Indian and I get this all the time. On the contrary I like it, and smile when people ask…they’re trying to expand their knowledge base. Provided they ask nicely of course! But I love talking about my language and culture, so feel free to ask!

BTW, Indian cheese is called ‘paneer’. Not that you asked. :wink:

In my experience, people loooooove to talk about themselves. I don’t mean that as snarky as it came out, just that, I think people are flattered when others take an interest in them. Have you been offended when anyone has asked you questions of a similar nature (assuming anyone has)? If not, why should you think that theywould be offended?

Well, kind of, yes. I’m a private person. I tend to assume others are as well unless they explicitly invite me to pry. I guess it’s not ‘private’ info, but I don’t want to assume that I can just…you know, I think the fact that the guy is at work has something to do with it, actually. It ‘feels’ completely different from asking an acquaintance, even when the worker-consumer relationship is friendly in tone. So perhaps I should modify my question: is it rude to do this to someone who is on the job?

I don’t understand how it could be rude. What strikes as more rude is when people use the made-up “American” name for something…it’s one thing if you don’t know, but even when told, they use the wrong name! And if you can’t find it by its American name, you *have * to ask.

Now that is rude, though I expect they’re just experiencing some xenopanic and think they’ll get killed if they say it wrong or something.

I think maybe I just don’t like bothering people while they work! Could it be that simple? :smack: I’m not cold by any means, but I like to be quick. I think my brother, who will ask anyone anything, kind of assumes that he can be friends with anyone. I assume that while friendliness makes everyone’s day more pleasant, staying in our little pods keeps the trains running on time. Damn, perhaps I should rethink this policy.

I should probably note too that for various reasons, I can be very nervous about social situations, and on further reflection, my question probably reflects that. I’m still very curious to see if anyone does think it’s rude, though.

But if you never ask anything, you’ll never learn anything! Right? And it really isn’t much of a bother to say “Excuse me, do you know what this cheese is called in (insert language here)? I love the stuff, and I can never find it anywhere, if I knew the name I might be able to find it!”

You don’t know how many times the person will say “Oh, really, you like that stuff? I didn’t know any Americans liked that stuff…that’s really cool. Yeah, we call it ___ and you can even get it from ___. I personally like it on (bread, toast, small furry pickled animals.”

And voila! you have a conversation going.

If the person is busy, of course it will be limited to question and answer, but if not, you might just have made a friend. And then, when you return to that store, you get conversations like, “Hey, we just got some more of that cheese you like in. I happen to know it’s really fresh and yummy.”

Two comments:

  1. directed towards askers of information: Don’t assume. I was once walking down the street with a (Christian) friend of mine. He was wearing a small fabric hat. Some guy ran up to us and said to him “Say something in Jewish!”

Very odd.

  1. directed towards providers of information: Sometimes specific names are important. I have been looking for four years for Brazilian Bean Spice. Do you think I can find it? Noooo. Every time I was served it and asked what it was, I was told it was “Brazilian Bean Spice.” I could not beat a better answer out of them (and believe me, I tried). Now, I cannot find any of this so-called Brazilian Bean Spice to save my life. Everyone I ask thinks I’m nuts. “Do you know how big Brazil is?” they will ask. “Don’t you know how many varieties of bean spice they produce?”


My neighborhood is filled with immigrants from the USSR. Most are happy to help with proper Russian pronunciation, explaining just what a food without an English label is and how it should be prepared, etc. The neighborhood super market is very Russian. When it opened, I noticed that it had all the stereotypically Russian foods I expected except for one. They only had one brand of borscht, and only a few jars of that. The old Superfresh had a few different types by several different manufacturers. I was not sure how to ask ‘Where’s the borscht?’ without seeming to be ignorant or bigotted. When curiosity finally overcame fear, I asked and found out that Russians consider borscht to be something you make at home from scratch. The cashier was not in the least insulted.

It’s an open secret that most restaurants in Chinatown have two menus. One menu is the standard, seen by every one. The second menu must be requested and is only in Chinese. While the food in Chinatown is authentic, the fare of the second menu is even purer, as well as including many things that simply aren’t popular with most Americans. Unless you say something truly stupid (“I want the secret menu. The one with dog on it.”), any questions are seen as a genuine attempt to understand and experience traditional Chinese food and culture

Don’t be such a schmegegge!


Sure. Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino? :smiley:

What sometimes annoys me is the question “Where are you from?” As if it’s impossible for someone who looks like me to be from here. If I’m feeling particularly pissy, I’ll reply, with a smile, “I’m from Ohio; where are you from?”

I was once part of an interview group that included two gentlemen of apparent Asian Indian descent. One man (Guy 1) hadn’t told us anything about himself; the other (Guy 2) had previously mentioned that he was from India. The following conversation ensued:

Guy 2: <HINDI>(“Where are you from?”)</HINDI>
Guy 1: (blank stare)
Guy 2: “Where are you from?”
Guy 1: “I’m from California.”
Guy 2: “No, I mean where are you *really * from, before that.”
Guy 1: “I’m.from.California.

Yeah, to me the questions of what my ethnic background is (Indian/Bengali) and where I’m from (the United States, Ohio) and what I am (American, Indian-American, Bengali, or Indian, depending on the context) are completely different questions. None of them need be impertinent, but it matters how you ask.

I don’t mind the question but I hate it when I respond “American” or “French-Canadian” (yeah, I’m both) and the other person goes “but where are you REALLY from?”

See, if I don’t say A/FC, I get patronising lectures on how now that I live here I should identify by my citizenship. “WELL, now you’re American, right?”

If I try to be accomodating and state “where I’m from” by my citizenship, the other person makes a statement that implies that due to melanin-based differences I couldn’t “really” be from here.

I can’t win, I think.

Although, there people who are really polite about it and follow up to “American” with, “is your family originally from somewhere in Asia?”

It’s not rude. However a large number of people asking for vocabulary want to know curse words. Why? I’ve no clue. And it becomes old.

YES. That particular question annoys the everloving daylights out of me. “Hey! Can you teach me how to say this in sign language? Huh-huh, huh-huh!”

To me, while there are some people who’re genuinely interested in learning new phrases, the people who’re morons far outnumber them. This question is a red flag for the latter type.

Years ago I went to a Dopefest at a Chinese restaurant, where one of the Dopers ordered a dish in Chinese. Later I returned to the restaurant and tried to ask for the dish, but had a terrible time explaining it in English (it didn’t help that the waitstaff clearly didn’t speak much English). It took at least three people and much confusion before I was finally served what I wanted. This same scenario was repeated again the next few times I went to the restaurant. Finally, I got the bright idea to ask one of the waitstaff to write out the name of the dish for me in Chinese. It’s been about three years, and I still carry that little piece of paper in my wallet, in case I ever feel the need for that particular dish (some people have called it Deep Fried Rice Puffs in English, but that name never worked at the restaurant). Hmmm…maybe I should have Chinese for lunch.