How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

265720Last week I conducted a phone interview that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. I was calling this man for research help for a book I’m working on, and within the first ten seconds of the call, he interrupts me to ask me where my name is from. I barely even had time to thank him for speaking to me before he started explaining how he had never heard of “Saxena” before and how it sounds so “exotic,” that he just simply had to know its origins.

Ask anyone with a “weird” (aka non-white) name or look, and they will have a million stories like this, either endlessly being asked where they are from (and getting the “no, where are you really from?” when “New Jersey” isn’t an acceptable answer), questions about “exotic” names, or people just assuming they know where you’re from based on your brown-ish skin color. More than once I’ve had people start speaking a different language to me–Spanish, Hebrew, Greek–and was then made to apologize to them when I revealed that, sorry, I’m not Israeli.

A lot of biracial, non-white, and otherwise “ethnically ambiguous” people are, rightly, fed up with dealing with this and refuse to answer those sorts of questions. Quite a few times I’ve refused too, but after telling another non-white friend about this latest incident, she asked me the honest question, “is there any context in which a question like this is okay?” I think there is! I understand that, despite my name being incredibly common in India, most Americans have likely not heard it, just like I’ve likely not heard most names from other places around the world. It’s natural to be curious about people’s backgrounds, and I think there are ways to talk about it without coming off as an intrusive asshole. It just requires some finesse.

By the way, most of this is written with the assumption that it’s a white person asking a non-white person about their ethnicity. Not that other variants of this don’t happen, but ask around–white people tend to be the ones messing up here. This is what it looks like most of the time.

1. Ask yourself why you need to know. One of the most frustrating things about being asked questions like this all the time is having the experience of being asked, answering, and then watching the person walk away once they’ve gotten their information. Seriously, multiple times I’ve had strangers walk up to me, demand “What are you?,” and leave once I’ve panicked and responded something about my Indian heritage. Do you care because this person seems like a new friend and you want to get to know them better? Are you trying to hit on someone and think this is a good way to break the ice (it’s not)? Did you just see a person who doesn’t look white and want to know why? Would knowing someone’s racial background change how you think of them, and how you interact with them? Dig deep.

2. Understand that you have no right to know. You have every right in the world to ask someone about their name, ethnicity, and country of origin, and they have every right not to answer you, and to call you an asshole. “What’s the matter?” you may be asking, “I’d have no problem talking about my great-great-grandfather who moved here from Scotland if someone asked me.” That’s because having a great-great-grandfather from Scotland is the standard in this country, and I’m speaking as someone who also has great-x-5 ancestors from Scotland. Questions about a white person’s ethnicity rarely result in questions of their belonging, of their right to be where they are. No one asks where you’re “really” from, because the assumption is that it’s here. Most non-white people have at least one story about being asked where they’re “really” from, and then being angrily told to return.

3. Do not open a conversation with this question. If there are no other rules you remember, remember this one. No one likes feeling accosted for personal information, no matter what it is. Walking up to a stranger and demanding to know their racial makeup is incredibly invasive, so if you need to ask, have a decent conversation going first.

4. Think about your relationship to the person you’re asking. I really enjoy talking to all my friends about our various backgrounds. Ancestry and genealogy interest me, so these types of conversations come up all the time in really great ways. However, since they’re my friends, there’s an understanding that they’re interested in and care about me as more than a racial curiosity. I don’t have that trust with a stranger at a bar, or even someone I’ve met once or twice.

5. If you need to ask, make it about your own ignorance. And maybe about names instead of skin color. There’s a big tonal difference between a “What the hell name is that?” and “Wow, I’ve never heard that name before, where is it from?” The former makes the person being asked the weird one for having such a “strange” name, and the latter makes it clear the asker knows they’re ignorant. Most productive, polite conversations I’ve had about my race with someone who didn’t know started with a question like that, in which I could respond that it’s an Indian name, and then we get into a conversation about my heritage. Nothing like that has ever come out of being asked “Wow, why do you look so ethnic?”

6. Be willing to answer every question you ask. Like I said before, these questions have different connotations and consequences when your answer is “we moved from England to Pennsylvania in the 1700s,” but unless you’re willing to dive into your family’s history, don’t ask anyone else about theirs.

7. Read the conversation. Obviously this etiquette advice is apt in any conversation, but especially in ones with “tricky” subjects like this. Is the person excitedly responding to you, or are they trying to change the subject? Do they seem uncomfortable and slow to answer your questions? Make yourself pay attention to things like this, and apologize if you get the sense that you’re coming off as intrusive.

Etiquette And Equality Don’t Always Benefit You, And That’s Okay

I’ll start out by saying that feminism and equal rights are not the realm of “etiquette.” It is “good manners” to treat people with respect on a one-on-one basis, but systemic disenfranchisement is something far bigger than these rules and guidelines tackle. But you wouldn’t know that after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s and Adam Grant’s New York Times piece, “How Men Can Succeed In The Boardroom And The Bedroom.”

It starts innocuously enough by attempting to debunk the myth that gender equality is a zero-sum game, which I understand some people still need to be told. However, it quickly devolves into explaining to men how including women in business decisions, doing housework, and being nice to them can benefit them personally. Apparently men who do chores are happier, live longer, and have better sex with their partners. If we can convince men that they can get something out of it, they argue, equality will happen. “We need to go further and articulate why equality is not just the right thing to do for women but the desirable thing for us all,” they write.

Except we don’t.

What we need to do is teach everyone that sometimes you do things because they’re the right thing to do, regardless of how this benefits you. This is a common tenet of etiquette. You give up your seat for an old man even though now you have to stand. You don’t cut in line even though it’d get you out of the store faster. You learn that not everything directly benefits you, and you are okay with that because you’re an adult. Needing to be told personal benefits or rewards for actions is how a child’s mind works. The article explains that both the Women’s Suffrage movement and the 1960s Civil Rights movement found success after they proved how their causes would benefit everyone. They use this as proof that modern equal rights movements must do the same. However, we should have moved past this by now.

That’s not to say you’re doomed to put up with “bad” things happening to you just for the betterment of society, though if that were the case, it still wouldn’t be a problem. There’s an episode of Friends where Phoebe attempts to find a completely selfless act. Throughout the episode she does things for other people, only to realize that she benefited from the interaction in some tangible way as well. Eventually she donates money to PBS, an organization she hates, in an attempt to be completely selfless, but it unintentionally gets Joey (who’s manning the pledge drive phones) on TV. She’s still out of money, and she still gave it to a place she doesn’t actually support, but she feels good because she helped someone. If anything, that is what manners are for. We learn to feel good not because something good happened to us, but because we contributed to the ease and comfort of all the lives around us. That should be motivation enough.

Etiquette at Museums

Perhaps a bit intimidating.[Via Wikimedia Commons]

I have a master’s degree in Museum Studies (which is obviously a super useful thing to have a master’s degree in!) so this subject is near and dear to my heart.

One of the things we talked a lot about in my classes was how to make museums more accessible and less intimidating to members of the community who might not be historic museum goers. Part of the reason people find museums intimidating is that there is a belief that there are a ton of rules that you might not know about. That’s not really true. The only real rule is to never touch the art/exhibits unless you are specifically encouraged to touch them. Everything else is more to avoid annoying everyone else:

  • Don’t touch the art. Like I said, this is the big rule. You might not think you are doing any harm, and true, ONE touch isn’t going to do that much. But if everyone disobeys this rule, then you have hundreds or thousands or millions of touches and that all adds up. And oils on your fingers are bad for art even if you think your hands are clean. Besides, many artworks and artifacts are very fragile and you might badly damage them without meaning to.
  • Be quiet, but not totally silent. Museums aren’t libraries and you can definitely talk. Just generally try to keep it on the low side in quieter museums like art and history museums. More kid-oriented spaces like science centers, natural history museums, or especially children’s museums are going to be noisier.
  • Be mindful about taking photos. A lot of museums do allow photos and some are even encouraging people to take photos and use them to engage on social media. But often, especially in travelling exhibitions, photos aren’t allowed. Sometimes this is because flash is detrimental to the materials on display, but often it’s because of copyright restrictions.
  • Don’t hog the art. If you are in a gallery alone, by all means take your time. But if you are in one of those incredibly crowded special exhibitions, take a really good look and then move on. Try not to block the exhibition text either.
  • Don’t eat or drink in exhibition galleries. Many museums have wonderful cafes where you can have a snack in safety.
  • Don’t run. You might bump into the art or other people. Yes, I know it was cool in that one movie.
  • Sketching. Sketching is permitted by many museums, within certain guidelines. Make sure you find out what they allow before you go.
  • Turn off your cellphone. Keep it on vibrate or silent and step out into a hallway or atrium (or a quiet corner?) if you must take a call.

Trying To Separate Etiquette and Respectability Politics

In my time writing here, I’ve conducted a lot of fun research, from learning how to walk properly to how to take snuff. But it’s pretty obvious that the Western rules, no matter how arcane or relevant, have one thing in common: they were all dictated by rich white people.  In fact, I’m going to go ahead and guess that no matter where you are, most rules of social interaction come from those in power. Sure, etiquette is sold as a way for us all to navigate possibly confusing social situations, but let’s not pretend it wasn’t also used to weed out who wasn’t supposed to belong. It’s hard to make the rules fair when they’re being made by the winners.

Which brings us to respectability politics, or the idea of defining someone’s worth by how they present themselves to the world. Roxane Gay puts it excellently in her new book, Bad Feminist: “the idea that if black (or other marginalized) people simply behave in ‘culturally appropriate’ ways, if we mimic the dominant culture, it will be more difficult to suffer the effects of racism.”

If you squint, a lot of respectability politics can be mistaken for etiquette. We’re not rejecting people because of class or race or sex, we tell ourselves, but because they’re not being “respectable.” A girl who has sex on the first date surely can’t be worthy of a respectable relationship. A black guy can’t expect to get anywhere using slang all the time. Being gay is fine as long as you don’t flaunt it. Say the right things, dress the right way, don’t “act out.” Just adhere to the rules that you had no say in creating and you’ll be fine.

I remember times where I’ve fallen into this. Where I thought “it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you’re like me,” and not noticing when it slipped into “No matter who you are, this is how you should be acting.” It’s letting personal preferences turn into value judgments. It’s mistaking a difference in culture for having no culture, or a difference in upbringing with rudeness, and expecting everyone to adapt to your standards.

I’ve said before that they core of etiquette is the balance between making room for others and keeping room for yourself. Literally this manifests itself through things like keeping to one side of a staircase so others can pass while you use it, hosting a party that’s fun for your guests and also fun for you, or making sure you and your roommate have equal living room time. But culturally, it’s about making sure we share the value of being considerate without imposing other value systems on each other. Etiquette is supposed to be about finding the good intentions in everyone, and that requires effort on all sides, especially if you’re on the side that’s been making the rules the whole time. In a perfect world, that’s all these rules are: shorthand to ensure your good intentions are clearly understood. But that doesn’t mean someone whose actions don’t look like yours doesn’t have those intentions.

You will not like everyone you meet in life. You will meet people who are downright rude to you, or who come from such different backgrounds that you cannot come to an understanding, despite your best efforts. This is fine for your personal life, but you should never mistake these personal differences for proof that somebody doesn’t deserve to be treated with basic humanity.

Napkin Etiquette

And this is what your napkin looks like after the meal, loosely gathered and placed to the left of your place setting.

And this is what your napkin looks like after the meal, loosely gathered and placed to the left of your place setting.

This is what your place setting looks like before you start. Napkin is under your fork. (Also, bless my mother for ensuring that I own a set of cloth napkins and placemats!)

This is what your place setting looks like before you start. Napkin is under your fork. (Also, bless my mother for ensuring that I own a set of cloth napkins and placemats!)








Yeah, I know you think you know how to use a napkin, but from my observations, there are some finer points to napkin etiquette that not everyone is aware of.

Different kinds of napkins:

  • Lunch napkins- lunch napkins are smaller than dinner napkins. You don’t fold it when putting it in your lap.
  • Dinner napkins- are the biggest napkin, and you fold it in half before putting it on your lap.
  • Cocktail napkins- are small and are mostly used to put around the bottom of your drink.

How to Use Your Napkin:

  • When eating meals, always put your napkin across your lap (I even do this when eating lunch at my desk at work…there is such a thing as taking etiquette too far!).
  • You never refold your napkin at the end of the meal, you gather it loosely and place it next to your place setting.
  • Napkin rings are used to hold a used napkin for the next meal (and they should be different…or if you are a WASP, monogrammed…so everyone knows which belongs to them), but this should only be done with immediate family. Nowadays, napkin rings are used more for additional decoration.
  • Napkins must never be tucked into the collar, except for very small children.
  • Generally at formal meals, the napkin matches the color of the tablecloth. At very fancy restaurants, the waiter will sometimes change out the white napkin for a black one if you are wearing dark clothing, to prevent lint spots (this happened to me at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans recently!)
  • If you need to leave the table during the meal, loosely gather the napkin and place it next to your plate (try to have the least dirty side facing up). It is generally recommended not to leave the napkin on your chair, as it will dirty the fabric of the chair cushion.