questionsis it offensive to say "thanks" to someone in…


I have said thank you in Chinese at the Chinese grocery where I shop. The cashier was surprised and certainly seemed delighted, especially when I told her that was the only Chinese word I managed to learn on my trip to China. I don't even know if it is Cantonese or Mandarin. I live in a town that is 79% Hispanic, and I sprinkle my speech with Spanish words all the time, just like everyone who lives here. I very often say "Gracias". My accent is good enough that I sometimes accidentally trick people into thinking I really speak the language and have to laughingly explain that I only know a few dozen words and phrases. "Just enough to get me into trouble". I can see how the cumulative events you describe could certainly seem offensive. But getting offended doesn't really get you anywhere. It won't change them, it will just leave you feeling bad.


I think it's natural to demonstrate what you know of a certain language when you are in an establishment whose theme is that nationality/ethnicity/culture. I've said "gracias" to staff of mexican restaurants who were obviously of Asian/African/European descent. I can say "thank you" in about 10 languages, it's one of those terms that is really easy to pick up...
Spasiba (picked up from all the cold-war spy movies/tv shows I've seen over the years)
gracias (living in California you pick this one up quickly)
Xièxiè (my kids watched some cartoon on PBS with a little chinese girl, and they would throw in some chinese words)
Merci (again, picked up from movies/tv)
Danke schon (took high school German for two years)
Tack! (lived in Sweden for two years)
Grazie (Italian, again picked up from movies/tv)
Obrigado (Portuguese, picked this up from a Brazilian girl I dated a loooonnnnnnng time ago)
Gamsa Hamnida (daughter has been taking taekwondo 5+ years, Korean is part of the class)


anyway, there are far more offensive and dangerous things to get worried about than someone trying to show you courtesy by speaking in what they believe may be your native tongue. Now, if you were working in an Italian restaurant, and she spoke to you in Chinese, THAT would seem unusual!

Interesting question, though.... I'm sure someone will think this lady was rude/racist/bigoted for using a chinese term, sad to say.

Edited to add: I've actually seen phrases in the home language of ethnically themed restaurants (printed on menus or placemats) where they're actually trying to encourage their customers to try the language... particularly in mexican restaurants and one local German place.

edited again: If I was in China, and walked into a McDonalds in Beijing, and saw a caucasian behind the counter, I would probably say something to that person in English. I wonder if that would offend them, lol?


I once saw an adorable little boy speaking with his mother in the store. They were speaking Spanish, and I know enough of the language to make polite chit-chat, so I said things like "Hi, what's your name?" and "how old are you?" I told his mother (still in spanish) that he was a cute kid and she smiled at me and said thank you.

I still have no idea if either of them spoke a word of English, but they seemed to appreciate my attempts. My grammar is horrible but I've been told that I have a passable accent, so I hope that I didn't make too big a fool of myself. I'm not sure how this rates against your situation though, since I was speaking to them in the same language I heard them speaking.


If it's possible or likely that that your customer knew it was a family restaurant, she may well have thought that even if you are [chuckle] language-challenged, your family may still speak Chinese at home. Yeah, that's a pretty big assumption, although 25 years ago it might have had a little more validity.

The vast majority of folks who do this sort of thing aren't trying to be offensive (and those who are are usually so obvious about it that it's pretty easy to play with them, she said with an evil grin), so often humorous bits of education go over pretty well. Maybe you could perfect a friendly little laugh and tell people you and your family were all born in America? And then tell the nice customer she speaks more Chinese than you do?


Great question! I think it should be one of those case-by-case things. Sometimes people will be doing it thinking they're being polite or accommodating. Other times it'll be ridicule or something in between the two.


"thanks" flies, an attempt to be polite I suppose.

The surprise at how well you speak English? OMG, RUDE!! In your shoes I would have been extremely offended by this woman.


@kamikazeken: Haha, good point about the McDonalds in Beijing. Being a more cautious person myself, I think I would either listen to him speak first for hints as to which language was his primary one or ask him straight up if he spoke English.

@magic cave: It's funny that you say that this would have been more appropriate 25 years ago as I'm 25 myself. Also, my parents are both from China so I suppose she would have made the correct assumption had she spoken to my mom instead.


Nobody asked the important question - how well did they tip?

If they tipped poorly, then jerk them around a bit if they show up again.


@wafflesmcgee: The first time I go to a Chinese restaurant I will always feel the staff out as to whether or not they speak Mandarin before I speak it myself. Easy to do if you listen to the staff talk to each other. If they do then I'll order in Mandarin on repeat visits and usually end up having a conversation about where I learned it. I can see it being a bit annoying if you don't speak it yourself having someone talk to you in a language you don't understand. Whenever I speak Mandarin people tend to get very happy about it and I've only had positive reactions. But I definitely don't download on people just because they look a certain way. Probably the best reaction I ever had was in Germany at a Chinese restaurant. Nothing like having the whole kitchen come out to meet you.


I wouldn't say offensive, but it does come off as a little pompous if you don't speak the language fluently. Any six year old who's seen an episode of Sesame Street knows what "gracias" means, so you really don't seem too worldly if that's the only Spanish word you use after spending an hour in a Mexican restaurant speaking English.

Think about it this way: if you know the common words of another languange, the person you're speaking with also knows those words in your language. If they were able to talk to you at length about something in English, they don't benefit from you showing off how smart you are by saying a few words in their native tongue.

It does seem offensive in the scenario @wafflesmcgee described and opens the door to some heavy stereotyping--if you assume someone speaks a language based on their appearance, what other notions go through your mind? And if you try to impress them by speaking a language you think they know, but they don't, you just look like a jerk.


You noted that the couple was elderly, so I suspect it was really just an attempt to be nice. I hear things come out of my mother's mouth that make me cringe, but I know her well enough to know that she thinks she's being nice.

I speak bits and pieces of a few languages (if you want to include Latin in that list), but am generally too self-conscious to try it on any native speakers. That probably comes from taking French in both high school and college, then being ridiculed by a mean girl from France in my dorm. (sigh) Other than French, I like the opportunity to practice my language skills with folks who are native speakers.

BTW, our favorite Japanese restaurant is owned and operated by neighbors and long time friends who are, well, Chinese. Our Asian community is MUCH larger than our Hispanic population and there are so many languages spoken that I would be afraid to figure out which language to speak.


I think it's a nice effort for anyone to speak to someone in their native tongue (well, in the situation you described it's a little different I suppose, but she was trying to be polite). I try to order in Spanish when we go to our favorite Mexican restaurant but only when I know the waiter/waitress is using English as a second language. Whenever we travel internationally we always try to speak their language even if it's only a couple words that can get us through the day.

In her case, I think she was trying to be polite, not trying to insult you in any way by complimenting your English!


I don't think there's any problem with saying "thank you" in any language. I would be pretty irritated by the comments regarding the other diners and your ability to speak English though.