In our culture, people want to be friendly and welcoming, especially to immigrants. But unknowingly, they might be offending newcomers. I will show you a secret way how to faster connect with immigrants without any offenses.
People use commonly “What’s your accent?” or “Where are you from?” questions when they want to connect with immigrants. Native English speaker considers these questions innocent and friendly. So why do some immigrants respond, “That’s none of your business.” or “I come from my mother’s womb.” That’s not a very friendly response. Why might they feel offended, when you want a connection?
From the immigrant perspective, both questions feel as if askers are:
- Focusing on the obvious differences with the individual instead of commonalities
- Targeting the individual’s lack of abilities (disability) instead of their talents
- Generalizing in their minds about individuals from a particular group instead of personalizing
- Demonstrating self-interest, by practicing their ability to recognize accents
- Indicating exclusion of the individuals instead of inclusion and integration
You probably never thought of these icebreaking questions as icemakers. And why should you, you are a native English speaker and have no idea how immigrants may feel. You might even recall from your past that some conversation after you asked these questions froze, immigrants shut down or even walked away. Now you know why.
Let’s explore the dynamics further. After asking “What’s your accent?” in the immigrant’s mind, the asker established stereotyping which is the lowest form of discrimination. It doesn’t feel good. In most developed countries, origin, religion (sometimes associated with origin) and disability are grounds for discrimination. The question “What’s your accent?” is culturally accepted and yet potentially a discriminating and excluding practice.
Not to worry, the solution is simple. Just do not ask those questions or variations of them. You wouldn’t ask a person in a wheelchair “How did you become disabled?”. Asking “What’s your accent?” is another version.
But you are a kind person who is genuinely interested in the individual in front of you. So, what should you ask as a trust-building icebreaker? Here are few proven tips.
Ask a connecting question about commonalities. For example, “What do you like about living in this town?” or “What do you like about your job?”.
Wait for about five to fifteen minutes and the person probably will reveal the country of origin anyway. “I love living in this city, because when I used to live in….” Now you were tactful and received the highly-anticipated information effortlessly. Don’t turn the conversation back by evaluating your accent guessing. Statements as, “Oh, I thought that you were from… based on your accent.”, are also considered insensitive. Especially if you don’t guess the country of origin correctly. Just as Canadians don’t like to be called Americans, Slovaks don’t want to be called Russians. Immigrants care about your kindness and inclusion not your ability to correctly guess accents.
For the extraordinary occasions, use the connected version “Excuse me, I am fascinated by your pronunciation. Do you mind sharing with me your country of origin?”. You asked about pronunciation, which is an ability, not an accent, which is the disability. You asked about country of origin, not home. Some immigrants consider their home, not the country of origin but the country of destiny.
In conclusion, now you know how you could have unknowing practiced immigrant exclusion and how to move to an inclusive relationship.
If you have questions about your newcomer interaction, contact me 403 670 0802 or firstname.lastname@example.org You can test your thoughtful questions on me.