How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:

Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.

How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

40 thoughts on “How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

    1. 1.2

      Hm, well, I should’ve specified. Russian Jewish culture is different from Russian culture at large, and Moscow culture is different from Russian culture at large, etc. This is just what I’ve observed in my family’s gatherings.

      This is why it’s a bad idea to treat an immigrant like an Official Ambassador of their country! 🙂

      1. It’s not unusual for vodka to be the drink regarded as more masculine (and vodka is definitely the drink of choice at parties where there are no women): you’re pretty spot on, although it depends on the actual men and women who do the drinking and their personal tastes, it’s not like vodka is the only drink available.

  1. 2

    It bothers me a lot to find a lot of immigrants feel the need to adopt a western name (many of my Vietnamese family has done this) because others cannot be bothered to make the effort to learn to pronounce a different, foreign sounding name properly. A person’s name is one of the few things that an individual owns that is uniquely theirs. So if you know they have another name, but they offer you ‘Susie’ or ‘Joe’ instead when you fumble to pronounce their real name – please take the time to learn to say their real name properly.

    1. 2.1

      It’s more out of convenience of not having our “real names” butchered. You sometimes CANNOT pronounce our real names. English is a limited language (Want to see cool consonant system? Go read hindi. It can imitate other languages due to it’s ability to manufacture sounds by combining letters).

      It is just a name. It makes everyone’s lives easier. It’s stupid but honestly? We think American stuff is dumb too. (Like naming your kids after yourself. Like George Bush Sr/Jr… What the hell? That’s the heighs of Narcism).

      So we just adopt westernised names. My brother is called Andy. I am called Amy, it makes our lives simpler because we don’t watch people’s tongues explode (Well my brother’s name is easy, mine is not as such) when they try and say it.

      (Incidentally? My name has counterparts in Hindu, Khmer, Greek and Latin… ALL roughly the same. It’s one of the oddities of linguistics…)

      But yes, I go normally by Amy.

      1. I am studying hindi now. I am good at copying sounds, but I hesitate to go ask a hindi-speaker to pronounce things for me. My book has those crappy pronunciation guides where it’s like “similiar to this sound in english” but my book was written in britainland and I don’t speak british, so I don’t think I’m pronouncing stuff right. Plus I don’t think I can get the aspiration right unless I hear someone else say it first. Nor the difference in articulation point of k and q.

        Oh! Speaking of names, my name has no analogs in another other language, because of how recent it came into existence. I love that. See, when jonathan or edward are in french class, their names get changed to sound french. But mine doesn’t. And I like that, because my name is my name, not a word that translates. *is not criticizing your choice to go by a different name*

      2. ‘English is a limited language (Want to see cool consonant system? Go read hindi.’

        Pfft, check out !Xóõ for something really interesting (and not just a bunch of boring old egressive pulmonics put together):

        I also wonder how you define a language as limited (not according to the size of its sound inventory, I see, as standard varieties of English are average-above average, actually — it’s not that it matters anyway).

        Also, @rilian, ditto on the patronising and vague sound descriptions of the ‘similar to this sound’ type, which are supposed to be accessible, but end up making the whole effort more difficult and the speaker more insecure about his/her pronunciation.

        1. All languages are limited in their phonetic space. Not only will you have a problem saying a name/word outside your phonetic inventory, normally you’ll also have a problem hearing it.

          A French friend named Laurent quickly englishized the pronunciation of his name when he discovered that most anglophones would hesitantly pronounce his name ‘Laura’.

          A Russian friend named Alexey stopped asking people to call him by his standard Russian nickname when he discovered that many people would miss-pronounce it, making it sound like a Russian word meaning idiot. I couldn’t even tell the difference between the two words when he pronounced them next to each other.

          Effort wont help much to get it right. It requires neither ill will nor laziness to completely botch names with unfamiliar strings of sounds.

  2. 3

    I grew up in a city with lots of (wealthy, edumacated) immigrants. I like to think I don’t gawk at them or anything. But the assimilation thing .. I don’t really get what that means, to not assimilate. Why would you move to a different country and then just try to act like your still in your previous country? Not that active assimilation is necessary, but wouldn’t it happen naturally over time? You assimilate a little any time you join a new group, so wouldn’t moving to a different country be the same process but bigger/longer?

    1. 3.1

      There is a difference between the adaptations needed to live within a culture and a wholesale discarding of your own. An all too common attitude I’ve seen is: “You’ve moved here, now you should only speak English, you should only eat ‘American’ food, you have to watch and like American films/TV, you have to dress like an American, etc.”

      Having people who move to your country keep large portions of their own culture leads to having cities like Toronto.

      1. Oooh.

        I went to toronto in 97 and I’m not sure what you mean. I’ve heard people say it’s the city that’s the most like usa. Is that what you’re saying?

        1. Toronto is an extremely multicultural city. One of, if not the, most cosmopolitan cities on the planet.

          If you travel around the city you will find soft-bordered enclaves[1] of virtually every culture out there, restaurants and cultural institutions of every stripe. We have all sorts of festivals and events, including a Caribbean festival that draws people from places like Trinidad.

          [1] As in: This is the area where there are a lot of . It’s not exclusive and there are never any ‘do not go to town if you are from Little .’ The borders are also fuzzy unless they run up against a physical barrier, (such as the lake or one of the ravines).

          1. OK, there were supposed to be some placeholders in that footnote. Let me try again:

            [1] As in: This is the area where there are a lot of (Foo). It’s not exclusive and there are never any ‘do not go to (Bar)town if you are from Little (Baz).’ The borders are also fuzzy unless they run up against a physical barrier, (such as the lake or one of the ravines).

  3. 4

    There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly.

    Mexicans did this for me or to me constantly when I lived there, even bus drivers, waiters and small children … they would just say the word correctly or say the right tense of the verb. When I realized what was happening, it really helped my Spanish improve.

  4. 5

    Doh! I’ve done that when somebody uses the wrong word, mostly when their usage makes what they were trying to say come out completely wrong… I’m nice about it but like my boss, I’ll say “I think you meant _____?” and then add something like “just watchin’ out for you!” like I’ve got his back when he uses the wrong words or mispronounces something horribly. e.g. most recently he said in a written correspondence that one of our coworkers “regrets our culture” (as in company culture) instead of “respects our culture”. I definitely see how it’s rude when he’s not specifically asking for proofreading (which he does sometimes), though in some cases like the above it’d be even ruder to not say anything. Saying it back the right way is a much more subtle and less rude way of helping somebody with their English – I’ll try that!

    Even worse faux pas… we have identical scars on our foreheads. Mine is from a rifle scope, and had just healed into a permanent scar within a month of meeting him so was still at the front of my mind (literally). What kind of ASSHOLE walks up to a brown skinned immigrant and asks “oh is that scar from a rifle scope?” I AM THAT ASSHOLE. Took about 3 seconds to realize how dumb I sounded. Oh, and his was from a coffee table.

  5. 6

    I don’t really get what that means, to not assimilate. Why would you move to a different country and then just try to act like your still in your previous country?

    Think of it the other way round: Why would you not keep those parts of your life that you have come to like, as long as they don’t interfere with life in the new place?
    After all, people usually don’t move from one country to another just because they’d like to do the tiny details of daily life differently.

    1. 6.1

      I’m not saying you would lose all individuality. I don’t think assimilation is complete, ever, for anyone. But, like, I have started to use the word “soda” instead of “pop”, because people around here said soda. As soon as I’m back with my family though, I will say pop again. It’s not a conscious choice in the moment.

  6. 7

    Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

    I can say that this one doesn’t just apply to immigrants, incidentally. I was born in the U.S., as were my parents. I grew up without television, however, and this means that for most all my life people have been alternately gawking at or mocking my complete lack of knowledge of anything that was on TV before the mid 2000s (Even then, I’m not terribly familiar, because I never really got in the habit of watching, but there are some show,s I’ve made point of watching, and I’ve at least heard of a bunch of others)

  7. 8

    Fun fact: When I first got here it was kind of a point of pride when I wouldn’t get American cultural references. I was like “HAHA, I will NEVER be assimilated into your culture, HAHAHAHAHA.” Granted I was way older than you were (and, perhaps significantly, way more anti-American). Crazy how much one can mature in four years.

    1. 8.1

      I was actually VERY much like that as a kid! Even as a kid. I was always pretty anti-American and saw myself as an outsider, so consequently I had little interest in American media. Although that aspect of it didn’t really stick, my interest/ability to critique the U.S. is probably why my political conservatism didn’t stick at all. I’ve always been a critic in various ways.

  8. 9

    Oddly enough, most of those things applied when I moved from one region of the United States to another in the 1980s. I’m Hispanic and I lived in New York City and my family moved to a tiny rural town in North Carolina when I was 10 years old. Someone actually thought it was necessary to point out that in North Carolina people didn’t cop a squat and urinate wherever they felt like it… to which I replied that where I grew up people’s parents weren’t usually brother and sister. It was a rough couple of years.

  9. 10

    At my place of business we seem to have hired a ton of folks who are immigrants to the US from a variety of countries. A couple of the ones I have a closer relationship with seem to have a self-depreciating humor about many of the above items. Both people I am thinking of immigrated here as a “tween” and young teen. I wonder if their experiences caused that humor as a defense mechanism. I don’t know whether I should feel badly if I’ve joined in with their humor when they’ve started the joke.

    Once, an American co-worker, who has no social filter, attempted to do one of the women’s accents when he imitating her child saying something. *I* was mortified. Never EVER do this if you are repeating something you hear someone with an accent say. You can say it in your own voice.

    1. 10.1

      I copy people’s accents without meaning to. It’s part of how language works, that we copy each other. But anyway, I try really hard not to do it in conversation because I know people might think I’m making fun of them. But it only happens while I’m talking to the person or if I’m around them a lot. Like, when I was 7-10, I spoke with a russian accent practically all the time because my best friend was from russia. Once I ended up talking like these kids I had babysat who had speech impediments, and no one could understand me for a few days.

  10. 11

    Hey, on commenting on someone’s accent: is it inappropriate/annoying to ask someone where they’re from (ex. Are you from New Zealand or Australia?) based on their accent? Is it annoying for someone to compliment an exotic accent? I guess it would be obnoxious to have someone comment on the way I speak if I were abroad. I get that type of thing all the time about things I wear and stuff like that, so I’m more accustomed/resigned to those people.

    1. 11.1

      See, I don’t know. Plenty of people never seem to mind being asked that, but others do. I guess if you’re going to ask people that, you just have to accept the risk that they may find it really annoying.

      But then again, everything we do with or around other people has the potential to really annoy them. You never know. I absolutely lose my shit when someone sitting near me in class keeps hitting their foot against their chair or jiggling it or something because it makes all the other chairs jiggle including mine and AAARGH. But anyway.

  11. 12

    Don’t diss immigrants when you think you’re talking to a group of native born people. That white lady with the Midwestern accent? She* wasn’t born “here” and she’s from one of those countries that you’re scared is “overrunning” the US.

    *My mum, not me.

    1. 12.1

      Have you seen Louie CK (comedian) talk about that? He’s white so people don’t guess that he’s mexican, grew up in mexico, didn’t learn english till he was 7.

  12. 13

    English is a limited language (Want to see cool consonant system? Go read hindi. Pfft, check out !Xóõ for something really interesting (and not just a bunch of boring old egressive pulmonics put together):

    I also wonder how you define a language as limited (not according to the size of its sound inventory, I see, as standard varieties of English are average-above average, actually — it’s not that it matters anyway).

  13. 16

    I can relate to a lot of what you wrote. I grew up as a military brat, mostly overseas. I got to the USA when I was 16. My parents are native-born Americans and we spoke English at home (mostly), but my father’s last duty station was in the south, and it was so very hard to understand the local accent. Consequently, my small-town peers decided I must be stupid when I didn’t understand their pronunciation. I could ask their names in four different languages (Japanese, Spanish, German, and French), but I was the stupid one for not understanding their variant of English.

  14. 17

    There’s nothing like spending time in another place, being in some sense an immigrant yourself, to break bad habits in the way you treat immigrants. It reminds me of the Australian woman here in Puerto Rico who sneered at me for not knowing details about her country (which I’ve never visited) and then told me, with absolute authority, that “muchas gracias” isn’t Spanish for “thank you,” it’s a joke about lots of marijuana!

    As many mistakes as I’ve made coming here from the mainland, I hope I’ve never been that bad.

  15. 18

    I’m British and lived in Germany between the age of 2 and 19. A lot of people ask great questions – “What language do you dream in?” is one of my favourites. The two worst things anyone has ever said to me (that’s one from each country) were

    1. “You’re English?! I can’t stand them, they beat us in the war!” – Coming from a teenager in the mid-nineties, who may have listenend to his grandfather’s war-stories so often that he was confused about who these things had happened to. I said “Oh, and I’m sure the world would have been a much better place if the Nazis had won!” and walked away. Besides, I’m Welsh, so there.

    2. “Oh you’re German? So, do you think Hitler was like, a good person?” To be honest, I was so appalled by the question that I’m not sure what I said. If I could even speak at all. I suppose “No, do you?” would be the obvious answer.

  16. 19

    American ex-pat who emmigrated later in life here, yet a lot of those things are still true for my situation. Maybe a little less 1 and 2, but only because people here aren’t as rude as Americans generally (at least not to your face).

    3 is very relevent though, albeit for different reasons. I’m working on my 3rd language now, and I’m still a beginner. So when people say, “Wow, you speak really well!” it’s usually followed by a bunch of incomprehensible gibbering that’s way beyond my ability level. I’d rather just have people assume I suck and speak in more simplistic language, then I could at least understand.

    Here’s some good do’s and don’ts for talking to immigrants in the US (especially non-fluent):
    Don’t: speak more slowly or more loudly. It’s insulting.
    Do: speak more clearly, enunciate, and separate your words (no ‘Mercan slurvian)

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