The question: I came to Canada when I was a child. But even after I’ve lived decades in this country, some people (not all) can detect a hard-to-place accent. Sometimes they’ll start guessing: Dutch? Czech? Maybe French-Canadian? How do I handle people who feel that they have the right to ask that question? Some have been rude enough to put me on the spot in front of several people. Is this question not in the same “private and personal” category as asking someone how old they are, how much money they make or how much they weigh? I feel it invades my privacy and typically I am not ready to share that part of my life with strangers or even early-stage acquaintances, who may eventually become friends (though that’s unlikely if I tell them to mind their own business). Can you explain this phenomenon of strangers feeling entitled to this private information and how to deflect it gracefully?
The answer: I’ll try, but this kind of behaviour has always been puzzling to me also: people you barely know blurting out all kinds of unsolicited observations, and/or asking not-really-their-business questions.
Sometimes they’ll hit you with a hybrid, the “questionsult.” Like a neighbour who patted my dog once, then sniffed her hand, looked up brightly and said: “How often do you wash your dog?”
(Me, thinking: “You’re supposed to wash your dog ?”)
People have very little sense of boundaries, any more. Like this guy who works at my local liquor store. Every time I go in I can see the wheels in his cranium start spinning. He’s checking out my outfit, hair, gait, general aura, looking for some purchase for a “jocular” unsolicited questi-zinger: “You look tired. Feeling okay?”
It was starting to get under my skin. I kept dreaming up ripostes, like when he said, on a warm October day: “Not giving up your shorts I see.” I felt like saying: “Well, I figured that, like you with the unsolicited comments, I’d stick with them until they became so annoying that someone punched me in the face.”
But I didn’t, of course. When I told my wife about it, she laughed and said I was too uptight – the guy was just trying to be friendly. I just shouldn’t “encourage” him.
And she was right, of course, as usual. So I continued being friendly with my liquor-store “buddy” but just gave him bare-minimum (within the confines of politeness) responses to his conversational sallies, queries, forays and gambits. Eventually he got the hint, I think.
And that’s what I think you should do, too: create an information vacuum. No need for confrontations. Remember, most of these people are just trying to be friendly.
At the same time, you have the right not to have their proboscises probing too deeply into your affairs, background and so forth. Be polite and friendly but minimalist in your responses. An example:
“… and here’s your no-whip, half-fat, grande latte. Say, is it my imagination or did I detect a hint of an accent?”
“I thought so! What is it, Dutch?”
“Well, how long have you been here?”
By this point, any sensible, sensitive (a.k.a. normal) person should get the hint that you’re not too interested in this topic and would like to move on.
If not, if they continue, if they keep up the “jovial banter” despite all verbal and body-language cues, then you have the right to moonwalk out of there on the flimsiest of pretexts – you even have my permission to be a little rude and naughty and hit them with a lightly barbed joke:
Random person: “So, being Dutch, when you go to restaurants, do you always split the bill?”
You: “I’ve got to check my e-mail. Nice chatting.” Or: “Depends if I want to sleep with the person I’m having dinner with. In your case, we’d definitely be splitting the bill.”
A little humour, a little rib-tickling, always loosens up the ribs nicely so you can stick in the point of your shiv.
But friendly, always be friendly. As you say yourself, any one of these people might turn out to be a friend. You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot over something which is, in the grand scheme of things, not really all that big a deal.
What am I supposed to do now?
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