Conversation Killers — What Not to Say to Ethnic Minorities

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Whoops! You managed to put your foot in your mouth with yet another inappropriate comment.

There was no malicious intent behind it, you didn’t mean to offend. But you did. That’s another one to add to your list of awkward interactions with a friend, co-worker or stranger of a different race.

As signs of perspiration become visible along your brow line, you struggle to find the words to save yourself. Anything you say now will either soften the blow or dig you further into the hole. So, why is everything that comes to mind more likely to achieve the latter?

You walk away from the conversation wishing you could manipulate time and rewind the last few minutes of your life. With the feelings of guilt and shame stirring up within you, you replay the conversation over and over again, thinking of all the things you should have said but didn’t. Too late now.

Does that sound familiar?

As an ethnic minority myself, I feel for you. I’ve watched people sheepishly squirm from the discomfort of saying the wrong thing. In that situation, I generally go to one of two responses:

1. Make light of the situation by playfully highlighting the awkwardness caused by the comment

2. Using this moment to educate and help the person understand why the comment was inappropriate and better ways to reframe the message

You might not be so lucky in your exchanges with others. Maybe you’ve experienced a spectrum of responses, from deafening silence to daggers being thrown in return. Fight or flight, right?

To lessen the chances of you being met by intense rage due to an unintentional slip of the tongue, let me help you tighten your language for conversations about or on the peripheral of the subject of race.

Specifically, I’ll share what not to say. You know, the words that are a sure way to kill the conversation without opportunity for redemption.

Shortening a name because you’re too lazy to pronounce it

In the Australian culture, we tend to shorten almost every word we can get our hands on. A few examples for our international friends:

· “Good day” has become “G’day”

· “Barbeque” has become “barbie”

· “Afternoon” has become “arvo”

· “Tradesman” has become “tradie”

Without even realising it, I too have been prone to using these shortened terms in my speech from time to time. Australians are relaxed in nature and colloquialisms are our speciality. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Until it’s imposed on someone else with a different cultural background. I’m not saying you should change the way you speak for the next person. What I AM saying, is make an effort to respect another person’s culture.

That starts with learning how to pronounce a person’s name. Their real name. Unless they grant you permission, you’re not at liberty to cut their name short for your own personal convenience.

For all my working life, though I preferred my full name, I shortened it to make it easier for people to say my name. In recent years, I now recognise that by doing this, I was elevating the need to make others comfortable above my need to be known by the name I most identify with.

Let me introduce myself. Hi, my name is Oyelola. You can call me Oyelola.

If you struggle to pronounce my name, just ask me how to pronounce it (Oh-YEAH-Lola). I won’t be offended. In fact, I’d be elated!

Saying “Wow, your English is incredible!”

Why wouldn’t it be? After all, English is taught in schools in my mother’s home country and is the primary language!

This statement goes hand in hand with (and I’ve heard this one many times before), “I expected you to have an accent.” I do, it’s an Australian accent. What other accent could you be referring to?

We take one look at a person and immediately have preconceived ideas about how we expect them to think, speak and act. It’s human nature. What we need to reign in, are the comments that follow those thoughts.

Asking “How long have you been in Australia?” as the leading question

This builds on my previous point. If a person doesn’t explicitly tell you that they migrated from another country, don’t assume they did. They may just as likely have been born in Australia. Note, my references to “Australia” can be used interchangeably with other countries, I use Australia to speak from personal experience in my country of residence.

In many cases, this question could be received amicably, as an invitation to share their story. However, it could also be received as though you’re insinuating that Australia is more your country than theirs. It’s not.

We all found our way here from somewhere at some point in time. For some of us, it was a decade ago. For others, it was ten decades ago. That’s the beauty of Australia, we’re enriched by the diversity of backgrounds and cultures. It’s part of our identity.

Claiming that your connections entitle you to comment on their experience

I’m all for finding common ground, it’s an effective way to build rapport with someone. Just don’t use that common ground as a basis for claiming that you understand their struggle in relation to racial inequality or discrimination. That can really hurt.

Just because you visited my country in the past or you have a friend with the same skin colour as me, doesn’t mean you know my struggle. Sure, you can seek to empathise and I will appreciate you for it, but don’t undermine my experience by telling me you know how I feel and proceeding to share your own unrelated or vicarious story.

All I ask, is that you listen and check your own behaviours in light of that experience.

To my white friend, you’re welcome.

To my ethnic minority friend, you’re also welcome.

Though we may be of different ethnicities, we all belong to the same race — the human race. This one is for less offense and more respect in our future interactions.

Freelance Writer — Phrased with Purpose I write to share my story, your story, our stories, with the world. Website:

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