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Is It OK To Initiate a Conversation in Spanish?

Retail Worker Worried About Offending People

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Question: I work at a store, and sometimes I come across people who I hear speaking Spanish. When I ring up their purchases, I always want to speak Spanish to them, but I am afraid to. I don't want to offend them by implying that they can't speak English, and as I have taken Spanish for two years I am aware that it is pretty bad, so I don't want to embarrass myself. Would people be offended if I spoke Spanish to them? Is that a polite thing to do?

Answer #1: I'm a private Spanish tutor, native Argentinean, living in NYC. I really think that if you answer me in Spanish I'll feel great. Don't be scared; it is as nice as for you to see someone's effort to talk to you in English.

Answer #2: I believe that, in general, Hispanics are very receptive when someone makes conversation with us, when someone wants to talk with us.

Answer #3: I too wouldn't want to imply that they do not know how to speak English. The best thing to do is to really have something in mind to talk about. You could break the ice by saying, "Buenos días, ¿cómo está? Que día más lindo... ¿de dónde es usted? Oh, me gustaría viajar a ese país." If they seem surprised, just tell them that you are a student and you love their language.

Just think up as many things in advance that you would as a stranger. People will speak if you give them an open-ended question. Ask the weather, what time it is (if they are wearing a watch). You're just trying to be friendly, and the next time they see you they will speak to you in Spanish first.

Don't worry about not being perfect, just making a good effort will impress them. There are a few people that may not talk to you, but they may just be shy to strangers. But don't let that stop you the next time, go ahead and speak.

Answer #4: I'm not exaggerating when I say that I speak to every Spanish speaker that I run across — in Spanish. I go out of my way to speak to them. And it doesn't have anything to do with wanting to "show them I can speak it," but it's got everything to do with loving the language, truly enjoying using it, and I think that comes across.

I always get a smile, along with good conversation. So go for it. Be enthusiastic when you do it too, and they'll respond in kind.

Answer #5: The only time I have objected to being spoken Spanish to is when I am in a public office where I felt someone assumed I did not speak English based on my appearance. I live in Salt Lake City where many Anglo-Americans speak Spanish very well. I have never been anything less than flattered. Keep up the good work, gringos.

To all the politicians who make speeches in Spanish: We know why you do it, but we still get that warm feeling inside when you show us you have made an effort to speak our language.

Answer #6: Last week I met a lady on the train who had a thick Spanish accent and I tried my luck. It turned out she was from the Dominican Republic, and she was delighted by the fact that I addressed her in Spanish!

Perhaps I should add that I am from the Netherlands and that our Latino community is quite small. They are really the exception here (except in Amsterdam), and they are very sought after by people who want to learn Spanish.

Answer #7: I live in Quebec and speak fluently in French and English. I learned French first and that's the language I speak with my family, but I went to school in English my whole life, so my friends are English. When I shop, I usually go with them, so we talk to each other in English, but when we are in a French store I never know what to do myself. There are many salespeople who try to help us in English, and I don't know if I should go along with talking in English to them, when I would feel more comfortable in French and they probably would too unless they are trying to learn it....

It's kind of an uncomfortable situation, but if you start talking to the person in English and they don't understand a word, then it's worst.

I appreciate their efforts, and I'm glad that they try; that's what makes them good salespeople! Although lots of them, when they figure out that I speak French say, "Fiou! I'm glad you talk French!"

About being offended, I'm not. It's polite to make an effort for the customer, in my opinion.

Answer #8: I ran into some Mexicanos in a bar in my town and one spoke English much better than my Spanish but told me he was very impressed that I went out of my way to learn his language and invited me to his home. Another guy barely spoke any English and I said "hola" and the next thing I knew he was telling me the story of his life....

I have to agree though, just walking up to someone that looks like they speak Spanish and talking to them just to practice your Spanish (or impress your friends) is just plain rude.

Note: This question and answers were adapted from a discussion on the bulletin board. To share your opinion, click on the appropriate link below.

Readers Respond: Would I Offend by Initiating Conversation in Spanish?

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