Etiquette Be Damned. Stop Asking, “Do you speak X language?” It’s Rude and Pointless.

Copenhagen Cafe Dogs

In a previous post Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations I discussed my evolving relationship with Danish.  One of the things I didn’t discuss was the surprising advice I received from Danish friends regarding one of the cornerstones of a traveler’s phrase book; the oft used opening inquiry, “Do you speak X language?”.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably perfected the art of opening every conversation with a friendly hello, and then the language intro.  Sometimes it is delivered in English and other times in whatever the local language is. While necessary in some areas, I view it as an essential common courtesy as well. After all, it’s bad enough that I don’t speak the native language in whatever country I’m in, to then assume that they should speak my language without asking smacks of arrogance and inter-cultural intolerance. Unless, that is, you are in Denmark.

While well intentioned, Danish proficiency in English is so high and their use of it so common, that to ask a Dane – especially those under 40 – if they speak English when voicing an inquiry, is to insult them.  Don’t get me wrong, they appreciate the sentiment and I doubt you’d ever find a Dane that would respond to the question harshly.  However, the inquiry is generally received here in Denmark much the same way it might be if you asked the same question, “Do you speak English?” on the streets of New York. Which is to say, you’d get a strange look, followed by a patronizing smile or a quizzical eyebrow and a hearty “Of course!”.

Weigh in, what is your experience? Have you found other regions or countries that are similar to Denmark?  If so, which?  Please share your experiences in a comment below.

Of further interest for me is the question it raises.  Who is the language inquiry really for? Is it an identifier which benefits the asker by helping compensate for their embarrassment about not knowing the language while notifying the individual being asked of their preferred language?  Is it a form of social contract where the asker is requesting permissions to proceed in a set language?  Or, is something else going on?

I have begun to suspect that in reality the inquiry, while well intentioned, is actually an obstacle to effective communication.  For the sake of this discussion let’s use English as the default language. If I ask an individual if they speak English, I’m really asking a procedural question which is actually very poorly constructed.  If they speak minimal to decent English, they’re inclined to be shy and respond with a modest “no” or “a little”. If they speak good to above average English, they may respond with a yes or still hedge their bets and understate their ability. If they speak above average to excellent English then the question mirrors the insensitivity highlighted with the Danes.  Of course, if they don’t speak any English at all, they’ll offer a completely blank look, understand the sentiment of your question and respond in their native language.

Ultimately, my hunch is that skipping the question all together will give you access to the same information without putting the individual you’re asking on the spot.  If they understand, then they can try and respond to the level of their competency.  If not, then they won’t be able to at which point it will be immediately clear allowing you to graciously thank them for their time and apologize for not speaking their language.  I don’t believe this is indicative of cultural insensitivity, as long as you’re not assuming they should speak English.  Only that it is a possibility, and they might be willing to do so.   Rather, I’ve begun to think that it is in fact more a matter of effective communication.

It is time to cross the question, “Do you speak English” from our travel books, advice columns and procedural etiquette.  Weigh in – where do you stand on the issue?

How “Howdy” Has Made Me A Better Traveler – Considering Cultural Identifiers and Their Value


Each time we interact with a stranger there’s a significant amount of uncertainty. When that interaction occurs between people from different backgrounds, cultures, and languages that level of unknown is magnified significantly. To convey our background and express ourselves while reducing that uncertainty we dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and when it comes to travel, we present ourselves a certain way.

It’s a common desire among travelers to fit in. This has significant advantages in the form of increased safety, added opportunity for cultural immersion, and the chance for increased experiential engagement. However, it also makes it significantly harder for you to communicate basic information about yourself to the strangers you have an active desire to communicate with.

While we will almost always be readily identifiable as a visitor to locals due to the brands we wear, the camera slung around our shoulder, or the day-backpack we’ve got strapped to our backs it is fairly easy to start to blend in, should you desire it. At which point you’ll notice your interactions begin to change, both with locals and other travelers.

So, where does “Howdy” come into this?

The moment you open your mouth and utter a word the people you’re interacting with will know that you’re an outsider. Often, what they’ll have trouble identifying is where you are from, and how to engage with you. Unless, that is, you decide to help them. As an American from the southwest, that’s where the word howdy enters my equation.

With one word, I can share a wealth of information with the person I’m striking up a conversation with. It tells them I’m probably from the USA, that I’m a native English speaker, that I’m ok with a slightly more casual interaction, and that I’m likely friendly. One word used at the very onset of the conversation creates and establishes a baseline of common information upon which we can build a more comfortable interaction and less awkward conversation.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you always use a cultural identifier, only that you consciously add one to your vocabulary.

Hostel Inn Tango City - Buenos Aires, Argentina

A Few Examples

The first time I realized the benefit of using a cultural identifier, howdy in this case, was during an off-season trip to the Greek island of Crete. I’d been on the road for 2+ months already, and was apparently dressing more like a European than an American. When combined with my international features I could have been from almost anywhere. Time and time again in stores, or when interacting with street vendors they would approach me and begin to work through a variety of languages. Most started with German, then switched to French, then often Italian before eventually growing slightly frustrated and defaulting to English. These were individuals I wanted to communicate with (otherwise a simple smile and shake of the head would have been sufficient), but with whom I was accidentally making communication significantly more difficult. The moment I started responding to their inquiry with the same smile, and a howdy we immediately began communicating more effectively.

Hostel common areas provide another excellent example. In these spaces there’s really only one well grounded assumption to be made – that the people you’re about to interact with could be from anywhere in the world. In these spaces the level of social uncertainty is magnified. While almost everyone is eager to socialize and interact, there’s a high level of uncertainty in the initial interaction. In these types of situations everyone is hungry for any hint that helps them relate and connect with the other people. Once again, this is a perfect chance to use a cultural identifier to help reduce uncertainty and build common ground.

A third is when locals or other tourists approach you with questions, which I find happens surprisingly often. These instances can be somewhat awkward, as you may or may not have a decent familiarity with the area or subject they’re asking about. They’ve approached you, a perfect stranger, with the assumption that you’re probably a local, and have already taken a social “risk”. One made more awkward if you don’t understand their inquiry, or if you have to ask them to re-state it. A process which can be accelerated, or avoided all together with a word or two right off the bat. The added benefit is that words like bonjour and howdy can be spoken immediately, even if the other person has already started to talk without being impolite.

Subtle Language Requests

To be fair, when you use a cultural identifier like howdy, you’re doing more than just expressing information about yourself. You’re also subtly inviting the other person to have the conversation in your native language. If you’d prefer to try and remain in the other person’s native language it may be worth considering what regional salute is suited to that language, or opening with your own cultural identifier and then adding a brief phrase in the local language. This tells them your native language, but then also indicates that you’re interested in continuing in their language.

Think about your interactions both while abroad, and with visitors in your home region. Where are you from? What words might you use to identify yourself? Can you think of a time when you used a cultural identifier, or perhaps did not and should have?

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Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

When I first arrived in Denmark I was gung ho about learning Danish.  I felt that as an incoming resident who would be spending two years in the country it was the least I could do to learn Danish during my stay.  To my surprise the majority of my Danish friends appreciated the sentiment but discouraged me from learning Danish – the common statement went along the lines of, “Only 6 million people speak Danish and it is a terribly hard language that is almost impossible to master, besides we all speak English”.  I can’t imagine a similar sentiment being expressed about English back in Arizona.  Granted, it’s a very different situation, but even if it were not, I just don’t see Arizonans ever voicing similar advice.

Eager to expand my horizons and truly immerse myself in Danish culture I decided to take their recommendation under advisement, but push ahead with learning Danish. Now, several months later I’ve had several realizations that have re-shaped my relationship with the language.

The first is that most Danes really do speak excellent English.  It’s almost impossible to find a Dane here in Copenhagen under the age of 40 who doesn’t speak fluent English.  It’s taught in their schools, most of the movies shown in theaters are English with Danish subtitles, and about 70% of the movies and shows on TV are presented in a similar way.  Of those over 40, most speak at least some English.

Danish is an incredibly difficult language. Now, I don’t consider myself a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite actually, but based on my experiences with Spanish I feel as though I have at least a general baseline to compare against.

The thing about Danish is that it is a fairly guttural/throaty language, it is very general and re-uses a wide variety of words which makes it very contextual.  The words in Danish are also some of the longest I’ve ever encountered which I’ve found challenging as I’ve yet to learn where to pause and what to omit.  In addition to having incredibly long words, many letters of the alphabet in words are actually silent which makes hearing it and reading it phonetically extremely difficult.

The most difficult part of Danish for me, so far, has been the guttural enunciation.  Danes commonly joke that as a non-dane the best you can hope for is to get close. Unfortunately, so far even the simple three or four letter words have largely escaped me. As it turns out, my version of west coast, slightly southern English uses every part of my mouth EXCEPT the parts used in the guttural aspects of Danish. In general the way I’ve learned to talk is with crisp – perhaps harsh is more accurate – vocalizations.  The result is that I can’t even make many of the sounds used in Danish, let alone hear them.  For those of you that battled with the rolling R in Spanish, this is similar, but across the entire language.

On the upside, while I have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the more subtle aspects of the language the one area my English background helps with, is the cross over and use of words which have their roots in Old Norse and the Germanic languages. Words like hour (timer), etc. are clear cut enough that I can make contextual sense of them when reading websites, menus, etc.

The Danes are also very finicky about the pronunciation of words.  What sounds identical to a non-native speaker is often a significant enough difference in pronunciation that the Danes have difficulty recognizing and understanding the word(s) being spoken. I know that for some people, this has been mistaken as being unhelpful, but the more I’m exposed to it, the more I’ve come to realize that it’s deeply ingrained in the complex structure of Danish and the key importance of subtle emphasis and not done out of any sense of elitism or stubbornness.

An additional point of interest has been Dane’s use of English in the midst of general conversation.  As I understand it English (in part because it is a new language) has much more descriptive words for a lot of actions and things than traditional Danish.  As a result it’s fairly common for Danes to supplement Danish with English during the course of their conversations.  Sometimes only using a word and other times switching to English for a sentence before diving back into Danish for the remainder of the conversation.

I’ve been very surprised by the Dane’s willingness to switch entire discussions over into English if an English speaker is present without complaint. I’ve even seen a number of Danes switch from Danish to English when ordering in ethnic restaurants without a hint of complaint or annoyance.  That said, despite English’s generally widespread use in Denmark, the social language barrier you would expect elsewhere between Danes and non-danish speakers is less visible but still present.

I share the above because I’ve been forced to adjust my approach to learning Danish. My previous goal was to be able to speak, write, and read Danish by the end of the year. While I’ve realized that given enough time it’s certainly doable, the reality is that I’m not likely to attain that level of mastery over the two year period I’ll be here.  From conversations, this realization inspires many long-term visitors and expats to abandon Danish all together. Which I also don’t find to be the right approach.

My revised goal is to learn enough Danish that I can hear and understand spoken, conversational Danish when it is occurring around me.  From there, though I’d like to be able to (and hope to in time) respond in Danish. For the time being I’ll focus on responding in English.   This should allow me to participate in many of the conversations that I might otherwise accidently be excluded from without forcing everyone I meet to constantly speak English, just because I’m in the general area.

It is going to be a challenge. The re-training of my ear has already been a surprisingly difficult task, but it’s one which I’ve already found to be quite enriching and informative.  The role of language in learning more about culture, myself, and in shaping this experience has been a significant one, even with my current limited vocabulary of about 5 spoken Danish words.

For now, I’m off to ride the metro, silently mouthing each station name and announcement as I work to acclimate myself to a new world of sounds, words, and grammar. Looking like I’m talking to myself is a small price to pay for the chance to learn a fascinating language with a rich and storied history!