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?