Advice Columns

Miss Manners: Guessing wrong on foreign accent could offend

Q: I grew up in a foreign country, but I do not have a detectable accent when speaking English. However, most people from my country of origin have a rather distinctive accent.

What is the most polite way to respond when meeting people whose accent betrays our shared common origins and language?

On a hotel elevator on the way to my room, I struck up a bland conversation (“What a beautiful evening”) in English with a couple. As they got off the elevator on a different floor than mine, I said, “Have a good evening” — in our shared language.

They seemed slightly startled — they could not have guessed I could speak their language or that I detected their slight accent — but responded in kind.

If I am ever in doubt, of course I don’t say anything. However, I think if I’m wrong, the other party would just assume I am mumbling and they didn’t catch my words.

A: What if, like you, they think they do not have a foreign accent? What if they are suddenly panicked that you were eavesdropping on them earlier?

While Miss Manners trusts that your intentions are good, your actions feel misplaced. The consequences of guessing wrong or offending seemingly outweigh any connection that might be made — especially as the exchange took place while the couple was leaving.

She suggests that you wait until a conversation about one’s origins evolves naturally before making assumptions — both as a practical matter and as one of diplomacy.

Q: I am a somewhat older gentleman who keeps in touch with about 100 people on social media. When a friend dies, I follow the customs I know – attending the memorial service if possible, sending a condolence note and donating to a charity in the person’s name.

However, I am perplexed about how to handle this occasion on social media. About a year and a half ago, a friend died. After a month, I de-friended him. I hope you will understand that I did so as a practical matter and with no ill intent.

Soon afterward, however, I ran into a mutual acquaintance who accused me of acting in haste and “abandoning” the friend. So when the next person died, I waited for almost a year before de-friending him, and there were no complaints.

Would you advise me on a respectful, appropriate period to wait before de-friending the deceased? Does it depend on how close the two of you were?

A: Ah, no.

But why do you need to de-friend the deceased? Not only is it redundant, it also adds insult to (extreme) injury. If the social pages of the departed remain online, it would be considerate of a close relative to take them down, so as to avoid confusion such as yours. Then Miss Manners and others will not have to ponder what the “practical matter” of declaring a literally expired friendship entails.

But she questions the motive of the busybody who accused you of abandoning your deceased friend. In cases of death, it is the bereaved who feel abandoned.

Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.