A reader writes:
I come from eastern Europe, specifically from Russia. Given the history — cold war between our countries, media, etc. — I find the subject of my origin somewhat uncomfortable to discuss. While some proudly call themselves something-American, I’m working hard on becoming just local (I’ve left Russia over a decade ago and have no intention of returning and neither do I belong to any Russian church or local community).
I must admit that having worked in a few offices, I’m finding a constant question about my accent rather unpleasant as it singles me out and points to something that others don’t have. Also, whenever there’s something in the news, people start loudly speculating about my association with Russian spies, recent drunken hockey team or whatever. And of course, if another Russian speaking colleague or student or neighbor comes along, they will be sure to let me know.
I realize that I’m risking to come across as oversensitive in saying all this but seriously, can’t others see past the obvious – me having an accent – or at least wait till I volunteer some insights? My African-American friend finds it equally offensive when people always seem to think of yet another black guy who happens to live round the corner – “in case she might be interested.”
I actually found this question harder to answer than most, so I’d especially love additional thoughts in the comments section, but…
I think this probably comes down to “people are socially awkward.”
I doubt anyone really thinks you’re a spy or spending your weekend with drunk hockey players. They’re just doing what people do, which is to make conversation, often awkwardly, using conversation starters that are sometimes clunky.
I think they’re using your accent the same way people tend to use other obvious characteristics someone might have, like being really tall or having a strong southern accent or having red hair. Even Canadians get it sometimes. It’s annoying, yes, but it sounds like they intend it to be good-natured joking. (I also suspect they find your being Russian genuinely interesting and might be curious about it, in a friendly, non-cold-war kind of way.)
Assuming they truly seem to mean well and their humor just isn’t hitting the mark, I’d try to be good-natured about it in return. It’s certainly your prerogative to tell them to knock it off, but I think you’d be turning it into a bigger issue than it needs to be. (If you do choose to go that route, though, I’d just take them aside individually next time it happens and say, “Hey, I know you’re just joking around, but jokes about my Russian background rub me the wrong way.”)
Now, obviously, no one should have to be subjected to bigotry in the workplace, whether it’s about their national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation. But this just isn’t reading as bigotry to me (annoying as it may be). Anyone want to argue it differently?
It’s also worth noting that the subject line of your email to me was “trying hard to fit in.” I’d actually argue that your coworkers joking around with you is evidence that they like you. It might be a matter of just deciding to see these comments differently — as slightly bumbling attempts at connecting rather than keeping you separate.
What do others think?