Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

Conversation

You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.

When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.”  In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.

Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.

As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs.  If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.

There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.

The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.

Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”

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10 Responses to Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

  1. Dawn Kepler says:

    I have only one word to describe this post: Superb. The painful experience of being ‘outed’ in a Jewish environment has happened to many people & it happened with some very nice people. I love the fact that you give us a simple and easy alternative. I plan to notice topics that are Common Ground & to share them with you and my other friends.
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

    Like

  2. Linda says:

    Been there….experienced that. Briliant and Amen!

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  3. Amy says:

    Interesting perspective—I will be more sensitive to this. I usually think when I meet someone with a foreign accent that I am showing interest by asking where they are from. I never think of it as being offensive, but now I will. Thanks.

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    • rabbiadar says:

      I was in the same mindset, Amy. A lot of this happens with very good intentions. And it may even be received with the benefit of the doubt. I don’t doubt the motives of those who comment on my accent; I know they mean well. But I am also aware of the uncomfortable distance it creates for me when I am on the receiving end, and I’ve learned I am not alone in that. So I am trying to look for the common ground- thank you for seeking it too!

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  4. Diane says:

    I can SOOO relate to this post, but I went the other way. When I moved here from Tennessee 30 years ago this September, my coworkers made endless fun of my accent. I was embarrassed and I consciously changed it. Now, it returns when I talk to relatives over the phone, or spend time in the south in Alabama, Georgia or Tennessee. I realized I was embarrassed by the south in general, which added to my un-easiness with the accent thing. I’ve long come to terms with all that, and now miss so much about the south.
    Finding common ground is a great thing, thanks for this and thanks for sharing Dawn

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Thank you for the different point of view, Diane! You’re right, some people DO make active fun of the accent, which adds to the confusion when someone says something intending to be friendly. I think this sort of problem is the reason that Emily Post has rules against “personal comments” as part of small talk – it’s a minefield.

      Glad you’ve come to terms with your Southern roots, and thank you for reading and commenting here!

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  5. […] speaker – all are potential opening moves. Avoid divisive topics (politics, for instance) and don’t focus on ways the newcomer is different.  An alternative, if you can’t think of a common ground, is simply to say, “Hi, […]

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  6. rabbijill says:

    Reblogged this on Rabbi Jill Zimmerman and commented:
    from Rabbi Ruth Adar – What NOT to say when you meet someone new

    Like

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