33

I am an ethnic and religious member of a certain ethno-religious group. (You can probably guess which one, but I thought the question might be broad enough to apply to other ethnic/religious groups too). It's also not just specific to either religion or ethnicity - since someone I might ask could be a member of just one part, both, or neither.

There are not very many other members of this group where I live, and I'm often happy to meet others so we can talk about relevant stuff that most of my other friends don't really 'get'.

As a student I would often just ask someone, if I had an inkling based on their name or something they'd said, "Are you []ish?". Of the maybe ten times I asked this, the answer was always 'no', and it became a bit awkward and I would blurt out "Oh sorry, I am, I just ask everyone that" (partly so they wouldn't think I was asking for anti-[]ic reasons).

I've recently started working at a medium-sized company, and I've just realised there's a guy here with a quintessentially []-ish name. I'd love to find out if he's a part of the group, for work and other purposes (e.g. asking how HR/our bosses responded if he asked for time off on religious holidays, potentially going to services together, seeing if he can link me up with some other local []s, exchange holiday greetings, potentially chat in a relevant language, etc).

But I don't want to make things weird and awkward with a colleague. What's a good way to approach this? Or should I just mind my own beeswax?

(This is in the UK)

  • 15
    Generally, in workplace you should not sniffing other's ethnicity, religion, age, and such. – Vylix Aug 29 '17 at 17:22
  • 14
    Why are we treating the word 'Jewish' as a though it's a controversial thing to say? I understand that the question could also apply to other groups; but given its specificity here it's just a little awkward to read "[]ish". Is this a custom on this SE site? – Wes Sayeed Aug 30 '17 at 1:00
  • 8
    @WesSayeed no. The OP deliberately wrote that word as []ish, in hope of this question can be used to generally help not only the Jewish, but also Moslem, Christian, Catholic, etc. – Vylix Aug 30 '17 at 1:44
  • 13
    @WesSayeed This question is actually useful to me, since Christian is minority in Indonesia, and I actively (subtly) seek other Christians whenever I go to new places. Like OP, if their name hint Christian-like, usually I bluntly asked and apologized if I'm wrong. This suggests a better way to do that :) – Vylix Aug 30 '17 at 1:47
  • 5
    @Vylix: Just because the conversation takes place between colleagues doesn't make the conversation work related. If this conversation takes place during a job interview, I agree with you. But in a casual conversation, this is acceptable (as long as both parties wish to talk about it of course). There is of course still the matter of etiquette and phrasing (e.g. "Are you by any chance Jewish?" versus "You're not a Jew, are you?"), which is the main focus of OP's question. – Flater Aug 31 '17 at 13:29
57

If there are few members of your minority where you live, and you want to connect with others, then isn't it likely that others would want to connect with you too? Asking people if they are risks crossing boundaries especially at work, and might cause you to miss people who don't "look the part". Instead of looking, try being findable.

Perhaps there is something subtle but distinctive in the way of jewelry, clothing style, or the like that other members would notice but is not invasive. I was once at a week-long immersive training session where, a couple days in, one of my fellow students asked one of the instructors if he was a Freemason. I didn't recognize the ring, but the student did -- and they seemed to enjoy chatting with each other for a while after.

You can also mention things as part of other interactions, particularly casual discussions at lunch. Don't force things, but if people are talking about school when they were kids, for instance, you can refer to one of the nuns or one of your rabbis instead of just talking about teachers. Or maybe you once took a trip to a culturally-significant place, and mentioning it might tip the other person off. Over time you'll be taking some days off for holidays, so you can mention that in passing too -- instead of "I'll be out on Thursday" you can say "...for Eid" or "...for the holiday". Some people, both []ish and not, might ask you about that, but you can usually tell which of them are outsiders versus insiders in my experience.

The point is to make information about yourself available so the other person won't feel funny asking "so, are you []ish?". You're inviting the contact, while the person who merely has a typical name but hasn't shown any other signs has not invited anything and maybe he'd rather keep that private. (Particularly if []ish people are sometimes targets of negative attention.)

Finally, don't rush it. You're the newcomer; they're still getting to know you. Don't be that person who always talks about his []ishness, which some people might see as pushy or self-centered or socially tone-deaf. As you and your coworkers get to know each other, tidbits of information will come out. Let things come out in their natural times.

  • 13
    Ah, this is actually a great way to go about it. I never really considered this. In Canada, when you get an engineering degree, there is also an organization that provides "iron rings" (actually stainless steel for the most part now) that get worn on the pinky. I get approached all the time now by engineers and people who are familiar with the ring asking me about what I studied, etc. Subtle things like that are a fantastic way to try and prompt the conversation indirectly. – JMac Aug 29 '17 at 18:05
  • 3
    I think this answer is great. For OP, I'd add to not take it too far, in case whomever is not []ish, unless you are trying to make a Seinfeld episode with increasingly more obvious "hints"... – Bryan Krause Aug 30 '17 at 0:09
  • E.g. necklaces, cuff-links, earrings, or neckties, as dresscodes permit. One thing to keep it mind: sometimes the interpretations of symbols or articles of clothing are less clear–cut than a certain person may think. I.e. wearing a prominent Latin cross on the back of t-shirt during casual dress could appear Roman Catholic — or it could, especially if stylized in certain ways, indicate a broader ethnic group. That one is probably obvious to many, but others could be less so. – can-ned_food Aug 31 '17 at 5:44
  • But if you "try being findable" and avoid approaching others (by asking the question), are you simply then not shifting the responsibility for making a connection to the other person, who now has to approach you? Similarly, two people can look obviously single, but if neither of them makes a move, then they won't go on a date. Your answer somewhat defeats itself if OP's colleagues have all read your answer and take your advice to heart too. Someone has to be willing to approach the other. Making yourself findable only lowers the threshold for making a connection, it doesn't dissolve it. – Flater Aug 31 '17 at 13:26
  • 3
    @Flater I must not be understanding you, sorry. The OP wants to ask a coworker with a "quintessentially []-ish name" if he is []ish. That's awkward, hence the question here. I'm saying that if the coworker were signalling that he's []ish then the question wouldn't be awkward, and then advising the OP to reverse things to enable the coworker to ask a non-awkward question. 'Cause the OP can't cause the coworker to wear the right jewelry so the OP can ask a non-awkward question, but he can control his own behavior. – Monica Cellio Aug 31 '17 at 15:10
16

An idea that has worked for me is to mention about my own background or faith first, and if they wish to join in, that's a good way to get to know theirs.

Straight up asking theirs would not go over well. There will always be that fear of being treated differently based on their background or faith.

Another way is to spend more time with them, and learn from their way of life. You'll need more patience in this case. If they celebrate particular religious events, that would be a good indicator to you that sometime you could bring up a discussion about that event and let them tell you about it, and eventually they'll let you know.

I had acquaintances in college, whose such background I was curious to know, and was afraid to ask them. Over time, meeting them often, would give me a clearer picture of their beliefs and other history.

I'd still advise that you avoid asking your coworkers this; as far as possible.

  • You make a valid point about opening yourself up first. But that can also be inferred as being self-important. This is of course a matter of how you approach it. The OP's risk of being perceived as insensitive is now changed into a risk of being perceived as egocentrical. To which the same question still applies: "How do I phrase it to avoid the risk?" – Flater Aug 31 '17 at 13:32
  • @Flater Ah, true, that. We can't everything. – NVZ Aug 31 '17 at 13:33
10

In this situation, I don't think you should bring it up.

In general, religion/ethnicity are sensitive topics. Religion is sensitive because everyone has their own opinion, and some people feel extremely strongly about theirs. Ethnicity is sensitive because there may be biases or fear of discrimination; often people avoid discussing it.

These topics, along with politics, don't really have a good spot in the workplace. You are at work to perform a job, all the socializing and such is just secondary. Asking someone about their personal religious beliefs, or even their ethnic background, risks bringing personal beliefs and bias into the workplace.

This is best avoided, as any difference in opinion is a potential conflict.

Although you have suspicions that this person is of the same ethno-religion as you; you don't really have proof.

Asking them about it based on their name may be considered offensive, especially if this person has the desire to distance themselves from that group, or they get asked that too often.

6

There are not very many other members of this group where I live, and I'm often happy to meet others so we can talk about relevant stuff that most of my other friends don't really 'get'.

Typically minorities form local community groups that allow for meet-ups and social connection. Have you tried looking for these and contacting/meeting with them ?

This would strike me as the most sensible approach to your problem.

As a student I would often just ask someone, if I had an inkling based on their name or something they'd said, "Are you []ish?". Of the maybe ten times I asked this, the answer was always 'no', and it became a bit awkward and I would blurt out "Oh sorry, I am, I just ask everyone that" (partly so they wouldn't think I was asking for anti-[]ic reasons).

Keep in mind that student life is not the more formal and legalistic setting of work. Many organizations have rules against discrimination which effectively make inquiring about these personal things potentially at odds with protocol and even contract conditions.

I've recently started working at a medium-sized company, and I've just realized there's a guy here with a quintessentially []-ish name.

Work is, once more, an inappropriate venue for what is de-facto you pursuing your own social agenda based on ethnicity and religion. I advise against this.

Even if this person has a background as you describe/hope they may also be strongly opposed to being reminded of this. They may have left this behind them and actually find it annoying to be reminded of it. Great caution is needed with these issues.

I'd love to find out if he's a part of the group, for work and other purposes

Work is not for other purposes. Work is for earning a living. Focus on that in work. Do not jeopardize that for social goals.

(e.g. asking how HR/our bosses responded if he asked for time off on religious holidays

HR or your boss could tell you that more authoritatively. :-)

, potentially going to services together,

That's a social, perhaps even a very personal issue which may be quite inappropriate to pursue in the context of a workplace.

seeing if he can link me up with some other local []s, exchange holiday greetings, potentially chat in a relevant language, etc).

That's something you can achieve by seeking a local community group (and there probably is one). Online is another option for this.

But mixing work, religion and social is asking for problems.

But I don't want to make things weird and awkward with a colleague. What's a good way to approach this? Or should I just mind my own beeswax?

That last option sounds right on the money to me. :-)

Your ethnic and religious "persona" are clearly important aspects of your life to you, but you must avoid overlapping this with work.

The most typical way to "flag" your own ethnicity and religion is to wear something discrete, like a necklace or similar small item that displays your interest. For example, I'm from a Catholic background and typically someone might wear a small cross on a necklace or wrist chain. A former colleague who became a preacher had a (discrete) cross on his desk, but was otherwise not in any way pushy about his beliefs.

Check what's acceptable with HR/your boss. There are rules, often a result of legislative requirements, which you need to respect. Work within those.

Give some thought to keeping work and personal apart.

Discretion in the workplace is generally advised in these matters.

Search for social groups in the community at large that will offer an outlet to your need to be around people from a similar ethnic and religious background more often than currently. This is a perfectly reasonable need, just not one appropriate to the workplace.

3

If you are guessing it by the name, ask them about the name. This gives them the possibility to reveal as much or as little about the connected ethnicity and faith as they feel comfortable about.

If they do not want to share anything they can still say they don't know or are not sure what their name means or where it comes from.

If I am unwilling to give up anything about my family, I would explain the general meaning of the name which can give some information about religious connections, but not necessarily about a specific religion. (It is something about "the person ringing the bells at church") If I feel comfortable about it, I will explain that this only represents one part of my family and also not a faith that I follow.

But I can easily do any intermediate version of this if asked about my name.

1

Would they be less interesting if they did not share your religious background?

It sounds like you want to attempt to build a friendship with this colleague because you have hope of some shared experience. In that case, I would suggest inviting them to lunch. This should give you a chance to chat and start that friendship.

I would not ask "Are you Jewish?" or "Are you Mormon?" or "Are you Amish?" or "Are you Muslim?", etc. Instead, I would ask "What was your family's religion?" Then, the important part is to listen. They are sharing their personal history with you, and that is a gift. Whatever their background, I am sure you will find common threads of experience.

If you are sincere in your desire to be a friend, then it won't matter what the answer is. It will be interesting because they are your friend.

  • 3
    Just to be clear, you're suggesting asking "What is your family's religion?" during lunch, right? Even then it's a tricky topic since it may still feel somewhat workplace-esque. – JMac Aug 29 '17 at 17:46
  • I suggested lunch to move the conversation into the social realm. I specifically suggested asking about their background vs. their current beliefs because we cannot control where we are born, so it needs no defense. I think this is appropriate. – Maitus Aug 29 '17 at 17:53
  • 6
    I find it pretty weird when people I don't know well ask me "What is your family's religion?" It's still a fairly personal and potentially contentious question. Quite frankly, if an acquaintance asked me that I would feel pretty uncomfortable. I think you'd be much safer to try and get there from your end of the conversation. Mentioning something like an upcoming religious holiday you celebrate, or perhaps some upcoming church event you are attending seems a lot less risky/awkward. – JMac Aug 29 '17 at 18:01
  • 1
    My family's religion - my birth family - is not mine. So that would be really strange to me. But I agree, friends are friends because they're interesting and friendly. – anongoodnurse Aug 29 '17 at 19:03
  • 2
    Depends on what you want to know. Lots of people aren't a member of the religion they were raised in anymore. People who left their religion in a negative way might not really want to talk about it. – Erik Aug 30 '17 at 4:07
1

In your shoes, I would talk about something that is "particular" to your group and watch the other person's reaction. Does s/he embrace it, or keep a distance from it. Maybe you would try this with two or three different items at different times. A pattern will emerge; the person's posture toward the individual items will be revealing about the posture toward the group.

There was a case where a man named S. Coleman Wyles (the last name had been Anglicized) steadfastly refused to divulge the name behind his initial, except when forced to do so on the witness stand in a court of law. It was Solomon. He may have been from the same group as you, but he was not about to admit it.

0

Depends:

  • where you are (work, hot dog stand, public/private school, etc.)

  • who you are with (your friends/family/colleagues, their friends/family/colleagues)

Remember that a "no" answer can cause division, because the person assumes it is important to you, and that you will now judge him/her for not fitting your criteria. So ask yourself if you really want to sort people into categories and/or groups vs mixing.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.