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I am from India and my experience is that addressing a serviceman in a restaurant as "waiter" is not taken positively. So depending on their age, we usually call them "brother" or "uncle". A few years back, I was visiting Germany and at one point, I visited an Indian restaurant with a few of my friends.

After we took our table, a friend of mine called a serviceman in the restaurant and asked him for a glass of water. While doing so, he addressed the serviceman as "Uncle" and at that point, the guy got extremely offended and replied, "I am not your uncle". This was shocking for us and we apologized. However, after that, we discussed this issue and found that each one of us thought that calling him "Uncle" shouldn't be offensive at all since he was anyway quite elderly for us.

Is this correct or we were wrong in thinking so? How should one address servicemen/servicewomen in the restaurant in a proper way?

Note: The waiter is from Pakistan but we speak the same language.

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    in what language did you talk to him? since it was in germany – RealCheeseLord Sep 15 '17 at 7:59
  • @RealCheeseLord : It was mixed Hindi and Urdu. – Peaceful Sep 15 '17 at 13:06
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    Would your being from India and the waiter from Pakistan have added to the waiter's taking offense? – BruceWayne Sep 18 '17 at 3:00
  • @BruceWayne : No no nope.. – Peaceful Sep 18 '17 at 4:05
41

calling him "Uncle" shouldn't be offensive at all since he was anyway quite elderly for us.

Calling the waiter uncle might have offended him because, possibly he thought that you either mistook his age by his look or he probably just didn't want to be called as such.

Is this correct or we were wrong in thinking so?

I'd say neither party is wrong. You called him uncle as he appeared quite elder than you and he got offended for possible reasons I mentioned above.

How should one address servicemen/servicewomen in the restaurant in a proper way?

I am from India and at one time, I went to a local restaurant with my friends and one of them called waiter uncle. Though he didn't say anything at that time, but it appeared that he got offended. So I started to call him sir and he was happy to be called as such. I only did this to show him some respect, but you don't have to call a waiter sir/ma'am. You can, but it's not necessary.

You can try following approaches without offending anybody.

  1. Whenever you have to call a waiter, say Excuse me.
  2. If this doesn't work, say the same and raise your hand.
  3. You can ask him/her his/her name and the next time, you can call them by their name.
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This might be an unlucky coincidence - in German, young people sometimes also refer to older male persons as "Onkel", but it would mean something like "dude" (informal!).

If you, as a stranger, would call me "Onkel" while I am your server, I would also be offended, because it implies that you are looking down on me.

Just "Excuse me, can you ... " is usually the best way to go, that avoids the problem of figuring out which "title" is most appropriate for your waiter - this depends on the type of restaurant and even on the region.

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    In German Onkel means uncle also. Maybe it's just a slang meaning you're referring to. – NVZ Sep 15 '17 at 11:46
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    We were talking in Hindi/Urdu and so definitely it wasn't "Onkel" – Peaceful Sep 15 '17 at 12:53
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    Justbecause you were talking Hindi doesn't mean this waiter in Germany doesn't identify with German culture. If it is abnormal and insulting to refer to someone as 'Uncle' in German, he is going to find it equally insulting to be referred to as 'Uncle' in Hindi. You already said that it is negative to call your wait staff 'waiter' in India. I'm pretty sure it would be considered just as insulting if it were done in English. – DJClayworth Sep 15 '17 at 13:10
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Referring to any stranger/service professional as 'Uncle' in Western Europe is likely to be received as strange, even outside of the restaurant scenario. You mention that you held this conversation in your native language, and despite this it was still received badly.

It could be that this waiter has lived all his life in Germany, and has never become accustomed to the way waiters are referred to in your home country. It's also possible that this is not done in Pakistan, either.

In England, it depends entirely on the server and the restaurant you are in, but you can address them as 'mate', which is very informal, but can work in a pub or a more relaxed restaurant. To avoid disrespect altogether you should just use 'Excuse me' as the above poster stated - but don't snap your fingers at them!

22

I am Indian myself and let me tell you first off that I never call a waiter or any other service-provider anything because I wouldn't know which form of address is acceptable to that person. We can be polite without calling them anything, though you may not have expected that hostile response. We don't really have the right to call an unknown person uncle although it is usually tolerated in India for cultural reasons.

In addition to all the other good answers already written, it is worth considering that the waiter might have interpreted South Asians calling a fellow-South-Asian 'uncle' in a foreign country as unacceptable regional overfamiliarity which might possibly not have been overfamiliar in South Asia. As in (interior monologue)

I am not living and working so hard away from home in this far-off European country to be addressed overfamiliarly by these fellow-South-Asians as 'Uncle'! It is a nonsense... Why, I should get the respect I atleast deserves in this country. No I won't tolerate it! (Typical syntax in South Asian English, please don't 'edit to improve.')

So he said cuttingly:

I am not your uncle.

A second possibility which is a global reality is that people who enjoyed high social status and possibly held positions of bureaucratic or traditional authority in their home country may be 'forced by circumstances' to be service providers like waiters or taxi drivers when they emigrate to another nation. Example: I recently read of a nuclear physicist from USSR driving a taxi-cab in New York. Such a person may already resent their self-perceived change in status and your overfamiliarity exacerbates their feelings.

Also remember that extreme politeness is part of the 'cultured public discourse' of many countries and most of those forms of address in Western Europe don't include 'uncle' -- the waiter may feel you have no right to address him any less politely just because you are from the same region of origin -- This is exactly why we must beware of approaching people from our own region very familiarly while in foreign countries: they may not appreciate it, for their own reasons! Better always to say 'excuse me,' methinks.

  • I haven't gone to Europe, so things might be different there, but for one of them to be a foreigner seems irrelevant to me. I would consider "uncle" to be overfamiliar even if they are from the same country in their country. To me, "uncle" is only used for actual family uncles or people who are so close that they're regarded the same as family, and that's way off base with someone you've never met before. – JoL Sep 16 '17 at 1:28
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    That's right, @JoL -- but there is this well-established Indian cultural convention of calling unknown elder persons as 'uncle' or 'aunty' which makes it socially OK to show respect that way (also 'elder brother/ elder sister' in some parts of the subcontinent, or even 'grandpa/ grandma' for really old people) -- the very ancient philosophical concept is that we are all members of the human family: not however a reliable formula to use when meeting an unknown fellow-South-Asian abroad, as OP's experience demonstrates! – English Student Sep 16 '17 at 4:03
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Yes in Indian context it is not offensive to call an elderly person uncle even if the person is unrelated. But even in India many people may find it offensive. Recently I had similar experience. I was at an informal meeting and I was chatting with someone and there was this lady in her 60s may be. The person I was chatting with called her aunty and she was offended like hell. She said please don't call me aunty, you can call me bhabhi (sister-in-law), didi (sister) or simply use my first name and add ji like Aarti ji or call me Mrs. XYZ but don't use aunty word to address me. She was probably offended because that reminded her of her 60s age.

So in itself it doesn't sound offensive but some individual may be offended for some reason specially age related. Also keep in mind that in other countries they may have their different local customs on calling an unknown person and you should learn that.

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each one of us thought that calling him "Uncle" shouldn't be offensive at all since he was anyway quite elderly for us

Uncle, in general, indicates a family relation, not just seniority. But even if you would have used "Elderly person" as an accurate description of someone quite elderly it might not be very respectful to emphasize the age so much, depending on the place and the situation.

How should one address servicemen/servicewomen in the restaurant in a proper way?

The waiter gave you a hint with "I am not your uncle." So outside of India, using "uncle" might be a bad idea. It depends on the location. In Germany, for example, you often don't use any title at all "I'm sorry. Could you ..." and use waiter or server very rarely with caution while other terms like uncle aren't used at all.

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    A side-note from Germany: The German language lacks the feature of a neutral name for unknown persons. That's why you end up with "I am sorry, could you..." and similar. I once read an article from someone who was asked how to address a policeman to get his attention. Most solutions are in the field of "excuse me" without any further address, just calling "POLICE!!!" in case it is urgent, or using some construct that sounds WEIRD to German speaker AND the policeman. – Layna Sep 15 '17 at 9:50
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    @Layna well, for totally random people you can always go with a variation (depending on context and politeness you'd like to display) of "Werter Herr"/"Werte Frau/Dame"/"Mein Herr"/"Meine Dame",... - as long as you are certain enough of the gender and speaking to an adult. But indeed, for waiters, policemen, bus drivers, etc it's not common to address them with a generic job specific title. – Frank Hopkins Sep 15 '17 at 10:42
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    "Werter Herr" works indeed but it sounds SO old-fashioned. But yes, you are right. Better be old-fashioned than rude ^^. – Layna Sep 15 '17 at 10:46
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    @Layna Right, I'd also say the most common way is to avoid a title at all. But one scenario where I find it used more often is when you want to be extra polite, e.g. in cases you want people to behave differently, like remove their baggage from a seat in a train. It balances the implied "scolding" that follows. – Frank Hopkins Sep 15 '17 at 10:58
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    @Layna A policeman might be addressed as "Herr Wachtmeister", but certainly only once (i.e., much less often than you'd use "sir" or "officer" in English during a single conversation) – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 15 '17 at 12:45
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Calling a stranger "Onkel" (or even worse "Opa", grandfather) in Germany would be equivalent to calling them a "geezer" in native english speaking countries. "Onkel" is never appropriate unless the person addressed is either your uncle, or a good friend that is fine with that nickname.

To make it worse, using any job or relationship description as a single word (there is a difference between "Herr Wachtmeister" and "Wachtmeister!") to address someone kind of implies using the "Du" form of address without being invited to, which is considered "sometimes out of place" by everyone - and always considered very rude by the older generations (say, anyone above the age of 40). Even worse, some people understand a seemingly intentional inappropriate use of forms of address as an attempt to start trouble - a business owner suddenly called "Onkel!" by a patron would probably wonder if someone is threatening him - kind of on the level of addressing a shopowner "Ey, geezer!".

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Here in multicultural East London, UK, a West Indian might greet an older neighbour with friendly respect as 'Uncle'. I see you have a similar convention in India. But, along with 'bro', 'brother' and even 'mate' it may be considered over-informal and cheeky.

I live in an area that has become predominately Asian. I see on the local Facebook etc. pages a trend to call all women 'sister'. I have no idea whether this is exclusive to the Muslim community or also covers the Sikh, Hindu etc. sectors. Anyway, I get the impression that it would be inappropriate for me, a white male, to use 'sister' to an Asian neighbour. It's an in-group thing.

Probably better to err on the side of formality when outside your own sub-community.

You might also want to know that in English, 'serviceman' doesn't mean 'waiter', it refers to a menber of the armed forces. In America particularly 'servicemen' are treated with extra respect. The British are rather more laid-back, but you should still know what the word means.

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