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Lately, I've been going to a Middle Eastern restaurant a lot for dinner - the employees and customers are mostly Muslim and speak Arabic, while I speak only English and am not Muslim (not really religious at all).

Communicating with them is always a bit awkward for me, because they address me as "brother", so I hear these phrases a lot:

  • Hi, brother
  • What can I get you, brother?
  • Your food is ready, brother
  • How is school, brother?
  • Bye, brother

which feels a bit more ... meaningful ... than I would like the conversation to be.

It makes me pause, overthink, and generally feel rude for not saying "brother" in return, because I don't want to convey at all that I am interested in something deeper. The looks I get in return from them sometimes seem like disappointment ... or maybe even hurt.

So, my question is:

How do I communicate with someone who addresses me in a more meaningful way than I'm comfortable with? To be clear, I don't require that they stop calling me "brother", but rather how can I best respond to them in a way that mitigates any risk of being disrespectful, when I don't wish to address them as "brother", in return.

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    @D.Hutchinson Your question doesn't really seem to clearly indicate that you're wondering more about how to respectfully respond without using the word "brother" etc - it sounds a lot more like you want to get them to not call you that. If that's not the case, you might want to take another look at your question. – Ash Jan 18 '18 at 0:52
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    @D.Hutchinson I agree with Ash. That is also why I was confused. – Azor Ahai Jan 18 '18 at 0:57
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – user58 Jan 18 '18 at 9:35
  • Could you clarify please: Are you aware that restaurants are not just there to serve you food but to give you the entire experience? They have music playing from the country/region they represent, are decorated and the waiters are part of that too. Are you aware that being addressed as brother is a part of the experience/their job? – Raditz_35 Jan 18 '18 at 10:36
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    @Raditz_35 No, I wasn't aware of it - at all. Hope that clarifies it for you :) – D.Hutchinson Jan 19 '18 at 9:27
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Think of it as a language variant rather than as a reflection of a feeling of intimacy. Think of it as a way they show respect.

You do not need to answer in the same language variant, though. When I used to take my son to the doctor in France, we had a tacit agreement -- she would let me talk to her in English as long as I would let her talk to me in French. At first this made me very self-conscious, but then I came to realize that each of us felt we were able to express our expertise best in our mother tongue and if we understood each other, that's all that matters.

I suspect the look of hurt you're noticing in them is because they're capturing your feeling of discomfort. I'm optimistic that when you're able to relax when they're talking to you, that look of hurt will go away.

Another thing that may help is to take the time to greet -- more time than you probably typically take with people from the US. If someone asks after your family, reciprocate. Experiment with innocuous conversational remarks, for example, the weather. It doesn't have to be a prolonged conversation -- but do take a moment to make a connection.

If they were touching you in an unwanted way, that would be a different matter. Since the only thing you mentioned as making you uncomfortable is this mode of address ("brother"), I think you'll be able to adapt.

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It seems like you're likely reading more into it than is probably there. People very often refer to others in friendly/familiar terms without it carrying the full weight and connotations that it would in other cases.

To be blunt, I get the same sort of service at the local Southern Baptist chicken place. Where it would be just as common to hear:

  • Hi, brother
  • What can I get you, brother?
  • Your food is ready, brother
  • How is school, brother?
  • Bye, brother

This is just familiar friendly language... I sometimes respond in kind and sometimes I don't, but when I don't, it's not because I don't feel like being friendly, or that I'm worried that they'll try to convert me. They're just not terms that I would normally use, so it doesn't come across as very natural for me.

In both Southern Baptist and Muslim circles "Brother" can have different connotations when used within the group. As in:

Allah says;

إنما المؤمنون إخوة فأصلحوا بين أخويكم واتقوا الله لعلكم ترحمون

The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islamic religion). So make reconciliation between your brothers, and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy.

[Surah Hujurat 49:10]

Source: https://islam.stackexchange.com/a/7950

Or for Southern Baptists Or Christians:

Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25:40&version=NIV

So.... Yes, within these faith communities being called a "brother" carries specific meaning and connotations, a sort of "brother in faith" if you will.

But... It's not unheard-of for people to be nice and extend the common greetings and niceties that they're accustomed to, to people outside of their specific group. It's usually called hospitality and it's a good thing.


To more specifically address the question...

Answer the same way you would if they had said something you're more familiar with.

  • Hi, brother

Could just as easily be "Hi, dude/bro/fren/friend/folks" or whatever works for you...

A polite response could be just as easy as "Hi, how are you?" Ya'know like you would whenever someone normally says "hi" to you.

  • @Spagirl good questions; regarding whether they establish such communication with other diners - yes, they certainly do, e.g. discussions that revolve around translations / interpretations of the Koran. Like I said, I'm totally fine with it - but I wanted to know whether there are "better" ways of addressing them. – D.Hutchinson Jan 19 '18 at 1:59
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It isn't at all uncommon to come across regional or local manners of address and many of these can feel odd or "more meaningful" to those unfamiliar to it. However these are really no different than the use of sir or miss/ma'am/madam which often seem too formal for people. Fairly common examples that I have heard used in English include love (luv), sweetie, honey (or hun), darling, friend or mate, in addition to the mentioned brother/sister (also bro/brah).

How do I communicate with someone who addresses me in a more meaningful way than I'm comfortable with? To be clear, I don't require that they stop calling me "brother", but rather how can I best respond to them in a way that mitigates any disrespect coming from my end, when I don't wish to address them as "brother", in return.

Their goal is not to make you uncomfortable, but rather to offer you at least a base level of respect in their dealings with you, as they likely do to any customer, especially regular ones. Yes, how they treat you may be part of their daily life according to worldview and/or religious beliefs but it really doesn't matter as you would likely get treated similarly even if it weren't. They are running a service business and want you feel welcome.

Simply be polite and respectful in return in a manner that is normal and comfortable to you (if nothing else, the use of please, excuse me, and thank you are a sound foundation).

The looks I get in return from them sometimes seem like disappointment ... or maybe even hurt.

It is more likely that you are projecting your expectations onto their responses. Again, they are running a business so they want to make sure you know you are welcome, respected, and valued. If they sense they are making you uncomfortable, their disappointment would more likely be based in not providing you the service they intended.

Lately, I've been going to a Middle Eastern restaurant a lot for dinner

Being a regular customer changes the dynamic of the service/customer relationship. They are going to recognize you and you will often get at least slightly better service and more attention than a complete stranger. It is not at all uncommon, and quite natural, for a more familiar relationship to develop in these situations.

For instance, they may start to address you by name, anticipate parts or all of your order (would you like XXX again?), or ask you questions based on information learned during previous visits (like your "how is school" example). Again the goal is to make you feel welcome, respected and valued.

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