Things NEVER to Say to a Foreign-Born Colleague

From "You speak English so well!" to "You must have a sad story to tell," blurting out phrases such as these to an immigrant coworker can be highly offensive. What other blunder might you unintentionally make?

Since 1 in 7 employees in the United States is foreign born, according to the Congressional Budget Office, you’re likely to work with someone whose origins are from another country (if you aren’t already). But that healthy workplace relationship can quickly turn sour because of a seemingly innocent remark or question made on your part. How to avoid this situation?

Click here to read “10 Things NEVER to Say to Latino Executives.”

Click here to read “10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker.”

As part of DiversityInc’s commitment to cultural competency in the workplace, here are things NEVER to say to foreign-born people:

You’re from _______, right?

Manny Fernandez, corporate inclusion and diversity director at jcpenney (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies), says a person’s country of origin shouldn’t really matter in the workplace. But if you feel compelled to ask where a coworker emigrated from, avoid jumping to conclusions. Fernandez was born in Cuba and moved to the United States as a child prior to the Cuban crisis of the late 1950s. Depending on where he lives, he says, people often get his country of origin wrong.

“I was raised in Miami, where Cubans are the majority, and have spent time in New York City and New Jersey, where people thought I was Puerto Rican,” says Fernandez, who now lives in Texas. There, “all Latinos are thought to be of Mexican descent, due to the proximity to the border.”

You must have such a sad story to tell.

Don’t assume that every immigrant was poor and destitute before arriving in America.Between 1962 and 1965, for example, about 200,000 of the wealthiest, most affluent Cubans relocated to the United States.

Mexican-bornRaul Magdeleno, associate director of diversity and community outreach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has witnessed this false assumption firsthand. “Not everyone who is foreign born has a story of survival,” he says. Although immigrants from a variety of countries report hearing this phrase, Magdeleno says that it “happens a lot with Mexican Americans.”

But you speak English so well!

Dr. Jane Junn, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, has encountered numerous people who (wrongfully) presume that because she’s Asian American, she can’t speak English very well. That’s an insult to an immigrant’s intelligence and education level. In reality, 12.5 percent of U.S. immigrants hold master’s degrees versus 8 percent of the native-born population, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.

But even if a colleague who wasn’t born in the United States speaks perfect English, it’s not something he or she necessarily wants to draw attention to or to be complimented on.

“People will sometimes say, ‘You speak English well for someone who isn’t U.S.-born,'” Junn says. “They think they’re being complimentary, but sometimes it’s perceived as anything but.”


  • Communication may be a hindrance at times.
    I am also an Asian and I don’t really think that I also do have a perfect English. SOme may be, but do they also expect perfectly with my native language :-p


  • I think, this is little too much, what’s wrong if someone says that I speak good English. I am proud to be bilingual. Even the native speakers do not speak perfect English. Perfect English is only in books, regular people speak the spoken language not literary.

  • My parents are immigrants from Latin America and neither has ever been complimented on how good their English is, and to tell you the truth, they feel kind of hurt about it! (Their English could stand improvement.) Some people like being complimented on their skills, imagine that! This site tells you to walk on eggshells around everyone whose Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, elderly, disabled, etc. If you lived by this site’s guidelines, you would essentially never have a normal relaxed informal conversation with anyone who’s different from you! Never say this, Never say that… Normal people aren’t as hyper-sensitive as this site’s articles suggest. I say, compliment when compliments are due. Sheesh.

  • I think what makes the phrase so off-putting is the “but” which begins the phrase, as if every foreign-born person must always struggle to use English. A rather better way to phrase it would be, “You have great speaking skills!” Or, “I’m impressed with your English!”, etc. These people who speak fabulous English deserve the praise, not the condescension.

    Likewise this has happened to me, a native English speaker who has learned Spanish, when in a setting where I am speaking Spanish with native speakers. Sometimes the compliments are endearing and great to hear, other times it’s insulting. It all comes down to how the intended compliment is phrased and timed. Don’t throw it into the conversation just because, rather talk about it when the topic of language comes up naturally.

    Furthermore to all the “does/don’ts” -it’s all enough to make you feel paranoid about talking to your co-workers, but it comes down to etiquette. There are lots of rules of etiquette that we learn as children which now come to us naturally, but there will be different types of people you don’t grow up with, and it is helpful to know what would come across as rude or inconsiderate when working, or even socializing, with those people.

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