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Monday, December 17, 2007

This is America: When Ordering, Please Speak English

I just read this article, about a cheese steak shop in Philly (Geno's) getting controversy over a sign "This is America: When Ordering, Please Speak English". I normally wouldn't have cared much to read the story, but I actually ate at the place once. Great cheese steaks. I don't remember reading the sign when I was there, but according to the article, it's been around since October 2005. But if I was, I don't think I'd be offended.

Obviously, since the customer is at Genos, he would be in America. And the "official language" in America is English. That's the language public schools teach in, the language the US government (outside of foreign initiatives) operates in. So personally, I don't think it's unreasonable to request the customers to order in English.

There were protests about that sign, holding their own signs such as "No Hate in Our Town", and there was an investigation "whether Vento violated a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation."

But based on the "This is America: When Ordering, Please Speak English" sign, what did it have to do with hate, discrimination of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? The only thing that it discriminates against are people who don't speak English. I DO admit that there's a fairly high correlation between "people who don't speak English" and certain racial groups, but English speaking abilities can be learned and changed, while "race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation" can't.

Lastly, when I went to the place with my racially diverse friends, I didn't feel intimidated or discriminated at all.


Blogger Nick Zorn said...

For the record, there is no "official language" of the United States.

12/17/2007 1:16 PM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

Totally right, my mistake, I meant "national language".

12/17/2007 1:22 PM  
Blogger Nick Zorn said...

Really I don't know that I would call it a "national language" either. It (English) is the predominant language of US citizens. This is so only because the founders of America were predominantly English-speakers. I think a lot of people overlook this fact. Regardless, people are protesting because this business is actively discriminating between two groups of people, and systematically refusing service to one of those groups. You might argue that they technically are not refusing service to anyone, only making the stipulation that the orders be in English. Obviously though, many feel that this stipulation is essentially a refusal to serve those that don't know English.

If Geno's management decides to only do business in English, that is perfectly OK. Whenever non-English speakers come into the establishment, simply say "I'm sorry we do not have anyone here who speaks that language". The customers will either find a way to order in English or will leave. However, saying "Don't come here if you don't speak English" is not OK, and thats why people are protesting. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing was a publicity stunt.

12/17/2007 2:40 PM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

Yes, they totally are discriminating people who do not speak English, never doubted that for a sec. I see it in the same sense as a lounge discriminates, or refusing service to people that wear shorts. Of course, the only variable is that it takes a few seconds to change into slacks, vs about 30 minutes to remember the line "cheese steak, American, without", which is how people order my fav cheese steak in South Philly, American cheese without onions.

I Do agree the sign is somewhat rude, I think less people would've been pissed if it said "Please speak English when ordering". But I see something like one level above a random diner with a sign saying "You're in Wisconsin, like cheese on everything or get out". At least Geno's used the world "Please" and didn't say "get out".

And about it being a publicity stunt, it definitely could be. But I don't know why they want the national exposure. Locally they're already famous, being one of the two 24/7 places on "cheese steak corner"

12/17/2007 3:53 PM  
Blogger Nick Zorn said...

I don't think this is at all on par with a club or establishment that enforces a dress code. As long as a dress code is specific and consistently enforced, it is not discrimination. When a dress code is used to target a certain group of people, it can be considered discrimination. A club that doesn't let you in because of your shorts is totally different than a club that doesn't let you in because of your dreadlocks, because a ban on dreadlocks is clearly targeted toward blacks.

Likewise there is a big difference between defining or standardizing your product (a Wisconsin shop saying "all our sandwiches come with cheese, no exceptions") and attempting to explicitly define your customer base.

Businesses are certainly allowed to use pricing and consumer demographics to target a certain audience. They just can't say "We only want to sell to X type of people" which is what has happened here.

12/17/2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

Of course business are allowed to say "We only want to sell to X type of people", as long as it's not based on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We see it all the time, such as discounts for people that're in school, only "children" can get kids' meals in restaurants, a family must make over a specific amount of money to be able to rent an apartment in this complex, etc, and they're all different variations of "X type of people".

Okay.....instead of standardizing the product, how about standardizing the way you order it? Which is ordering it the way it was written on the menu, which is in English?

How is a dress code not a discrimination? It's a discrimination upon people who are dressed in a certain way. And about dreadlocks is clearly targeted towards blacks......that's more hazy, because blacks don't "have to" have dreadlocks, but there's a higher correlation of blacks and dreadlocks. If that's the case, how about banning athletic-wear? Certain ethnic groups don't "have to" wear athletic-wear, but it has a higher correlation of specific ethnic groups wearing athletic-wear comparing to other ethnic groups? Where do you draw the line of "have to" vs "likely" vs "high correlation" vs "personal choice"?

And about specific and consistently enforced........I think the sign only discriminates against people that don't speak English, not race. If a European person who doesn't speak English comes up to the counter and asks for something in a non-English European language, I think s/he would face the same discrimination, specifically and consistently.

12/17/2007 5:06 PM  
Blogger Nick Zorn said...

You are still glossing over the fact that there is a fundamental difference between refusing service to someone based on their personal choices vs. based on their class (i.e. gender, ethnicity, nationality). Although you can group together all the people who wear shorts, surely you can see the difference between them and a group of people whose only commonality is ethnicity.

As to your apartment and kid's meal examples, businesses have the right to ensure suitability (i.e. my lender has a right to make sure I don't borrow way more than I can afford on my house. It isn't discrimination that they wouldn't let me buy a 1.2 million house in Ballantyne). However, they can't say that a certain class is unsuitable simply because they want to. I think it is clear that if my lender denied me credit only because of my native language, that would be illegal.

And thats what it all comes down to. Geno's decided that a certain class of people were not who they wanted to serve, and they made signs. It is clearly implicit from the signs that if you don't speak English - rather, are incapable of ordering in English - you don't need to bother walking in the store. On the bright side, they have now guaranteed that non-English speaking minorities will avoid Geno's like the plague. Mission accomplished?

P.S. "Higher correlation" of blacks and dreadlocks?!? Sounds like we need a study to analyze this further.

P.P.S. If you can't order in English already, how are you going to read the signs?

12/18/2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

"P.P.S. If you can't order in English already, how are you going to read the signs?" -- Yeah, I know, it's funny that people that truly should be offended aren't, and it's the other people that're "offended for them".

And I doubt we need a study to show that percentage wise, AA's have dreadlocks more than any other race.

But back to example, "not speaking English" is not a reflection on your gender, ethnicity, or nationality, because there're both men and women who don't speak English, whites (from Europe) whites (Europeans) and blacks (Africans) that don't speak English, and people who don't speak English from 90% of the nations.

"Suitability".......Isn't that just a random discrimination on what they think is "unsuitable"? Such as your lender discriminates against people that make under a specific amount for the process of loaning out $1.2 million? And I think he would easily legally denied you credit if you didn't ask him in English. I guess down south, the word "discrimination" has a connotation of race, gender, or sexual orientation. But setting a business rule "only this type of people are served" is perfectly fine, as long as "this type" isn't one of the listed types above. The "type" could be people above 6', people that wear jeans, people who are non-smokers, etc. And I think "people who order in English" definitely fits in that category. Like I said before, learning the phrase "cheese steak, American, without" isn't too much more troublesome than taking off your shorts and putting on some pants.

12/18/2007 10:27 AM  
Blogger Nick Zorn said...

"But back to example, "not speaking English" is not a reflection on your gender, ethnicity, or nationality..." - Seems to me that there would be a "high correlation" between being from another country and ability to speak English, especially when compared to the ability of Americans to speak English. If not a "high correlation" then certainly at least some correlation there.

"...your lender discriminates against people that make under a specific amount for the process of loaning out $1.2 million..." - You are interchanging the two definitions of discriminate.

Discriminate - from American Heritage Dictionary via

1. The act of discriminating.

2. The ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment.

3. Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice: racial discrimination; discrimination against foreigners.

(Italicized text denotes their examples, not mine)

Definition 3 is the one that I am using. If my lender denies my loan application because I don't make enough money, he has studied my individual merit and after careful discrimination (Definition 2) decided that I do not qualify. If he denies my loan application because I am white, or Asian, or an (legal) immigrant, that is discrimination (Definition 3).

I think we both agree that Definition 3 is bad, while Definition 2 is basically the ability to differentiate between two different things. Like 2 different meanings of the same word.

Getting back to the signs, if Geno's had handled non-English speakers on an individual, case-by-case basis, and simply said, "I don't understand you, I'm sorry I can't help you", nobody would be complaining. By treating non-English speakers as a class or category, and making them unwelcome they have opened themselves up to claims of discrimination (Definition 3).

12/18/2007 11:27 AM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

Completely understand the negative connotations of the word "discrimination". If the denotation actually says something about "unfair" or "racial", then I don't think what Geno's doing is discrimination at all.

I personally would define English speaking skills as a "merit", even though a very basic one. I totally agree that "foreigners" have a higher corralation with "not speaking English", but then again, certain ethnic groups have a "higher correlation" with athletic wear, is it the same type of "discrimination" if a lounge has a sign that says "no athletic wear" instead of "handling people wearing sports jerseys on a case-by-case basis and saying 'you're not dressed to code, I'm sorry I can't help you'." As stated before, when does the line blur between discrimination and high correlation? Isn't saying "no athletic-wear" also treating people wearing athletic clothing as a "class or category", and making them feel welcome? Why is one acceptable and another isn't?

12/18/2007 11:46 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Personally, I think this is a terrible example of discrimination because it seems to me that they are not trying to prohibit people from ordering in spanish or chinese but rather trying to show their 'patriotism' through the eyes of a bigot. It's clearly unaccepting of people that don't speak English and is an obvious statement against those that are new to this country, whether legal or illegal.

While I think it's shameful for a business to preach such anti-foreign sentiment, I feel its a perfectly legal form of indirect discrimination. There are a couple of examples of people being refused service in a private establishment and it being upheld as legal and there are others where its been ruled as illegal. Here's some examples:
The Right to Refuse Service

It seems the trend is that it is illegal if it blatantly discriminates against any of the 'protected classes' but is legal if allowing such access disrupts or prohibits the business from running its business.

In this particular case, it doesn't actually discriminate but rather states the ground rules that must be followed for a transaction. Legally, I don't think its any different than saying "We do not accept checks". Ethically, I think its a disgusting display of an American Supremacists (if that's a word) attitude that really has no place in what is supposedly an accepting society.

12/18/2007 12:33 PM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

Totally agree, Andrew. That sign was definitely ethnocentric. But it's no different in being expected to order food in French while in France, or Chinese when you're in China.

But yeah, the sign could've been a little politer, could've said something like "Please order in English", and less people would've been pissed, and it accomplishes the same thing.

12/19/2007 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting all the reflection about this ridiculous sign. i live in a country where the tourists, many of them of English speech, can order in the language which they know, and people try to understand the needs it and to please the request. We do not have sign that say "order in Spanish". And another thing, I am sure that those that cut the onions and prepare these sandwish, speak other languages, and rarely english, so, i'm sure lenguage won't be a problem when hiring workers you can pay low salary.

3/23/2008 10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

another case could be, "mute and deaf people please order in english"

3/23/2008 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excuse me for the gramma mistakes i possibly did, trying to express myself in english. , I hope you could understand what I meant to say. But this is the english i had learnd learned trying to understand the english speakers visitors and resident in this free caribean country.

3/23/2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger Paul Zhao said...

I've actually been to the place, the workers that cut onions and take orders look like the typical "American", with the North East attitude "What do ya want" type thing.

3/23/2008 11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to the place too, and i know what i'm saying, i'm sure he have foreigner employers, that is what make the business grow in america. The ambivalence and hypocricy politics of north america.
Not me, but maybe you can give him the idea of ordering typing English.
USA is the only country where you can find this kind of sign,others country don't feel the threatened of a language.

3/24/2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

If you think Geno's steaks are great, you're wrong about a lot of things. Geno's steaks are average at best, and most nights below average. It's just popular with tourists (no offense) which is why the "Speak English" sign is so ironic.

Next time go to Tony Luke's or John's Roast Pork if you want a "great" cheese steak.

1/08/2009 10:10 AM  
Anonymous fenfen said...

I agree with you. I am sick of people who can't speak English. Here in Vegas, many people only offer services in Spanish, not in English. What the hell is that, right? I wasted my 10 years to learn English to come to America and all of the sudden, I have to learn Spanish?! There are so many free English classes, my mom took them. It's not that they can't learn English, they simply just don't want to! Try living in another country and not learn their language, would they be pissed? hell yea. This is not about racism, it's about respect and opening your mind to other cultures instead of your own, that way, we'll come to an understanding instead of being ignorant. It is so easy to blame it all on racism, so that they could walk away from the problems (instead of talking about the problems, they talk about racism).

2/12/2009 5:33 PM  

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