Q: A new colleague at work has an unusual last name. I asked her what nationality it was, and she told me. Then a coworker pulled me aside and said the question was offensive. I disagreed. Who’s right?
A: You are-assuming you phrased your question in a way that showed respectful interest: “I’ve never heard your last name before. It’s really interesting. What is it’s origin?” But if you had asked in a voice that sounded judgemental-“What kind of name is that?”-then your question would have been offensive. So the old adage applies: It’s not just what you say that counts-it’s also the way you say it.