“Your English is so good”

What would be the conditions for it to be OK to congratulate someone on their English on first encounter? I don’t somehow think it’s enough that they might be just someone one meets in a country where English isn’t … and as soon as I begin to write this sentence I feel stalled because I don’t know how to finish it. Does it mean that all compliments should only be made to people one knows well enough to know that there are circumstances in their life which mean that it would be well-received? For example, I can compliment one of my students on their writing because I know that they’ve been working hard to perfect it – or on their English because I know they’ve been studying hard in a language school to get to this level.

Does this mean that in all interactions we need to research carefully the people we are interacting with to make sure that we aren’t jumping to knee-jerk, easy, essentialist assumptions based on uncriticised grand narratives and stereotypes? This is surely how we deal with grand narratives – with taken-for-granted stories about who we are in the world.

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