24

I am not a native English speaker; I am not sure how to interpret such an event. For example, suppose I approach my friend to say hello; suppose he is together with someone I don't know; suppose this someone says "who is this" in normal tone to us. Then should I assume that this someone is not a friendly one? Or is it just a way to start a conversation popular for young people?

Knowing the underlying implicit rule is not just about I-assuring-myself thing; I do not hope I misuse this phrase to offend someone else unknowingly to myself :).

  • 3
    Note that "who is this?" has a different tone on the phone and in your situation. On the phone, when you're asking who is calling, the stress goes on the word "is". In person, when you've seen an unfamiliar person and you're asking who that person is, the stress goes on the word "this". – Tanner Swett Jun 7 '17 at 12:12
  • 4
    It is considered impolite in many cultures to refer to an individual in 3rd person (he/she, this, that guy) when the individual is a part of the conversation (in this case, that individual is you). I think that it is not about English language, but about general culture. – Ivan Aksamentov - Drop Jun 8 '17 at 8:53

13 Answers 13

10

This is a fairly nuanced question and warrants a more detailed answer, in my opinion. None of the other answers address passive-aggression. I know this is a lot of information, but I hope it helps some.

Short Answer

  • This is, by definition, not rudeness. It is likely either adherence to traditional norms (expecting an introduction via your friend), introversion (a personality trait), professionalism (a set of social norms specific to the workplace), or passive-aggressive behavior (hostility without confrontation).
  • Try to give people the benefit of the doubt. If you're going to make an assumption, assume the best possible interpretation of an interaction is true until you find reason to do otherwise.
  • Given the above two points: your friend's friend is either old-fashioned (see comments) or an introvert. Either way, I see this as harmless.

Definitions

These are fairly complex concepts; there's no need to read the entire articles. However, if you want to get better at interpreting people's social behavior, you would do well to understand these things on a basic level.

Rudeness

A display of disrespect by not complying with the social norms or etiquette of a group or culture. Rudeness, particularly with respect to speech, is necessarily confrontational at its core.

Passive-aggressive behavior

The indirect expression of hostility, such as through [...] deliberate [...] failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible (i.e. social norms)

Introversion

Introversion is the state of being predominantly interested in one's own mental self. Introverts are typically perceived as more reserved or reflective. Some popular psychologists have characterized introverts as people whose energy tends to expand through reflection and dwindle during interaction.

Note that while introversion is not necessarily rude or passive-aggressive, the behaviors of introverted people are often interpreted as such, which is why I've defined all three here. It's perhaps the most difficult of the three to understand.

More Detail

Given the above definitions and what you've described, this does not sound rude to me, as the person in question was not confrontational. It would have been rude to say to you, "What do you want?!", or, "Who's this schmuck?" as those are confrontational.

Turning to your friend and asking for your name could simply be preparation for formalities. If it's in a professional setting, it could simply be the person wanting to address you by your name, know your position/department, or something similar. They wouldn't want to be overly casual with a director or manager, or overly formal with an intern.

If you sensed hostility from the person, passive-aggressive behavior more closely fits the bill in the situation you've described. While it is sadly common among American young people, this is dangerous to assume.

In general, try to give the benefit of the doubt (i.e. take the most positive interpretation in uncertain situations) when meeting new people. I would interpret this as introversion until they display signs of one of the other two descriptions (i.e. rudeness or passive-aggressive). It's quite harsh to judge a person as "unfriendly" in general based on such a short interaction. It depends quite a bit on the context and the person's body language/tone, as others have said. I think you'll know with more certainty which it was once you know the person better.

The "Expected Behavior"

The "proper" thing for this person to do, in modern society, would have been to address you directly with an introduction. Something like:

Hello! I don't believe we've met. I'm CaptainMarvel, and you are?

As pointed out by @StephenR (in the comments), it's more traditional for your friend to make the introduction.

  • 2
    THis could be reading too much into the situation. I could easily imagine approaching two people in conversation, one of whom was my friend and the other a stranger, and hearing the stranger remark, "... and who's this?" This would not be rude or introverted, but rather a casual remark in conversation. – Darren Ringer Jun 6 '17 at 20:58
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    As a “young person”, I think the tone used is key. At a party (say) I’m likely to meet new people, and often without being introduced. I would try to keep the tone light, and make sure that my voice rises in pitch more than a standard question- to convey the fact that I’m interested in who they are. – Tim Jun 6 '17 at 22:50
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    I think your three personality types are a useful framework, but I think there are other possible nuances of the interaction (in particular, it can be flirtatious); I also think it's bad advice to language learners to say that the behavior is categorically not rudeness, because it's really not at all best practice to talk about someone who's standing right there in front of you. – 1006a Jun 7 '17 at 4:23
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    Passive-Agressive behaviour is a subtype of rude. Very few cultures would not consider disrespectful such behaviour. – Mindwin Jun 7 '17 at 10:47
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    Also worth considering: The person asking might simply be old-fashioned. Traditional manners suggest that you ask for an introduction, rather than being so forward as to introduce yourself. – Stephen R Jun 7 '17 at 15:45
18

Who is this? is curt. Depending on the tone of voice/intonation, it could be perceived as rude.

And who is this? makes it less curt.

And who might this be? is also less curt and expresses interest.

P.S. How these questions are perceived will depend on social cues and your demeanor when asking, such as whether you meet the gaze of the person you're asking about and whether you smile.

  • 1
    Thank you for the detailed works. Would you say it has got no chance of offending others in everyday life? I mean if not in a professional or commercial or formal occasion? – Gary Moore Jun 6 '17 at 15:22
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    @EricClapton It has the potential to offend people if your tone is hostile. With a cheery/interested tone, I doubt anyone would be offended. I sure wouldn't be, at least. – Feathercrown Jun 6 '17 at 16:15
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    No, I would not say that it has "no chance" of offending. You're indirectly saying to your friend that the introduction should have been made already, right? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 6 '17 at 16:18
  • I don't know if it's just me, but "And who might this be?" sounds to me like what the agent of an intelligence agency would say if I randomly interrupted his semi-private conversation... – Mehrdad Jun 7 '17 at 11:49
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    @Mehrdad: It's just you. A grandmother could say "And who might this be?" when there is a chance encounter in which there is a person known to her and a person unknown to her. It is a goodnatured way of asking for introductions to be made. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 7 '17 at 11:59
11

Whether a question like this is rude depends on tone of voice, body language, etc. Almost any statement or question could be polite or rude depending on how it is asked.

In general, if Al and Betty approach Carl, and Carl knows Al but he does not know Betty, he might very well politely ask Al, "Oh, who is this?" Al would then reply, "This is Betty. She just joined the company" or whatever.

On the other hand, if Al and Betty approach Carl, Carl knows Al but not Betty, and Betty starts expressing an opinion that Carl doesn't like, he might angrily ask, "Who is this?" meaning, "Who is this person you have brought into this conversation and why should I care what she thinks?"

10

I disagree with the other answers that say it isn't rude. "Who is this" is almost always rude in that situation.

It is rude to talk about anyone in front of them leaving them out of the conversation. It's no different than saying "his shirt looks nice" while standing next to someone.

One should always talk to a person, not about them if they are in earshot. So you should always say something like "Hi we have not met", or ask about the person discreetly out of earshot.

  • 5
    I've upvoted this answer, because I think from the point of view of advice on what to do this is correct. On the other hand, from the point of view of how to interpret what someone else does I would want to err on the side of "maybe the person is just awkward in social situations, and didn't realize this would come across as rude". – 1006a Jun 7 '17 at 4:18
7

There seem to be two parts to your question:

  1. How should this interaction be interpreted?

  2. Can/should I use this phrase in similar situations?

Taking the second question first, no, you probably should not use the phrase if you can think of a better way of expressing yourself. Traditionally, the more polite question to ask would be

[Common acquaintance's name], will you/would you introduce us?

You should avoid asking your acquaintance "who is this?" because it generally isn't polite to talk about someone in their presence and because, as you have noticed, this action can be taken the wrong way by the other person.

In general, your common acquaintance should spontaneously introduce you and a third party. If that person forgets, you have a few options besides the question above.

  • You can try giving them a gentle, subtle reminder—clear your throat, raise your eyebrows, maybe literally nudge the person if you're intimate (like if the common acquaintance is your spouse).

    • Avoid these if the person who should be making the introduction is not someone you would ordinarily "cue" in this way (like someone who you've just met, or your boss's boss).
  • If that doesn't work, or you aren't comfortable attempting these silent forms of communication, then in some situations you can wait for a break in the conversation and introduce yourself directly to the new person: "Hi, I don't think we've been introduced, I'm 1006a!"

    • This is best in casual or intentionally social interactions—when you run into someone out shopping, or are mingling at a party. It's not great for very formal situations; you probably wouldn't want to introduce yourself to the Queen of England this way.
  • Finally, it is entirely acceptable to simply wait patiently until you are again alone with the other person and, when you're out of earshot, ask "who was that?"
    • This is sometimes my approach if I suspect that maybe I have met the other person, and just don't remember. It's also probably best if there might be a deliberate reason to not introduce you (like you've just run into your buddy, the undercover cop, or you and your boss run into her boss's boss).

As for your second question, there are many, many possible interpretations of this interaction, ranging from

Who the @#$% is this, and why the %#$@ are you talking to them instead of me?! [aggressive and intentionally rude]

to

Who is this lovely creature, and where has s/he been all my life? [flirtatious, and borderline rude depending on how welcome the flirtation is]

with stops in between at

Yo, buddy/Um, honey, who is this? We've been eyeing each other for ten minutes and you still haven't remembered to introduce us. [intended to be polite, if not very smooth]

and

(Why isn't he introducing us? Am I too embarrassing to introduce? Maybe I'm supposed to introduce myself. How do I do that? Oh, no, have we already been introduced and I've just forgotten?) Who is this? (Oh, god, did I say that out loud?) [again, intended to be polite, but kind of awkward]

There are undoubtedly other possible interpretations, as well. Sometimes it will be clear from tone of voice, body language, and context, but not always. When in doubt, it's probably best to assume that the person had neutral, polite intentions. Either you won't see the person again, in which case it doesn't matter, or you will see them again, and then you'll be able to get a better sense of their intentions towards you.

  • 1
    +1 for intended to be polite, if not very smooth and for when in doubt, it's probably best to assume that the person had neutral, polite intentions. (The rest of the answer is good, too, but those are excellent points.) – J.R. Jun 7 '17 at 18:28
5

This is a truly fascinating question, and despite the wealth of informative answers it has attracted, I believe there is still a little more about the situation that is worth saying; so here is my two cents worth:

I'd firstly like to make the point that rudeness can be quite a subjective thing and there are several considerations to answering the question "how can we judge whether something is rude or not?"

  1. Does it appear rude to you?

    If, despite unfamiliarity with culture or language, it appears rude to you, it probably is. We pick up a lot of things subconciously, particularly body-language; and while these things can be misleading in very different cultures, often first impressions are accurate in this regard. Clearly you are not a person that is content with making your own subjective judgment on the matter (although others might be), but that still leaves two other options with a little bit of nuance between them:

  2. Did the speaker mean to be rude?

    I think this is really what you want to know; but sometimes it is very difficult to discern someone else's motivations, particularly in an unfamiliar cultural setting. As CaptainMarvel has pointed out, what might be rude from someone, might merely be the product of introversion from someone else. To this, I would add anyone with low EQ who is not so sensitive to social cues, as some of these people aren't actually introverts at all, but, despite being native speakers, they just haven't mastered social niceities (introverts actually tend to be more sensitive about such things on the whole, but in the case in point, it is quite possible they would feel shy about asking a stranger a question). For your particular example I will say one thing in a minute that could provide a clue in this regard, but before I do, in regard to the general case, let's consider the last point:

  3. Does it appear rude to other native speakers?

    In many circumstances, you may find that this is an easier question to answer than the preceding. People tend not to hide the emotions and body language that come from the shock, embarrassment or odious sycophancy that are typical reponses to the kind of rudeness that would be unambiguous to natives. Look for heads turning towards to the speaker with open mouths for shock (maybe even with the palms up "what the hell??" gesture or even giving them a slap); eyes averted, fidgety motions for embarrassment; as for odious sycophancy, if you see the body language that might be associated with gang-related behaviour, prepare yourself as the situation could quickly get a whole lot more unpleasant - to the extent that you are not likely to be left in any doubt about the intended level of rudeness for much longer. If on the other hand, you don't see anything like this, then it's quite possible that no rudeness was intended.

Now to the specific case you raise:

Would saying “who is this” in normal tone be rude in an occasion not on the phone?

You've got so much great information on this already from the other answers, which if I could boil it down, seems (to me at least) to amount to: mostly yes, but sometimes no, depending on the way it's asked.

My contribution to discerning the difference is this:

Assuming the person does not have low EQ (if you can converse with them for a while, you'll probably be able to tell if they do), the tone is the key. You've said "a normal tone", but the "normal" tone for rudeness is subtly different to the "normal" tone for polite enquiry. The latter is a little more easy to recognise - there should be a definite rising inflection on "this" that indicates a genuine question (curiously, the level of curiosity can be indicated by the extent that the inflection rises). If, on the other hand, someone is being deliberately rude, it is highly likely that there will be no rising inflection, and there may even be a clipped tone, downward inflection or increased emphasis on a particular word, any of which are subtle cues that this is not actually a polite and genuine question.

  • I really like your approach this answer, but I disagree with some of your conclusions – which I suppose supports your larger point, that rudeness is often contextual and cultural. While I agree there may be politer ways to phrase it, I wouldn't be offended in the least if a stranger pointed a thumb at me and asked my friend, "Who is this?" – but then again, I'm not easily offended and I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. – J.R. Jun 7 '17 at 21:02
4

I think there is an overlooked meaning in all the existing answers (before 1006a beat me to it) where "Who is this?" is used to admonish your friend for not yet introducing you to the unknown person.

In this case, it could be seen as mildly rude to your friend but polite to the person your friend is (rudely) leaving out of the conversation.

The key to making this polite is to also include something to show you expect an introduction or simply address the newcomer directly.
Eg

Friend: Hi, do you have plans for later?
You: Never mind that. Who is this and why haven't you introduced us?
You (to stranger): Hello, I'm [your name here].

  • Oh great. Yes, this is inspiring. Thks. Never thought of this possibility :). It was my friend who should feel offended (kidding) :D – Gary Moore Jun 7 '17 at 15:52
3

"Who is this?" is probably a neutral question that was not meant to cause offense.

However, "Who is this?", with emphasis on the verb, would indeed be rude and condescending. The implied question, in that case, would be: "Why is this person here?"

Therefore, as long as there is no emphasis placed on is, it's fine. If you wanted to rephrase the question to remove all doubt about politeness, you could say instead:

"Could you introduce me to your friend here?"

Or, if answering the phone,

"May I know who is calling?"

1

It is very okay. In this case I am assuming the other person has no background of you and is worried that the conversation he was having with the other friend was confidential. So it is in order for him to ask about you so as to know whether to carry on with the conversation or not.

  • Thank you. Is that the only reason? If not, would it still be okay for other reasons? – Gary Moore Jun 6 '17 at 14:57
  • 1
    It's okay for many reasons. There is nothing rude about it, particularly among friends. – J.R. Jun 6 '17 at 14:57
  • @J.R., Thanks, your answer belongs to what I expected. Nothing rude, great – Gary Moore Jun 6 '17 at 15:00
1

While "Who is this?" might possibly be taken as rudeness, simply introducing yourself to the other person is almost certainly never rude, and invites them to reciprocate by introducing themselves too.

Adam and Charles both know Beth, but not each other:
Adam: Hi, I'm Adam.
Charles: Hi, Adam, I'm Charles. It's nice to meet you.

The only caveat with this approach is "jumping the gun" if Beth was supposed to offer the introductions, but that should only apply in very formal situations.

1

There are two other interpretations of this that nobody else seems to have covered:

Interpretation 1: Alice and Bob are talking/sat together etc. Chris approaches and starts talking to Alice. Bob (Worried that Alice is more interested in Chris that him) might say "Who is this" as a reminder to Alice that she is there with him.

This would be seen as rude and most likely would be said in a aggressive tone.

Interpretation 2: Alice and Bob are talking/sat together etc. Chris approaches and starts talking to Bob. Alice (Knowing that Bob is bad at making introductions) might say "Who is this" as a reminder to Bob that she doesn't know Chris and he should therefore introduce them

In this situation Alice would be aiming the comment at Bob and it should be clear that there is no aggression / malice aimed at Chris, As OP stated the phrase was in a normal tone I would tend to assume that it is this situation - It may be that Bob has not thought about making introductions because he assumes Alice & Chris already know each other (They may all go to the same college / be interested in the same hobby etc)

1

It could that your friend can't remember Who is this?'s name, which could be the reason they haven't introduced the two of you.

To avoid any awkwardness, you could introduce yourself and learn Who is this?'s name which allows your friend to save face and re-store their memory.

;-)

  • 1
    Welcome to ELL Angie. This doesn't really answer the question, which is whether it was rude or not, and not so much about what they should do instead. The author is trying to make sure they aren't misusing an English phrase and not necessarily looking for advice on how to behave. – ColleenV Jun 8 '17 at 11:45
  • @ColleenV I suppose this really should have been a comment but as a comment it would have been fine. An upvote from me should allow angie M to comment next time.:) – DRF Jun 8 '17 at 14:27
  • @DRF While it's great that you want to help Angie out, you should upvote content, not people. I'm sure it will be no time at all before Angie earns enough reputation through their contributions to unlock plenty of privileges ;) – ColleenV Jun 8 '17 at 15:31
  • @ColleenV You are right of course. Though you've brought a new point to my mind by your comment. I'm a big proponent of using singular they for eliding gender and it sounds good to me in most constructions with an indeterminate subject such as "The student responsible must come forward. It is their duty." But using it in the way you did sounds super wrong. Even though I understand the use and could produce it by consciously wanting to avoid a gendered pronoun it nonetheless sounds ungrammatical. I think I might post on ELU asking about this. – DRF Jun 8 '17 at 19:27
  • @DRF Singular they is simply a habit I developed from a long history of interacting with anonymous folks online. I have often made the mistake (and probably still do sometimes) of assuming the picture in my head matches how someone sees themselves online, so I've developed some tics to try to remind myself not to presume. I play a lot of video games as well, where you need to separate the avatar's gender from the person's gender. Language shapes the way we think, so grammar isn't always my top priority :) – ColleenV Jun 8 '17 at 19:49
-2

Key difference here is phone vs personal conversation.

It is Ok to refer to someone that you can only hear as "this", like "Whose voice is this"?

And it is definitely rude to refer to a person in front of you in third person.

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