MV Ps and Qs: Do you have papers?

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole:
I am a teenager, Vineyard-born, of Mexican parents; I am bilingual (no accent in either language), and have lived and gone to school in both countries. My summer job here involves contact with many tourists, and this past summer, I was asked more than once, “Do you have your papers?”
I find this incredibly insulting. The answer is yes, of course, but what business is it of anyone’s? And yet my job, in the service industry, requires me to “serve the needs of the customer,” and saying, “It’s none of your business” isn’t good customer service. What’s an appropriate response? Thanks.

Dear X:
I’m sorry that’s happened to you.
You shouldn’t ever have to deal with inappropriate behavior on the job, unless your job is literally to deal with inappropriate behavior (like a bar bouncer, or a cop, or a rodeo clown). You should not have to shrug off xenophobic behavior to “keep the customer happy” any more than a female employee should have to shrug off sexist behavior to “keep the customer happy.” I hope you already know that.
But you’re right that telling them it’s none of their business isn’t good customer service. Instead, smile politely and say, “Why do you ask?”
Ask them without one iota of defensiveness or irritation. Ask it like a genuine question, like you have no idea why they’d be asking, but you’re cheerfully intrigued to hear what will surely be a great answer. Because you never know, right? Maybe they’re a newly minted immigration lawyer looking for new clients. Or maybe an undercover journalist seeking undocumented immigrants to interview for the Economist. Or maybe they think you’re cute but they’re sooooo socially awkward and lame and that’s the best pickup line they could come up with.
Probably not, I admit. Probably, they’re just rude and clueless, and actually feel entitled to ask about something that isn’t their business. All the more reason to keep your smiley-happy face on. If they’re trying to bait you, don’t rise to the bait.
When you refuse to acknowledge their passive-aggressive negativity, you are giving them a generous gift: the opportunity to pretend they didn’t mean it. (To be clear, they don’t actually deserve this generosity, but give it to them anyhow because it makes your job easier.)
If they pick up on your “don’t-go-there” vibe and play along, they will immediately adjust their behavior. They might apologize. They might pretend they never asked. They might claim they’re a newly minted immigration lawyer seeking clients.
But if they persist in questioning you, it’s time for a warning shot across their bow. In the spirit of excellent customer service, make sure you do not call out their crudeness directly. Indirectly, though, is fine. Here are some examples:
“We native-born Vineyarders don’t actually have special birth certificates, that’s just a myth to make tourists look stupid when they ask.”
“What a funny question! Where are you from? We don’t ask each other things like that here.”
“You mean like for roll-up cigarettes? I don’t smoke, but if you need a fix, my boss has some Marlboro Lights under the counter that I can sell you. I just need to see some identification.”

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask bestselling novelist and Shakespeare for the Masses co-creator Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Her upcoming novel, “On the Same Page,” is set on the Island in winter, and comes out on New Year’s Eve from William Morrow. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to