You’ve Got The Look

This is an actual conversation that happened earlier tonight, when I brought a friend as my guest to the health club where I take Zumba classes. The guy in the membership department was leading us to his desk so he could get her information for the system, and as we were walking he said to me,

“Are you Greek?”

I laughed a little bit (I’ll tell you why in a minute) and said, “Nope!”

He said, “You’re NOT Greek?”

I repeated, “Nope! Why?”

“Because you look Greek.”

My face must have suddenly displayed some kind of weird expression because he said, “Would that be so bad?”

“No!” I said.

Backstory: The reason I laughed when he asked me if I am Greek is because I have been gifted with lots of great Greek friends, Greek experiences, and other Greek miscellanea over the course of my long life, starting with my eighth grade crush and, as recently as last year, a warm and fuzzy experience touring the new National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. That visit resulted in correspondence from several members of Chicago’s Greek community, expressing appreciation for the coverage and generally saying lots of nice things to me. One of them even told me that my name–which I already knew means “honeybee”–is actually the GREEK word for “honeybee” (but you have to put the emphasis on the ME in MElisa). Anyway, since that museum visit and subsequent love from the Greek community, I joke with my sister all the time about how I’m really popular with the Greeks. So that’s why I laughed when the guy at the health club asked me if I was Greek: I’m not, and NO, it wouldn’t be so bad at all. I bet I’d fit right in. The weird expression on my face was probably caused by the split-second thought I had: “Does this still really happen?? UGH.”

You see, if I had a dollar for every time THIS conversation happened, I’d be rich:

“You’re Jewish?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am!”
“You can’t be…you don’t LOOK Jewish…”


By the way, contrary to that oft-repeated conversation, I have also been told–many times–that I look “very Jewish”. And I’ve also been told that I look Italian.

Being told that I look, or don’t look, a certain way doesn’t bother me much. As an adult I’ve never encountered anyone who meant any harm in asking. (Don’t get me started on my tween/teen years, though.) The thing is, I just don’t get why people even bother asking in the first place. I could understand if I were having a conversation with someone I consider to be a friend and it came up at some point; in that case it would be a good conversation and much more than a single, simple question and answer. More often than not, though, the question comes from strangers. Why? Is it to fill awkward silence? To make small talk? To try and find a commonality?

I’m not really sure. All I know is, when strangers ask questions or make comments about my religion or ethnicity based on how I look or don’t look, it’s really hard to find a graceful exit to that part of the conversation.


  • Joan

    I often get “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” from strangers. Even now. What do you say to that? I’ve often wanted to reply, “No, I’m an American,” but don’t want to come off as a smarty pants. It is awkward and hard to retreat from conversations like this.

  • Flawless Mom

    I have actually SAID that to several people. Usually it’s to a friend I’ve had a few “dates” with, and they look rather… Um… White? Aryan? Danish? I don’t know… And they’ll say something about temple or being a “tribe member” and I’ll say, “Wait, you’re Jewish?? You don’t LOOK Jewish!” Then I hate myself and explain why I’m saying that and it really does always sound awful. However… No one, and I mean NO ONE has ever been surprised when I say I am Jewish. So, my conclusion? I totally look Jewish. (Even after the nose job.)

    • Melisa

      Wait…I think you said that to ME!!! haha
      But I think it just seems a whole lot more acceptable for some reason if you’re talking to a friend anyway, where there’s an established level of comfort.

      Hey, I have an idea: you need to get your hubby working on a show called, “You Don’t Look It!” Imagine the hilarity and awkwardness that would ensue! 🙂

  • melissa

    I’ve gotten the “are you Greek” before. And…OMG, you are SO NOT Jewish, too. Also, I’ve had people start talking to me in Arabic because they thought I was. It’s funny, stereotypes are so NOT right.

  • Abigail

    I used to get “are you Polish?” all the time when I’d wear my name tag with my last name in flight. I’m not, and in fact, the name isn’t even Polish, it’s Hungarian. I’d say that and then I usually got “oh well you look Polish.”

    I suppose that’s a compliment? I’m not entirely sure though by the way it was usually said. Strangers are strange.