Shopping while bilingual can make you sick

WSB TV report: Apple discriminates against Persian-speaking customers

I’ve just found an e-mail from Apple in my spam folder with a ‘personal’ invitation to attend one of their new store openings in Sydney. I’m not going for two reasons: first, Apple has not yet done anything to improve working conditions in their Chinese supplier factories. I keep checking up on Apple’s progress towards improving working conditions at and might consider their invitation once I see some progress there. The second reason I’m not going is that one of my family languages is Persian and I have no desire of entering potentially discriminatory situations if I can avoid it.

I’m referring to the case of Sahar Sabet, a bilingual (English-Persian) US-American woman who was recently refused the purchase of an ipad in an Apple store in Atlanta, Georgia. According to media reports (e.g., BBC, International Business Times, MSBC), Sahar, a 2nd-generation American with an Iranian background, was shopping in an Apple store together with an uncle visiting from Iran. She had an extensive service interaction about two different versions of ipad with a salesperson there in English, finally made up her mind and was just about to make her purchase, when her uncle asked her in Persian about the price of another product he was looking at. She responded in Persian and, at the sound of another language, the salesperson immediately asked what language they were speaking.

Sahar told him and added helpfully that Persian was a language spoken in Iran. At that the salesperson declared that she could not purchase her ipad “because Iran and the US don’t have good relations with each other.” The store manager backed the salesperson’s decision – made on no other grounds than speaking Persian to another potential customer – and Sahar left the store without her ipad and in tears.

However, she did not just leave it at that but called up Apple’s customer relations office, who apologized and recommended ordering an ipad over the internet (if you are not an embodied customer, you can’t be discriminated against …). Sahar also called Atlanta’s TV news station WSB-TV, who picked up the story and brought it to international attention (in addition to English-language media, I’ve also seen the story in the German (e.g., Spiegel) and Persian (e.g., BBC Farsi) language media). The statement Sahar made about the incident through her attorney can be found here.

While Sahar chose to speak out about the discrimination she experienced, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) says that her experience is not unusual. It is not unusual because companies are walking a fine line between either falling foul of civil liberty legislation (discrimination is illegal) or falling foul of strict US export regulations relative to countries subject to broad economic sanctions, such as Iran. So, while it’s of course perfectly legal for Apple to sell their products to anyone in the USA (as the State Department was quick to point out after the incident hit the headlines), they are required not to if they have grounds to suspect that the customer might intend to import the product to Iran – an offence carrying heavy penalties, as in this recent case. Given such drastic penalties, it seems that some companies or individual employees reckon that breeching civil liberties legislation is not as bad as breeching export restriction legislation.

Persian-speakers are not the only ones in the USA to experience discrimination in service encounters on the basis of language, as is well documented – the 2nd edition of Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an accent has just come out for anyone who needs a refresher. A recent study (Yoo et al. 2008) reports that 12% of the Asian-Americans they surveyed reported having experienced discrimination on the basis of language in a service encounter (in a health care context) in the past two years. This was more than those who reported that they had experienced discrimination on the basis of race. Even more intriguingly, the researchers found that there was a statistically significant correlation between having experienced language discrimination (above and beyond the effects resulting from having experienced racial discrimination) and health: those who reported having experienced language discrimination in service encounters in the past two years were more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, and this effect increased the longer they had been in the country.

Good on Sahar for kicking up a fuss! Hopefully, her attitude will keep her from getting sick from shopping! Hyung Chol Yoo, Gilbert C. Gee, & David Takeuchi (2008). Discrimination and health among Asian American immigrants: Disentangling racial from language discrimination Social Science & Medicine, 68 (4), 726-732 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.11.013

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • vahid

    Dear Ingrid, Thank you for wrting on/about the event in question. A great post with an insightful analysis, indeed. I’ll share it.

  • I find the link between the experience of language discrimination and health interesting. Most of my ELT MA students here in Bangkok are English-as-additional-language speakers, and some of them constantly and extensively speak of their lack of ‘authentic’ English or accent which has been pointed out, either explicitly or implicitly, by ‘native speakers’ as the root of ‘miscommunication’. Many life events and their self-worth on and outside campus seen to be evaluated from that perspective of “lack”, accompanied by the look of perpetual worry. It’s not English per se that would make one sick, of course, but it’d be their constant worry and anxiety resulting from their exposure to oppressive language ideologies and practices that surround them. Funny enough, they express these problems and emotions in a highly sophisticated manner in English.

  • Shiva

    Dear Ingrid, Thank you for writing and sharing such a fascinating post! Moreover, your attitudes and reflexivity against such ruthless policies and behaviours are appreciable indeed!

  • Doesn’t put the U.S. in a very good light does it? On the other hand, this type of event is surely hardly unique to the U.S. I have to believe there is a very strong link between race/ethnicity and language in this type of scenario. That is, if you look “Middle Eastern” and you speak a “Middle Eastern” language, or look Latino and are speaking Spanish, look Asian and are speaking Chinese, etc., you’re “suspect” in two ways (at least). However, if you’re Anglo (or at least Anglo looking), and are speaking, say, German on the side, you’re less likely to be viewed as “suspect”, “dangerous”, “un-American”, etc. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the same scenario happening the same way with an anglo-looking woman (not trying to pick on you Ingrid ;-), speaking German on the side, or, for that matter, an anglo looking man (say, yours truly ;-), speaking German on the side. Where it gets really interesting, of course, is if you’d had a Persian looking person speaking German on the side, would the store clerk/manager have treated the customer in the same outrageous manner?

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    Interestingly, on the day I read this article an Iranian student came to my class (in Tokyo) looking upset. He told us how someone from Iran had called his mobile phone while he was on the train and while he quickly tried to explain to the caller in Persian that he couldn’t talk now because he was on the train, the Japanese man sitting next to him elbowed him and told him to shut up. In my student’s case, prejudice against a foreigner speaking a foreign language in public actually took the form of physical and verbal aggression.

    • Tom

      I would hesitate to immediately ascribe “prejudice against a foreigner speaking” behind the incident on the Japanese train. I traveled through Japan last month and noted many signs telling people not to talk on their phone on the train. One train I rode had special rooms for people to use while talking on their phone. Perhaps this was the message the student was attempting to communicate. I know I speak louder than usual on a phone, especially when the line is not clear, as an international call often is. Perhaps it was this that the Japanese man was objecting to.
      Sometimes it’s easy to see racial prejudice when, perhaps, there’s a more mundane explanation.

      • Lisa Fairbrother

        Tom, you’re perfectly right to point out that speaking on the phone is prohibited on Japanese trains (hence the Iranian student saying in Persian that he couldn’t talk at that moment) but there are a number of points that are unusual in this case. 1) It’s unusual for a Japanese person to tell someone else to shut up on the train , particularly in the daytime (at night a drunk might do it though) . They are more likely to give a dirty look, sigh or “tut”. 2) If someone had said the same thing in Japanese, i.e.”I can’t talk right now, I’m on the train” that probably wouldn’t have received a reaction. 3) It’s highly unusual for a Japanese person to elbow another person on the train.

        I’ve discussed this incident in a number of my classes this week (predominantly Japanese students) and the reaction has generally been one of shock. The reaction of my students, i.e. members of the same society as the Japanese man on the train,has been that this incident was clearly related to the physical appearance of the Iranian student in combination with his speaking a foreign language. The Iranian student also reported that when the Japanese man shouted at him all the other passengers on the train stared at the Japanese man, not him, which gives the impression that the other passsengers on the train were as equally shocked by the Japanese man, presumably because they also perceived his behaviour as prejudiced.

  • Golnaz

    Dear Ingrid, Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate your attitiude.

  • Prince of Persia

    Apple’s discriminatory practices mirror US government policy against Iran and Iranians. From one side sanctions and a near-total economic embargo, and from other side trying to show support for ‘ordinary’ Iranians (U.S. Allocates $30 Billion for Internet Freedom). So, even if Apple doesn’t sell iphones to Iranians, the iphone actually has Persian-language support (iphone’s Arabic keyboard has the four specific Persian characters; press&hold the corresponding Arabic letter, then Persian letter will appear).
    Microsoft is another example: like all other US vendors, they do not sell software to Iran and Iranians but, at the same time, they have Persian-language support and heaps of Persian-language PowerPoints on how to use MS-Office.
    Same thing with the Oscar: an Iranian can get an Oscar but can’t buy an iphone?! How crazy is that!
    Because of all these contradictions in US policy (and companies not really sure whether they should treat Iranians as enemies or customers …), Apple’s treatment of Iranian customers is not surprising. What I find surprising is Google changing the name of the Persian Gulf on Google maps: that’s not trying to keep up with US policy but with Saudi policy!
    And one more example from Sanction-Absurdistan: there are no (legal; plenty of illegal …) iphones coming to Iran from the US but Israeli cherries are perfectly legal and in season right now!

    BTW, does anyone know if Persians can buy Prince of Persia in the US? 😉

  • Thanks, all!
    @Christof: I’m sure you are right but, of course, it’s much more complicated than that, as both language and race are a matter of perception, and one influences how we see the other. That’s particularly true of ‘Middle Easterners;’ Iran is a multilingual, multiethnic, multiracial country and you can see European-looking Iranians, Asian-looking Iranians, African-looking Iranians, and pretty much everything in between. Tangentially relevatn, Maz Jobran’si funny clip in support of getting ‘Iranian-American’ recognized as a census category:
    You are also assuming that people can identify languages and my guess is that the average (monolingual) American would be hard-pressed to distinguish Persian from German … 😉
    @Lisa: public transport is a major site for enforcing linguistic compliance, in my opinion. Same thing (except that I wasn’t poked) happened to me in Sydney only a few weeks ago on the train (I have to admit I was in the silent carriage but not aware of that fact); which answers the question of whether ‘respectable-looking’ German speakers ever get yelled at …
    @Prince of Persia: love your take! It IS a crazy and absurd world we live in and the only way to keep sane is to laugh at it! 🙂