DEAR MISS MANNERS: I grew up in a foreign country, but I do not have a detectable accent when speaking English. However, most people from my country of origin have a rather distinctive accent.
What is the most polite way to respond when meeting people whose accent betrays our shared common origins and language?
On a hotel elevator on the way to my room, I struck up a bland conversation ("What a beautiful evening") in English with a couple. As they got off the elevator on a different floor than mine, I said, "Have a good evening" in our shared language.
They seemed slightly startled -- they could not have guessed I could speak their language or that I detected their slight accent -- but responded in kind.
If I am ever in doubt, of course I don't say anything. However, I think if I'm wrong, the other party would just assume I am mumbling and they didn't catch my words.
GENTLE READER: What if, like you, they think they do not have a foreign accent? What if they are suddenly panicked that you were eavesdropping on them earlier?
While Miss Manners trusts that your intentions are good, your actions feel misplaced. The consequences of guessing wrong or offending seemingly outweigh any connection that might be made -- especially as the exchange took place while the couple was leaving.
She suggests that you wait until a conversation about one's origins evolves naturally before making assumptions -- both as a practical matter and as one of diplomacy.