Interfaith Dating Blunders

Learn how to respond gracefully respond when someone you’re seeing unwittingly offends your values.

By Alison Blackman Dunham

ongrats! You’ve hit it off with someone great whose religious beliefs are different from your own. Things are fine until one day when your date or one of his or her friends accidentally says something inappropriate about your faith. Misunderstandings happen in all types of relationships, but in the dating world, it can be particularly tough to speak
People who make rude comments are usually uninformed, but not hateful.
up in this situation—you don’t want to seem oversensitive or cause trouble, but then again, you’re probably struck to your very core by the comment that was made. Here are some expert strategies for defusing offensive remarks—and turning them into opportunities to understand one another better.

The problem: Offensive ignorance
The solution: Let someone learn. When Sharon from Brooklyn, NY, was visited by her Muslim boyfriend at her college in Iowa, she heard comments like, “He doesn’t look Arabic—his skin isn’t dark and his nose isn’t big.” Sharon soon realized that few of her classmates had met Arabs or Muslims, so they simply didn’t know better. Instead of getting mad, she says, “It was an opportunity for us to open their eyes and expand their minds.” Try to keep your tone calm and light as you say something like, “You know, Arabic people don’t all fit that stereotype…” and take it from there. Says Rabbi Dan Fink of Temple Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho, “People who make rude comments are usually uninformed, but not hateful.”

Still, many people lack the social skills to handle their curiosity about someone “different” and may barrage you with silly questions or off-putting comments. Jason, a Protestant from Atlanta, experienced this when he met his girlfriend’s Jewish mother for the first time. “She simply couldn’t grasp that there is a difference between Catholics and Protestants,” explains Jason. “She kept asking me questions about Catholicism, no matter how many times I explained that I wasn’t one.” When you get tired of being a spokesperson for your religion, you can suggest books for the person to read if he or she is interested in learning more about your beliefs, says Bonnie Jacobson, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of The Shy Single.

The problem: An inadvertent insult
The solution: State the facts. The best thing to do when confronted with an offensive but innocent remark is to be direct (but calm!) about your feelings. For example, if your date uses a phrase like “jewed him down” or “bible-beaters,” try something like, “I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful, but that comment is offensive to me and other Jewish/Christian people. It’s a derogatory phrase that implies that Jews are cheap/Christians are overbearing.” Explaining why the term is a put-down will help if someone truly doesn’t realize they’re stereotyping. Talk to your date later about
I’d take the person aside privately and tell him or her how I felt.
why you were upset: Opening your honey’s eyes to new aspects of your religion will help him or her better steer the conversation next time or jump to your defense.

The problem: A hurtful stereotype
The solution: Walk away from hate. Farnaz, a Muslim in Washington, D.C., has experienced a not-so-innocent lack of awareness in the dating world. “Occasionally I’ll be introduced to a friend of my date who asks something like, ‘How many people have your relatives killed?’ I defuse their anger by showing them I won’t take them seriously,” she explains. “I might say: ‘You’re joking, right? You really need to get out more,’ and then change the subject.” In hostile situations, Dr. Jacobson suggests taking yourself out of the conflict rather than risking a scene. Excuse yourself to make a phone call or go to the rest room and stay away long enough for your anger to abate. “Shaming someone in public just compounds the hurt already caused and really isn’t effective, as hostile people are rarely able to be educated,” explains Rabbi Fink. “Instead, I’d take the person aside privately and tell him or her how I felt.”

But when diplomacy doesn’t work? Don’t let someone else’s ignorance, attitude or words ruin your own good feelings. These types of negative comments do not reflect badly upon you or your date—they reflect badly upon the person who made them! If you run up against someone who won’t back off, the best way to handle the offender is to look him or her straight in the eyes and calmly say, “I am here to enjoy myself, and I’m sure you are too, so let’s move on.” Then literally turn the other cheek and walk away!

Hopefully, one day we will live in a world where there is complete peace, harmony and tolerance. In the meantime, dating and socializing with people who are different than you is one way to move towards this goal.

Alison Blackman Dunham (a.k.a. “Advice Sister Alison”) is creator of the Advice Sisters Great Relationships Web Site ( and author of The Everything Dating Book.
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