The other night, I had dinner with a friend. He was frustrated because we weren't getting any service—no water, no menus, and our waiter was nowhere in sight. The only restaurant employee available was a Hispanic guy bussing tables. To get his attention, my friend yelled out, "Hey, amigo!" I was totally embarrassed, because to me, this seemed racist and demeaning. But my friend was like, "No, that's how they greet each other in their culture." Is calling out "Amigo!" a rude way to get a Hispanic restaurant employee's attention, or am I being oversensitive?
—Could Not Look Busser in the Eye
Dear Could Not Look Busser in the Eye,
"Amigo" is not necessarily offensive. After all, it means "friend." It's not like your companion was summoning the waiter by calling him "boy" or "son." I mentioned your dilemma to a friend when I was dining out the other night, and he immediately called over the Hispanic busser and asked what he thought. The man said the phrase wasn't racist. But I took what he said with a pinch of salt. After all, as an employee talking to a paying customer, he might have just been saying what he thought we wanted to hear. Plus, my friend asked him in fluent Spanish, which may have biased his answer.
According to Angela Galvis, legal counsel for the Mexican Restaurant Association, "Amigo!" is a normal colloquial way to get someone's attention in Latin cultures. "It's the equivalent of calling out, 'Hey, buddy!'" she says.
But, Galvis admits, if you use the wrong tone of voice, "amigo" can seem like a slur. "If your tone is friendly, and you're saying, 'Hey, amigo, what do you recommend on the menu?,' that's fine. But if you're trying to make fun of somebody, maybe because the waiter doesn't completely understand English, that's not fine."
Since tone of voice is so easy to misinterpret, I would therefore caution against calling any waiter "amigo" (however colloquial this form of address may be in his culture). In any case, you can't always be sure that the person you're addressing actually is Hispanic.
Finally, and interestingly, if you're female, says Galvis, you definitely shouldn't use the term. It's strictly for man-to-man interactions. If a female customer addresses a male employee thus, "it might seem too friendly, especially if she's had two or three margaritas."