The year is 2015. I'm in a boutique hotel in Amman, Jordan fittingly called The Boutique Hotel. The owner of the hotel is an amazing host who speaks 3 languages, Arabic, French, and English.
As I'm eating my breakfast, a Swedish couple is checking out. Their bags are stuffed with an assortment of Jordanian accouterments. The husband is shoving the last bit of pita, hummus, and hard-boiled egg into his mouth as he signs the bill for their stay. They shuffle along down the narrow stairwell, clunking their suitcases on every corner imaginable.
Just as the taxi driver packs the last bag into the trunk, the hotel, owner cranks open the 2nd-floor window and shouts, "Hey lady!" He waves her passport from the window and hurries downstairs.
I nearly spat out my coffee. While there's nothing wrong with calling a woman a "lady," but the inflection in American English is usually demeaning or done to convey irritation. We tend to say "excuse me, ma'am" or "excuse me, miss"
Any time I hear someone say, "Hey lady!" my head automatically translates the tonality into an angry Brooklyn cab driver who just got cut off in midday traffic.
No one had ever mentioned this weird subtext to the hotel owner. That's the weird thing about languages, while most of the time direct translations are accurate, there's a wide gray area of phrases, subtext, and inflections that get lost in translation.
-While you can say "Hey, lady!" it's more polite to say "Excuse me, ma'am."
-Hosts will say, "Good evening ladies and gentlemen," but you'd never say, "Hey, gentleman!" to get get a man's attention.
-In American English, it's fine to say "Hey, girl," but 'girl' is typically drawn out or exaggerated and reserve for adult friends. So it'd sound like, "Hey, girrrrrl! What's up?!?"
-You'd never use "Hey, girl!" to a grown woman you don't know unless you're looking for a very poor reception
-"Hey, man!" is usually used by the surfing community, or can be used to convey anger if someone stepped on your foot in line for the third time without apology.
Other phrases that have rude connotations:
-"What's wrong with you?" If someone is not feeling well, it's better to say, "Are you okay?" or "Do you need help?"
-"You need to make sure that [X]..." Americans have big egos, and we don't like to feel belittled. While it's okay to say, "I need [X]" or tend to say, "Do you need [x]?" It's better to say "Could you make sure [X]" if you're asking another person to complete a task for you.
The main reason an American English speaker might think you're being rude to them is that your speech is too direct. It sounds silly, but Americans actually have a tendency to speak very indirectly to acquaintances and strangers.
The reason for this being many cities early in American history had numerous cultures and languages all mashed together. With American English being the common language, people tended to soften their speech as to not offend someone from a different culture.
How will you know if the words or phrases you're using can be perceived as being rude? Practicing with native English speakers who are willing to correct you. Read. Read. Read. Read magazines, news articles, and modern novels. Watch popular television shows, even reality television has great insight into informal conversations. Listen to podcasts.
There's a lot of different methods to learning the subtle subtext of the English language, but just know that you don't intend to be rude. That's just the tricky part about learning a new language. You got this!