Join 3,551 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A question regarding people's reaction to foreign-looking people.
February 24, 2006 7:43 PM   Subscribe

A question regarding people's reaction to foreign-looking people.

Say you're at a social gathering. There are two people equidistant from you, looking equally interesting, approachable, friendly etc..., except one looks native, and one looks foreign. Who would you choose to approach?

Would you choose the native, because you assume the person who looks foreign probably does not speak your language, or would probably have less things in common with you? Would you choose the person who looks more foreign, because you're more attracted to someone exotic or different? Or would it be just a random choice?

I'm interested in both your instinctive choice and your thoughtful choice, if they happen to be different.
posted by questionmark to Human Relations (46 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I don't think it's really fair to ask this question. What people claim they would do while thinking about the action and its consequences is often drastically different than what they would do in the moment.
posted by xmutex at 7:48 PM on February 24, 2006


Is it really fair to ask loaded questions on here?
posted by jerryg99 at 7:52 PM on February 24, 2006


I look pretty foreign, and a pretty cute chick once came up to me at a party and asked "where are you from" We chatted for a bit.

I didn't realize until about five minutes after the party that she started talking to me because she found me attractive, not because she was really curious where I was from (I was born in the same town as the party, by the way *shrugs*)

Other then that, uh, I'm not really the kind of person who goes up to random people at parties so I have no idea. In theory, I would probably just talk to whoever was more attractive in the case of a girl, or whoever I thought I would identify with more. So I'd be more likely to talk to a nerdy type dude then some jock.

But on the other hand, national origin fits into 'identify' as well, so If I thought someone was from another country (It's a lot more complex then looks, though, their looks have to match the way they dress, their demeanor, context etc for me to think they are foreign)
posted by delmoi at 7:54 PM on February 24, 2006


I doubt that I would really think that at a social gathering there'd be much of a language barrier. I once had an interesting conversation about inflection in eastern European languages at a bar.

As it turns out, I can't say any word in Rumanian without making people who know it chortle. That was interesting, actually.

It is a loaded question, however. There's a good chance that I'd end up conversing in line for the fridge or the bathroom with whoever's there.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:58 PM on February 24, 2006


All things being equal, I'd probably talk to the foreign person, since "Where ya from?" makes a handy conversation starter.
posted by Manjusri at 8:02 PM on February 24, 2006


All things being equal, I'd probably talk to the foreign person, since "Where ya from?" makes a handy conversation starter.

It's actualy really annoying, for me anyway.
posted by delmoi at 8:18 PM on February 24, 2006


I'm not quite sure what you people mean by this being a loaded question? I'm genuinely interested. Basically trying to find out what kind of assumptions people make, and if a foreign-looking person would have to make more effort, to go out of their way more, to make connections, that's all.
posted by questionmark at 8:19 PM on February 24, 2006


I'd talk to the person whose body language indicated that they'd be more interested in talking to me. Foreign-looking-ness isn't very useful critera for me. Do you live someplace where there are not a lot of foreign-looking people?
posted by desuetude at 8:27 PM on February 24, 2006


I don't normally just approach people out of the blue without some common friends or reason for said approachment, but I would rather get into the conversation with someone who was foreign-born (though, with as diverse a citizenry as America, I wouldn't be able to make that assumption from looks) because I would think it would make for a more interesting conversation seeing as I could definitely learn something I didn't already know.
posted by visual mechanic at 8:29 PM on February 24, 2006


I agree with desuetude. Furrin-ness means very little to me as I live in a city with a varied ethnic background. Hell, meeting anyone here is 2nd generation is somewhat rare.

Definitely body language, and maybe what they were drinking/eating would draw me to one or the other.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 8:32 PM on February 24, 2006


Okay, you want honesty here. I would probably first seek out the person like me. My race. Wouldn't most people? Most blacks would seek out other blacks, whites would seek out whites, East Asians the same, on and on. That's the way it's been for thousands of years and I would imagine that's the will it will be forever - for better or worse.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2006


Yeah, I would talk to the more approachable-seeming person too. Nationality factors into that, but is a lot less significant than how friendly someone seems or how much I suspect we'd otherwise have in common. I live and work in close proximity to people of many nationalities though, I suspect it's be different for people who live in more insular communities (or who are more extroverted than I am).
posted by cali at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2006


I think as a general rule people are more interested in "foreigners". In my experience, I'm far more likely to be approached for conversation abroad than in my native land.

And I know I (almost) always enjoy talking to foreigners when I'm at home - it's like going on holiday but you don't need to take your passport!
posted by nomis at 8:41 PM on February 24, 2006


In case there's any confusion, the five or six responses above are exactly the kind I'm looking for. (Thanks!)
posted by questionmark at 8:54 PM on February 24, 2006


Definitely the foreigner. Apart from all the other reasons above, I was brought up to make strangers feel welcome. Natives can take care of themselves more easily than foreigners who may be uncomfortable with the local customs. I mean, that's what I'd like if _I_ was the strange-looking guy at a party.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:06 PM on February 24, 2006


Let me add something here, and make the distinction between foreigners (new to the country) and foreign-looking (which may well be someone who, looks aside, is very much local and has been for a long time.) Would you assume, instinctively or otherwise, that a foreign-looking person is a foreigner, in this age of migration?
posted by questionmark at 9:21 PM on February 24, 2006


My answer would definately depend on whether I knew they were actually foreign or not. If they were just a different ethnicity, but otherwise from my country, I don't think I would care either way. If I knew they were from another country, I would likely go up to them first, because its much easier to start a conversation because there are so many easy topics and opening questions to get a conversation going. I wouldn't worry about language barriers.

If I didn't know whether the person was foreign-born or not, then it would go to other default factors as have been mentioned above, like body language and whatnot. Their ethnicity would probably factor into the equation subtlely, but I am not sure if it would be a conscious process or not.
I would not assume they were actually a foreigner, unless they had some tell tale signs, like wearing a terrible sweater.

If the choice was between a male and a female, I would talk to the female if she was remotely pretty, regardless of ethnicity. If the choice was between two females, I would talk to the prettier one. These two statements only hold true if there is nothing else weird is going on, like terrible body language from one.
posted by Falconetti at 9:34 PM on February 24, 2006


I'd go to whichever seemed more interested in me. Eye contact, or a smile, or more open body language would be way more intriguing to me than skin color.
posted by booksandlibretti at 9:37 PM on February 24, 2006


questionmark-as an example of the "foreign-looking local" in your comment, I don't feel like I get treated any differently than anyone else, other than that I arouse more curiosity than most people. As for approaching people, I feel equally comfortable approaching someone "native-looking" (whatever that means) as someone "foreign-looking". Really, the expression on a person's face has a lot more to do with whether I'll approach them or not. If it seems neutral or inviting, I feel free; if it looks like they have a "stay away" face on, I'll stay away.
posted by evariste at 9:37 PM on February 24, 2006


I have always been attracted to and interested in the foreign-looking person. I come from a small town where nearly everyone is from the same kind of background, and I've been fascinated by people who are different ever since I can remember.

On the other hand, I've come to realise as an adult that this attraction/interest isn't necessarily something the "different" person is comfortable with.

So, I'm interested in the "different" person, but I don't go up to them and talk about their difference, I just go up and say hi, not "hi, where are you from?"
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:39 PM on February 24, 2006


like others have said, this question doesn't even make sense to me, because having lived primarily in major cities I see people of different ethnicities all the time -- at work, at the store, at parties, at concerts, etc. Somebody's ethnicity just doesn't factor into how "interesting" they look to me -- I'm infinitely more likely to make a choice to approach someone based on body language, eye contact, etc.
posted by scody at 9:40 PM on February 24, 2006


I would approach the person who looked most like the kind of person, culturally, that I'd be interested in talking to, someone who was dressed as my friends dress etc. no matter what nationality they looked like. Failing that I'd probably talk to the woman (I'm a woman), then the person closest in age/ status to me and finally the person who looked most approachable. Foreign-ness would be pretty low on the list unless it was someone that was dressed so obviously "foreign" I felt they wouldn't be interested in talking to me (like a woman in a burqa).

It's an interesting question and I think that non-US folks, like myself, are probably more finely tuned to noticing nationality- I recently surprised one of my US-ian friends by correctly guessing the nationality of European tourists at a tourist spot. To me an English and a German person just look completely different but I know they often just look European to most Americans, in the same way that many people from South America look the same to me, even thought it's obvious to other people that they're from completely different countries and cultures but I don't have enough experience to see it.

I think American's are very open to not seeing this or not making many judgements based on nationality. My experience has been that most Americans are genuinely interested in foreigners and would probably be more likely to approach them just to talk as well as being self-effacing about their own "boringness". Which totally goes to us foreigners heads by the way.
posted by fshgrl at 10:59 PM on February 24, 2006


Let me add something here, and make the distinction between foreigners (new to the country) and foreign-looking (which may well be someone who, looks aside, is very much local and has been for a long time.) Would you assume, instinctively or otherwise, that a foreign-looking person is a foreigner, in this age of migration?

That doesn't really make too much sense. If by "foreign looking" you mean not white (or not black)? Really it's a lot more subtle then that for a lot of people nowadays, or at least most cosmopolitan Americans. I can instantly tell the difference between a 'foreigner' and an 'American' regardless of ethnicity.

On the other hand, people ask me what I "am" all the time and it's kind of annoying. Anyway.

Interestingly, for a lot of true foreigners, this may be the first time they've ever seen someone from another race. I remember talking to a Chinese girl about the first time she ever saw a non-Han person. She was really surprised, yet I've never known a time that I wasn't aware of other races.

I've also heard stories about African-Americans who travel to Africa, dress like the natives, and yet still get pegged as Americans before they even try to speak.
posted by delmoi at 12:39 AM on February 25, 2006


We generally tend to talk to whomever is of similar height. I am an avid people watcher, and this is a trend I notice amongst pairs/sets of people: they are typically of similar height. Couples don't really count, as they add an extra variable (more intimacy), and males are generally taller anyway. Other than that, think about you and your friends, and check it out for yourself if you've never noticed.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 1:40 AM on February 25, 2006


Two quick thoughts -

(1) After living in NYC for ten years, "foreign" looks "native" to me, and

(2) As a tall white cracker with a noticeable Southern drawl, I am often the "exotic" at the party. People probably spend more time figuring out whether they want to talk to me than the other way around.
posted by enrevanche at 3:19 AM on February 25, 2006


I live in Toronto, and like enrevanche, I have no idea what a 'foreign-looking' person even would be. Overall, I might have a marginal preference for meeting foreigners, since I have an interest in learning about other countries, but I can't imagine figuring that out just based on looking at them.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:55 AM on February 25, 2006


Thanks for all the responses so far! I'm not sure though why my question seems so baffling to some of you, maybe I just wasn't explaining myself very well. By foreign-looking I didn't necessarily mean non-white, no, but just someone whose "racial features" aren't commonplace in the area - maybe an east asian person in Europe, or a white person in east asia, or an east asian person in Africa. I know people are much more used to "foreign features" in major cities and tourist and cosmopolitan areas, but even in those cities as far as I know ethnicity hasn't become entirely irrelevant, as much as I'd like it to be, unless the world turned utopia while I wasn't looking.

I was expecting more responses like this, but was trying to gauge the balance. While I find most of your responses very encouraging, I can't help feeling that this is not quite what I see around me. Though I may be wrong (and hope I am).

And by the way, I too hate the question "Where are you from?", or even worse, "What are you?", as a conversation-starter, and I think you'd find that most foreign-looking people trying to fit in would feel the same, after hearing it for the hundredth time. It may well have the best, friendliest intentions behind it, but it instantly marks the person out as outsider and different, based solely on looks, which the person has no control over.
posted by questionmark at 7:18 AM on February 25, 2006


What a dreadful question. Here's my answer anyway: I am foreign, but I don't look it. Any party I've been to recently has involved more foreigners than natives. I'm fully aware you can never tell by appearances, so I don't take foreignness of appearance into account whatsoever. Proximity of the person to the alcohol source, now that's another matter.

And by the way, I too hate the question "Where are you from?"... after hearing it for the hundredth time.

Don't be absurd. Every conversational opening gambit has been heard a hundred times. Anyone using an original opening line is probably trying too hard and making themselves look like a twat. As soon as somebody hears my accent, they ask where I'm from (or hazard some hilarious guess like Ireland or South Africa) and pow! a conversation is started. Being foreign makes me superficially interesting, and that's great.
posted by nowonmai at 7:33 AM on February 25, 2006


I'm not sure though why my question seems so baffling to some of you

Because some of us have lived in places (like, in my case, NYC) where there are so many foreigners, some of whom "look like us" (for varying values of "us") and some of whom don't, and so many natives, some of whom ditto and ditto, that your question doesn't compute. We don't have the concept of "foreign-looking people." At parties, I talk to whoever looks interesting (or more likely sounds interesting, since I tend to listen to conversations before I get involved). If I hear a reference to a jazz musician I like or a subject I'm interested in, I want to talk to that person, regardless of what they look like.

Don't be absurd.

Don't be a twat. questionmark's reaction is no more "absurd" than yours. Everybody's entitled to their own reactions to things they've heard a hundred times.
posted by languagehat at 8:11 AM on February 25, 2006


Thanks for all the responses so far! I'm not sure though why my question seems so baffling to some of you, maybe I just wasn't explaining myself very well. By foreign-looking I didn't necessarily mean non-white, no, but just someone whose "racial features" aren't commonplace in the area

Ah, well I live in a collage town with a large social foreign student population, so there are tons and tons of different ethnicities of people around.

If you are in a racially homogeneous place, then I'm pretty sure the 'odd' looking person will get a lot of attention.
posted by delmoi at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2006


Don't be absurd. Every conversational opening gambit has been heard a hundred times.

Well, it's annoying to be asked it in your home town, with the obvious implication that you look "diffrent". Plus I have to explain that I was born here, which makes me look like a Tool.
posted by delmoi at 8:20 AM on February 25, 2006


Define "foreign-looking".

I don't approach people at social gatherings. I just drift around aimlessly making sure my drink is always topped up. If I bump into someone I'll say hi, provided they don't look like a conservative or a god-botherer.
posted by Decani at 8:37 AM on February 25, 2006


Let me lay out plainly my intentions behind asking the question, as some people seem almost angry that I posed it in the first place.

I am a foreign-looking person, in London, which is as far as I know one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. And yet I cannot think of a single person I know who ignores ethnicity the way most of you seem to. (and let me be clear about this - I wish that's how most people are.)

My motivation behind the question was to try to find out what kind of assumptions, if any, are likely to be made about me, just because I have "ethnic features", and how much, if any, extra effort I would have to make to transcend those assumptions. Whether I need to make more effort to initiate contact for example, because they're less likely to do so with me based on my looking foreign.

For example, in my mind, some people, when they see a foreign-looking person, would instinctively assume that the person is a foreigner, and so they would have less in common, or be culturally incompatible, or the person in question may not be good with the local language...etc. So some people would avoid foreign-looking people in favour of "their own kind" - and these people may not be necessarily deliberately racist, but just wary of people and things they are unfamiliar with. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who will see that you are foreign-looking, and they would also jump to the conclusion that you are a foreigner new to the place, but that would make you more interesting to them, rightly or wrongly. Which leads me to...

nowonmai: if you read the sentence right after that, and maybe delmoi's response, it may not seem so absurd to you. You may not have been on the end of a "Where are you from?" intended solely to put you firmly back in your place - a foreigner. Or know the frustrations of immigrants trying to fit in. I know I'm far from the only one who feels this way about the question - here are some other perspectives.
posted by questionmark at 9:21 AM on February 25, 2006


yup, enrevanche, you'd be the exotic at the parties I go to, too.

I think I'd talk to whomever looked loneliest. If they both did, I'd talk to the woman. If everything was the same (as in, both lonely and female), I'd talk to the person who looked foreign, because I remember how hard it was to socialize when I lived in another country.

And if it turned out the person wasn't foreign afterall, no harm done.

I have learned the hard way not to ask where people are from ONLY if they seem foreign. I feel completely free to ask Americans this question. Aren't from Berkeley, California.

I do think it's absurd to be annoyed by it. It's the American conversation starter, like astrology is some places. When Americans need to make small talk it almost inevitably ends up with a discussion of where your family's from, or what nationality your last name is. (Usually because Ellis Island mangled them into something unidentifiable.) With all due respect, languagehat, getting annoyed by it might be your right, but it's as silly as being annoyed that the greeting "How are you?" isn't an invitation to unburden yourself of all your troubles. It's just a bit of polite small talk, like saying "very truly yours" at the end of a business letter. yes, I know that foreigners get annoyed at the "How are you?" business, but get over it.

Out of habit I asked about people's nationality a couple of times in Russia and of course the answers were all "Russia," accompanied by a baffled look.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:28 AM on February 25, 2006


Sorry- Most people aren't from Berkeley...

Thanks for the explanation, questionmark. I haven't been to London, so I don't know what it's like, and I was a little confused by the question.

If you've ever read a Xenophobe's guide to Americans (this series is a guilty pleasure of mine) there is a quote in it to the effect that "Americans see all foreigners as potential Americans." I don't know that that's true everywhere, but it seems to be around here.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:35 AM on February 25, 2006


I would need more attributes than just "foreign" and "native" to make a decesion. But being a Shy Guy I wouldn't have the nerve to approach either one, without some good excuse.
posted by Rash at 11:48 AM on February 25, 2006


Questionmark, I think the fact that you are in London puts a whole different spin on things. I would guess that most of the answers here are from Amercians. I've lived in the US and in the UK and the cultures are VERY different, especially in regards to foreigners. In the US being foreign attracts positive attention and genuine interest more often that not, in the UK? not so much. I've heard English people casually say rude and insulting things about my nationality or the nationality of other people who were present many times. Even if it's someplace they've never been and know nothing about!

(And come on people it is obvious that some people do look foreign- you can tell by the shoes! and the crazy scarves!)
posted by fshgrl at 1:11 PM on February 25, 2006


Small_ruminant: I do think it's absurd to be annoyed by it. It's the American conversation starter . . . When Americans need to make small talk it almost inevitably ends up with a discussion of where your family's from, or what nationality your last name is.

Perhaps you haven't been on the receiving end of many people's need to
pigeonhole
those who "look different."

[Excerpt from the link:] STRANGER: "Do you mind my asking where you are from?" [This is code for "what is your race?"]

ME: "Canada." [This is code for "Screw off."]

STRANGER: "Yes, but you know, where are you really from? [This is code for "You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?"]

ME: "I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth." [Code for "I’m not letting you off the hook, buster."]

STRANGER: "But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?" [Code for "I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question."]

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:29 PM on February 25, 2006


I would not assume they were actually a foreigner, unless they had some tell tale signs, like wearing a terrible sweater.
--
And come on people it is obvious that some people do look foreign- you can tell by the shoes! and the crazy scarves!

Oy!

As a Irish person living in Canada (and previously the US) I've always found people very enthusiastic to come talk to me, even in jaded NYC and Toronto. Even over the phone, people will get excited about my accent and ask questions.

My other half is from Bangladesh though and he gets the opposite. If we're sitting at the bar in a pub, or waiting for a plane or whatever, I'll get the dozen standard conversation-with-Paddies gambits about Dublin, tourism, football, beer, "my great-grandparents came from a small town in Sligo", weather, blah blah and then move smoothly on to other small talk and he'll get "Bangladesh, huh?" and then roundly ignored.
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:17 PM on February 25, 2006


I guess I wouldn't pigeonhole anyone as being "foreign". Being from the big city I've been accustomed to being around people who look "foreign" and whose families have lived in the US for several generations and met people who didn't look "foreign", but were born and raised elsewhere. I guess Milwaukee has always been a big melting pot. Different nationalities doesn't faze me. I would imagine people in little backwaters might feel differently.

I myself have been mistaken for a local in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Madrid. That probably says as much about multiculturalism in those cities as it does about my non-lily white countenance.
posted by JJ86 at 4:46 PM on February 25, 2006


cybercoitus interruptus: my point is that even boring, native-looking white people get asked where their family's from.

I have no doubt that non-accented white people aren't as subject to the particular facet of boorishness (boorosity?) you decribe, but if someone's a boor about your nationality then they'll likely be a boor about other things, too, in which case they aren't going to be popular with the "natives" either. One hopes.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:47 PM on February 25, 2006


yes, I understood that "even boring, native-looking white people get asked where their family's from" was your point. Mine was that in North America, "Where are you / is your family from?" directed at non-whites, by white North Americans, often implicitly assumes that "Canadian/American" = white...therefore, in this context, that question is not simply "small talk"...therefore, it's not absurd for people on the receiving end of this to find it annoying.

On topic: like many other North Americans who've posted above, "looks foreign" vs "looks native" would be irrelevant for me. If both look equally approachable, I go for a broad conversation starter that both could respond to. Otherwise, I approach whoever looks friendlier, eg smiles at me, makes eye contact, doesn't look away.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:33 PM on February 25, 2006


Thanks everyone for your responses. I guess the world is a better place than I thought. Or I just need to move to one of those places where you people live.

cybercoitus interruptus: thanks for the fantastic article you linked to! It articulates the problem much better than I can.
posted by questionmark at 7:47 PM on February 26, 2006


yeah, that was my reaction to it too! I've asked my library to buy the book it's from, but no dice yet. I may end up buying it myself, as several people whose opinions I respect have recommended reading the whole thing.

Since posting the link here, I've been wondering if anything about or by him has already been FPP'd in the blue. I haven't had time though to search it, much less look up related links that would make a solid, contextualized, minimally-snarkable FPP out of the topic. I'd be happy if someone else did, though. btw, your Mixed Media Watch link, I enjoyed it and passed it on to several people. Thanks.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:08 PM on February 26, 2006


I'm Chinese, but move in mostly white-only circles. (hey, I'm not in China)

I have noticed that on the rare occasion at parties or whatever when there's a fellow non-white in the room, we clock each other, look vaguely astonished to see each other there as if to say "I thought I was the only non-white in the village" - and then mostly tend to avoid each other for the rest of the evening, unless events or groups or friends or other social norms conspire to have us chatting away to each other.

But then I'm British. We don't talk to strangers unless we've had 20 pints first.

;-)
posted by badlydubbedboy at 2:24 PM on February 27, 2006


cybercoitus interruptus: Thanks but that wasn't my link! :) I just commented on it, thought it was great. As to the "Where are you from?" article, I was very much thinking the same thing, that it could be FPP'd. I'm relatively new here, so can't post yet, but when I can, I'll do more searching and see if I can put an FPP together. Unless yourself or someone else get around to it first :)
posted by questionmark at 5:29 PM on March 1, 2006


« Older What tests are available for f...   |  What do you put in your PC car... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.