Excuse me, are you from around here?
October 10, 2009 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Is there a polite way to ask someone where they're from, if they have a foreign accent or ... I don't know how else to say this, look as if they might be from a different country (than the US)? *winces* If you're someone who gets asked this a lot, does it annoy you? Is it more rude if the person is 2nd generation (or more)?
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (99 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's rude at all, it's an obvious way of breaking the ice with someone you don't know. "So, hey, whereabouts are you from?" What's wrong that?
posted by afx237vi at 6:35 AM on October 10, 2009

Asking someone where they are from is not impolite, as long as you are actually in conversation and have built up a level of informality. Rather than just tapping them on the shoulder and asking flat out.
posted by fire&wings at 6:35 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends on the person, and the approach. Genuine interest in someone's ethnic heritage (particularly if you've known them for awhile) is charming; trying to pinpoint someone as "other" is not.

If you ask me, "Where are you from," and I say, "Boise," don't follow up with, "No no, where are you REALLY from?"
posted by availablelight at 6:40 AM on October 10, 2009 [39 favorites]

"I don't recognize your accent, I love the sound of it! Where are you originally from?"

Or something along those lines.
posted by smitt at 6:42 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The same question, "Where are you from?" can sound like "What planet are you from?" or like "I'm fascinated by who you are." You want to make it sound more like the latter.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:46 AM on October 10, 2009

I spent 18 months as a really visible minority in Ghana, and people asked me where I was from constantly. Sometimes it was done rudely, mostly not, but even in cases where it wasn't rude, I was often really tired of repeating those basic details about myself. So I tend not to do it with other people that I don't know unless conversation actually turns that way ("At home, it never rains in September" "Oh, where is 'home'?").
posted by carmen at 6:50 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: availablelight: yeah, the second half of your question is what I'm getting at. I don't ask white people about their ethnic heritage because I'm not curious about it at all. Nearly every white person I know is some mixture of Irish, German, and/or Polish, and unless they're from one of those countries, their experience usually doesn't significantly differ from mine. Other ethnicities and cultures are more interesting to me because I'm not exposed to them on a daily basis.
posted by desjardins at 6:50 AM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: I meant the second half of your answer.
posted by desjardins at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2009

How well do you know the person in question?

If it's just some random person you've met on the street, I would consider it rude to ask. It's not really any of your business, no matter how willing they are or aren't to explain.

If you know the person in question well, perhaps you'd be better seguing into where you are from, and hoping that they expand on where they're from.
posted by Solomon at 6:53 AM on October 10, 2009

"I love your accent, you must be Belgian," doesn't go over well with Parisians. And there's the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and of course the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry. So, yeah, guessing where people are from can be touchy. I usually say something like, "You have a lovely (female)/interesting (male) accent. I like learning about accents and I can't quite place yours..." If they're 2nd-generation-whatever, it's not insulting because you're not implying they're from someplace else, you're asking about how language has filtered down to them, and you will probably learn where they're from as a result.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:55 AM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: and of course the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry

Yeah, I am pretty well terrified of asking an Indian if he's Pakistani or vice versa.
posted by desjardins at 7:01 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Unless someone has an accent, I won't ask (caveat: I might ask "where is your family from?" if it's relevant to the conversation, but really, it almost never is). If someone does have an accent and you've been talking to them for a while, I think smitt's approach is best, but don't take a wild guess.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:07 AM on October 10, 2009

You might read this related question for a different look at this.
posted by Houstonian at 7:08 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

For another perspective, I'd say don't ask unless it's part of the conversation as in the example carmen gives. I have a speech impediment and get asked a LOT where I'm from and it usually goes like this:

"Where are you from?"
"Originally? Texas."
"Hmmm. You don't sound Texan."
"Well, I've spent a lot of time on the East Coast. Maybe it's that."
"Yeah, I don't know."

posted by youcancallmeal at 7:14 AM on October 10, 2009

I don't have much of an accent in English nowadays, but occasionally I'll say something a bit "off" and someone will ask me where I'm from. It never bothers me, except for one thing: it's a stupid question to ask if you are so clueless about other places, cultures and languages that you have little chance of replying to the person's answer with any hint of intelligence. Nothing annoys me more than telling people I'm from Bosnia (*after* they've asked) and having them tell me how they've always wanted to visit South America. This sort of thing has happened frequently. Hey, stay inside and read lots of books until you're ready to not be a total moron in public. That's my opinion, but I've found maybe people are simply not embarrassed by abject stupidity. C'est la vie.

I'm a bit of a perfectionist too, I don't necessarily like being asked in light of my "accent," as I've worked hard to eliminate it. Just ask me where I'm from - it's an honest question without any sort of preconceptions to it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:16 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

There is no set of physical characteristics that distinguish people born in the USA to people born in other places.

Well, this isn't always true. I've certainly identified the origins of people in America from their body language, clothing and style of dress, use of cosmetics and even dental work (believe it or not!) Sometimes one can just "tell." But I'd never mention these things, I'd just ask them where they're from. Or what their ancestry is, which is a fair question unless asked in a creepy way.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:21 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Small talk often turns to family or how long you've lived in your current city or whatever so in those cases I think it's a totally appropriate question, and better to ask than assume.

I've had people regularly think I'm anything from Scottish to Australian (I have a Dublin accent) and my husband has had people ramble on at him about places as diverse as Mexico and the Philippines (he's Bangladeshi). That can be annoying. We'd both rather you just ask, we're proud of where we come from and happy to talk about it.

But without an obvious accent, I wouldn't go there myself.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:22 AM on October 10, 2009

The only reason you should be able to play the "I thought you were from another country" card is if the person has a strong accent...

You folks realize that nobody thinks they have an accent, right? Those who work hard on their English are often proud of it, and pointing out their accent as a matter-of-fact is close enough to a put-down that I commend the OP for being delicate about it. Imagine you studied French for 10 years and every time you opened your mouth in Paris, each person you spoke with immediately asked about your accent. You'd brush off one or two, but eventually you'd probably feel belittled.

I always ignore accents and would never comment on one unprompted. I think it's a proper lie of etiquette to pretend to not hear it at all. So if someone has what I am pretty sure is a thick Bengali accent, I'll still ask "So, were you born in New York?" which gives the other person the opportunity to respond in several different ways.

At worst, they're amused by my ham-handed attempt at politeness.
posted by rokusan at 7:26 AM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

Small talk often turns to family or how long you've lived in your current city or whatever so in those cases I think it's a totally appropriate question, and better to ask than assume.

Now, jamesonandwater, here I sit, drafting my answer and there you are, giving the same advice as I was about to give. ;-) I gotta type faster!
posted by Bearded Dave at 7:26 AM on October 10, 2009

Nothing annoys me more than telling people I'm from Bosnia (*after* they've asked) and having them tell me how they've always wanted to visit South America.

Hilarious. And true. If you're going to ask someone about their origins or nationality, you'd better have a second question ready, or some clue about where you're going with this conversation, or you'll come across as that nasty world-ignorant American stereotype.
posted by rokusan at 7:29 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I get asked this a lot. I am the whitest girl alive. It's awkward. I have had this conversation roughly 5629 times:

Random Dude (always a dude): Hey, where are you from?
Me: um, Canada.
RD: Really?
Me: Yes.
RD: But I mean, like, where are you really from?
Me: Canada. I was born in Vancouver.
RD (disappointed): oh. Well, where is your family from?
Me: I'm third-generation Canadian.
RD (just not letting it go): I mean originally.
Me: Scotland. I'm third-generation Scottish-Canadian.
RD: Oh. Huh. I could have sworn you were Brazilian, you look so exotic.

If you're genuinely curious and it comes up organically as part of the conversation you're fine. If, however, you're dropping it into a conversation apropos of nothing, or starting the conversation with "So, where are you from?" it can sound really weird and kind of creepy. The word that really makes me run away screaming is "exotic". Don't tell someone they look "exotic". No matter how well-intentioned, it always seems fetishy and gross. I mean, I I think it's fetishy and gross, and I'm only being "exotified" by proxy, really. Also, the disappointment on Random Dude's part (often an unavoidable part of the conversation) makes it abundantly clear that they didn't ask out of curiosity - they asked to confirm an assumption they made about me based on how I look. Avoid that as well.

I've had the very occasional fine conversation where this came up - in the context of a friend telling me about her family's immigration struggles, where heritage was just the topic of conversation and the person asking wasn't a white dude looking to hit on a chick he thought was "foreign". But I think it can also be worked into casual conversation, as with this interaction I had with a customer (back when I worked retail):

Customer: You have a lovely accent. Do you mind if I ask where you're from?
Me: Oh, I'm just from Canada! I was born in Vancouver. Do I have an accent? I didn't know.
Customer (laughs): Well, that just goes to show you! I'm from the States, though, so maybe I'm just not used to your weird Canadian-speak.
Me: Oh, yeah, where in the States are you from?
Customer: Illinois. Chicago, actually.
Me: No way, my aunt and uncle live out there with their kids. I always think everyone in Chicago has an accent when I go there. Except for, like, Ira Glass.
Customer: Ira Glass has a great voice.
Me: So soothing.

... and so on. Totally reasonable and unproblematic. I think the "Do you mind if I ask" was a good touch; it's a personal question, and it's good to acknowledge that. Also, the whole interaction indicates no pressure on me to conform to Customer's initial perception of me; they're open to an actual conversation, not just an interrogation, and the question about where I'm from serves as a functional icebreaker.

It might be subtle, but I feel there's a really distinct difference.
posted by ellehumour at 7:29 AM on October 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

I asked a colleague what his background was, and he started explaining to me how he was Polish, was X number of years old when he moved here, etc. When he paused for a moment I had to clarify, "Hey that's awesome. So anyway I was wondering what area your degree was in."

Apparently he gets asked a lot and really likes that people are interested. So asking what kind of background they have is apparently a euphemism. I think expressing interest in the person as an individual and not as "I need to clarify exactly why you are Different From Me" will smooth over any minor miscommunications.

Good question, I've wondered this myself.
posted by variella at 7:42 AM on October 10, 2009

Show the same authentic good intent you show in your question, don't make assumptions, but please don't withhold your genuine, kind curiosity about the next fellow and his or her origins. How dull things would be if we all tread so carefully all the time. Be forthcoming, and true, and ask away there's absolutely nothing wrong with stumbling along a little on the early path to getting to know someone. And if you are on the receiving end of a query such as this, please assume good intent, forbear because we are not all as global or aware or knowledgeable as you may be, and are mostly good eggs interested in your story.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:43 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm half-Asian, half-Caucasian and I get asked where I'm from all the time because no one can quite put their finger on it. It doesn't bother me at all. My first thought when they ask where I'm from is "Pennsylvania", but then I get that they mean my background. It's fine with me - I don't mind sharing a part of my culture with people and usually they're just curious. It can be a great conversation starter.
posted by fresh-rn at 7:52 AM on October 10, 2009

I feel like this depends a lot on how well you know the person.

I have a friend who will very casually ask someone he's just met, "So what's your ethnic background?" And you know what? I actually think this is sort of taboo in America.

OTOH, if you're going to ask it, there's probably no perfect PC way to phrase it, so you might as well be blunt. My girlfriend often has strangers go up to her and say things like, "So, you're Puerto Rican?" (She's not Hispanic.) Now, I would never do this, but she's experienced it so much that it doesn't faze her.

Another option is to just ask, "Where are you from?" Maybe it'll answer your question, and maybe it won't. Some people are actually offended by this question (see Houstonian's link), but it's about the most common getting-to-know-you question for anyone regardless of their appearance or ethnicity or whatever.

If you know the person well, you probably already know enough about their background to know if they were born and raised in a different country. If not, I don't think they'd be offended by a straight-up "So what's your ethnic background?" -- again, if you know them well.

If you know their last name and it gives a clue about their ethnicity, that can be a way to break the ice. People often ask me things like, "So, your last name is Cohen -- are you Jewish?" Unless I'm in a job interview, this strikes me as a perfectly appropriate way to segue into a conversation about my ethnic background. I've seen another Cohen in my family get asked by a waiter after processing his credit card, "Excuse me, Mr. Cohen, are you Jewish?" This led to a friendly conversation about ethnicity and last names etc. with a complete stranger.

I should qualify all this by saying I have no idea if other people feel the same way. I'm pretty open in talking about race/ethnicity but assume many people are more reserved about talking about it. The fact that you're even asking this question suggests that you're somewhat like me in that respect. Rule of thumb: avoid it as an explicit topic of conversation and let it come up in the natural flow of discussing other aspects of people's lives.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:54 AM on October 10, 2009

I've had to answer this question a lot, but I don't tire of it any more than I tire of talking about the weather. It's meant to break the ice, and I know that. If someone is genuinely offended by a good-faith question like this, they get offended too easily, IMO.
posted by smorange at 7:56 AM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: Ah, I just figured out why I'm sensitive to this issue - I have a visible birth defect, and sometimes people say "What's wrong with you" or "What happened to you" and sometimes I can tell they want to ask but they're trying to be polite. Now, birth defects are obviously not the same thing as race/ethnicity but I can certainly understand how answering the same question over and over can get annoying. Especially when it reminds you that you look different from most people.

(Whether it bothers me usually depends on how the person phrases it, how early it comes up in conversation, and whether I've had enough coffee that day.)
posted by desjardins at 8:05 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: and since now you're all wondering, here you go.
posted by desjardins at 8:06 AM on October 10, 2009

I get around this by asking people "So, did you grow up in Toronto?" because most of us didn't. (Including me, the white Canadian.) It helps that so many of us have moved here from elsewhere, so it's fairly common to exchange stories of how we came to live here.

Of course, this won't help if you're interested in where my South Asian coworker's family is from, because she grew up in Markham (city very near Toronto).
posted by heatherann at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I never ask this question. I've known many people who are fine with being asked this, some are okay with it, and a few people who are hurt, offended or just plain annoyed by this question.

If you get to know someone well, and if they are comfortable discussing their background, it will eventually come up naturally. If not, then your curiosity doesn't trump their comfort level.
posted by marsha56 at 8:11 AM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

You folks realize that nobody thinks they have an accent, right? Those who work hard on their English are often proud of it, and pointing out their accent as a matter-of-fact is close enough to a put-down that I commend the OP for being delicate about it. Imagine you studied French for 10 years and every time you opened your mouth in Paris, each person you spoke with immediately asked about your accent. You'd brush off one or two, but eventually you'd probably feel belittled.

Eh, no, not really. As a German living in the UK I am totally fluent and yet I know I have an accent - it's not very pronounced and apparently it's not a German accent but an accent nevertheless. What I mean when I say it's not German is that people always tell me it doesn't sound German but rather my accent has been described at various points as Nordic, Dutch, South African and now there is apparently less of an accent but more some hints of Eastern European but very far back...be interesting to see what I sound like next :)

But I would never be so foolish as to believe that I speak English without a foreign accent and it is nice if people show an interest and ask where I'm from as a way of starting to chat!
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:19 AM on October 10, 2009

There will be a hundred rambling answers to this simple question. Because people here are constantly trying to show everyone how "progressive" they are.

Most people are not offended when you ask them where they're from.

"Where are you from?" is what you should ask. Don't be a yokel and preface it with things like "Oh I love your accent".

And if you make a mistake about A Frenchman being Belgian. They really are not going to hate you and think you are The Ugly American.

I'm white, fair-skinned, brown hair blue-eyes, 6' 2" and look like a WASP. When people shoot back "That's funny, you don't look Italian", guess what? It really doesn't bother me. It's actually funny to hear.
posted by Zambrano at 8:21 AM on October 10, 2009

So, I feel like I'm in the minority here. About 95% of the time that I hear this when I'm alone, or with my family, it just pissed me off. The conversation usually goes like:

Random dude: So, where are you from?/Where's your accent from?/What language are you speaking?
Me: Russia
RD: Oh, that's so cool, I have neighbors from Poland/Ukraine/Belarus/Georgia/etc, and they're just WONDERFUL people.

And it's as though they're trying to validate my foreignness, as in "Oh, you're Russian? I vaguely know someone else who is sort of from eastern Europe, and they're okay I guess, so you must be too. So, even though you weren't born in this country, don't worry, I'm sure you're fine. Chin up."

Also, on the accent thing: I don't think that I have an accent, people I'm actually friends with don't think I have an accent, but random dudes will insist that I have an accent after learning that I'm originally from Russia.

Random dude: So, where are you from?
Me: Kansas, but I was born in Russia.
RD: Ohhhhhhh, I was wondering where that accent was from! Russia!
Me: Hmm.
RD: Yeah. You definitely have an accent. Hey, RD#2, doesn't she have an accent?

I think that the only time that this happens and it isn't just annoying is when you're actually having a conversation with someone, are genuinely interested for a reason, and have something to follow up with that isn't that your co-worker/neighbor/plumber/ professor is from a neighboring country and is just a great person.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 8:22 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ugh, this really annoys me, especially if it's one of the first things someone asks. If someone doesn't have an accent then it is definitely rude to assume they are not from the U.S.

Also, the other day I asked someone with a southern accent where they were from and it seemed like they were kind of offended by it, apparently they thought they had dropped it. (It was pretty subtle). Sort of hypocritical, I guess but it hadn't occurred to me that you could offend someone just by asking if they were from a different part of the U.S.
posted by delmoi at 8:24 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I find that a good way around it is to say "So, are you from X originally?" (where X is the city we are currently having this conversation), or if just "Where are you originally from?"... The modifier "originally" is way of avoiding the unpleasant connotation that you aren't "really' from X, because you don't sound/look a particular way.

Again though, as with Heatherann, this is in Toronto, and the vast majority of people I meet here are not "originally from" Toronto...
posted by modernnomad at 8:25 AM on October 10, 2009

I agree with availablelight. If you ask someone, "Where are you from?," they will usually respond with the exact amount of information that they feel comfortable giving out, which could range from something like "Boise" to several generations of ancestry.

I think that if you ask the question, you should accept whatever answer they give and let that guide the conversation. If they say "L.A.," then follow up with questions about life in L.A. It's only rude if you act disappointed/disinterested by the response, or if you try to make them answer the question differently than they answered the first time.
posted by helios at 8:26 AM on October 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

"I don't recognize your accent, I love the sound of it! Where are you originally from?"

Okay, while some people might be okay with this, I would extremely annoyed. This is a very patronizing, and I know that it doesn't come off as such to a particular subset of people in America, but it is so incredibly patronizing. This falls into the category of, "Your English is so good!" (Why yes, thank you, I majored in English in a top liberal arts college, and so is yours, you patronizing jackass.)

Casually saying, "Oh hey, where are you from?" as you would with any other ("normal") person who has the same accent as yours. If the person is quite excited to elaborate about where they are from, then by all means, go ahead, ask questions. But don't be patronizing, and don't force the issue.
posted by moiraine at 8:27 AM on October 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

My ethnic background is really convoluted - let's just say Chinese to make it simple. I was born and raised in a small town in the American Southwest, and I got asked the "Where are you REALLY from?" question a lot, and yes it was annoying, so the answer to the second part of your question - Is it more rude if the person is 2nd generation (or more)? - is yes. I don't consider myself being "from" anywhere else than the US, and although I probably got yelled at about my grades more than the typical American would, I'd be willing to wager we share more common experience than not.

I experienced this a lot when I was traveling in Turkey as well. I can't explain how frustrating it is to answer "I'm American" to "Where are you from?" only to have them come back with "But you LOOK Japanese. Are you sure you're not Japanese?" Turkish people love asking foreigners where they're from, so I was going through this routine dozens of times daily. It got to the point where I automatically responded "Americanbutmyancestorsarechinese" just so I wouldn't have to play the I'm-American-no-you-aren't game.

Do I mind being asked where I'm from? No, not if the asker accepts "I'm from New Mexico." There is a difference between asking "Where are you REALLY from?" and "What is your ethnic background?" I don't mind answering the latter at all, but I find it rude when people presume that I'm not American because I'm not white. Surely my Southwestern-twinged accent and my years of growing up in the suburbia of a forgettable New Mexican town count for something?
posted by pravit at 8:28 AM on October 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

Lots of good answers! rokusan said: "Imagine you studied French for 10 years and every time you opened your mouth in Paris, each person you spoke with immediately asked about your accent. You'd brush off one or two, but eventually you'd probably feel belittled."

This made me laugh because it's true. I'm American, studied French for 10 years (ages 11 to 21, my degree is in French language and literature). I don't have much of an accent, so generally am only asked where I'm from when I'm flustered and some weird thing comes out. A few people have gone, "Oh! Are you Belgian? I can tell from your accent!" so indeed, it is not a good idea to guess. Most French people ask where others are from in normal conversation anyway, since French residents (not only natives!) are proud of their region and there's also a lot of immigration from French-speaking and other countries. You can get fun answers like Congo, New Caledonia and Vietnam! Anyway, when I answer "I'm American, from the West Coast" (because no one here knows where Oregon is...), inevitably, inevitably, the person will say "oh I thought I noticed a little accent! You speak French so well, woooow!"

They mean well, so I smile politely in return, but yes, it gets tiresome. It's not really their fault, most don't realize that I've been here for so long and have had goodness-knows how many people say the exact same thing about my "petit accent", often with an added "not to worry, it's cute!" So maybe ask how long they've been in the US before commenting on their accent, because if they've been there a while, trust me, they'll have heard hundreds if not thousands of times that they have one. Like with me, it would roll off their backs, but I've greatly appreciated the rare people who've refrained from remarking on my accent.
posted by fraula at 8:29 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm a Southern girl with a slight lisp who lived in Boston for almost five years before moving to San Francisco almost five years ago. My accent (which like everyone else, I'm convinced I hardly have) is, apparently, hard to place. I get asked where I'm from pretty frequently.

If it comes up in conversation, is asked politely and with genuine interest, and if the asker actually pays attention to the (more than one word) answer, I don't mind. If they zone out or get bored during the 15 seconds it takes to explain why I speak like I do, it really irritates me. If they ask me to say something in "Southern" or "like Boston," it really irritates me. If they argue with me because they think I have no Southern accent at all so I can't really be from there, that drives me crazy.

When people listen, it's sometimes led to great conversations about Tennessee, Boston, moving away from home, travel, all kinds of things.

So I figure go ahead and ask, provided it comes from a place of real curiosity and wanting to know more about an interesting person. Since that sounds like where you're coming from, I imagine it's fine.
posted by mostlymartha at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2009

God, don't say "I love your accent." That is gauche.

"So, did you grow up around here?" is a routine getting-to-know-you question that people may answer in a way that also satisfies your curiosity.

But sometimes you're just going to have to either (a) swallow your curiosity about people's ethnic backgrounds, or (b) get to know them better and wait for an opportunity to learn more about it obliquely ("Oh, your mom is visiting this weekend -- did she grow up in [city the person grew up in], too?"). My understanding of social norms where I've lived (East Coast and Midwest States) is that it's considered a personal question to ask someone straight-out about their ethnicity.
posted by palliser at 8:36 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I never ask the question because it doesn't seem necessary. For what it's worth, I live these days in a neighborhood with a great deal of international diversity. Simply from people's names or the languages they speak among themselves, I know who the Chinese families are, who the Vietnamese family is, who the French family is, who the Indian family is, and so on. I don't know very well the Latin American guy a couple houses down, but it's not particularly important to me know exactly where he's from originally; I'm more concerned about whether or not he keeps his dog from running around on the street.

The last time I did ask the question was with a neighbor couple at my former home: He was from Canada and she was from Chile, and her accent sounded oddly Slavic. She told she got that comment a lot. After that, I knew I really couldn't classify people based on how they speak.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:38 AM on October 10, 2009

My personal feeling is that "colorblindness" is stupid. You're under no obligation to pretend you can't hear someone's accent (as long as you give respect to the English skills they have, and aren't just gratuitously pointout out "mistakes") or to pretend you can't see their skin/eyes/hair/build/whatever.

But hey, I'm white, and if the first thing out of someone's mouth when they see me is a comment on my red hair, I tend to think they're a moron. Not that they're racist — just, dude, really? That was the best conversation-starter you could come up with? Okay then. So I try to remember that feeling when I'm striking up a conversation with someone who's visibly nonwhite.

I think there's an extra twist, too, in that asking a third-generation immigrant where they're "originally from" is essentially asking for their grandparents' life story. That's a perfectly okay thing to ask — I could tell you a story or two about most of my good friends' grandparents — but, you know, if I tapped you on the shoulder at a bus stop and said "Hey, I couldn't help but wondering, where was your grandmother born?" you might think that was a little weird. Hell, even if we were out on a date or something, if I asked about your grandmother before I'd gotten to know very much about you, that would be weird too.

But on the other hand, with someone you've gotten to know even a little bit, you probably wouldn't think twice about swapping family stories. It's just not generally the first thing out of your mouth, and IMHO that's why asking a stranger about their ethnicity is sort of a weird thing to do.

I think a lot of white Americans are nervous about this sort of conversation because we're scared of looking racist. And the thing to remember is, there's absolutely nothing racist about discussing looks or family histories. What gets iffy is if you act like people who look like this have jobs and interesting hobbies and they watch television and can tell good jokes, and people who look like that are interesting because they're From Somewhere Else.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:41 AM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Most people are not offended when you ask them where they're from.

The question was specifically about asking people who "look as if they might be from a different country (than the US)" Not people who are "white, fair-skinned, brown hair blue-eyes, 6' 2" and look like a WASP". Since you don't fit the first description, how would you know?

Like I said, It annoys me personally. The implication is "you're not from around here" when in fact I was born right here in this town.

Now, maybe it would be different in a city like NY where most people have traveled too. I know when I'm visiting someone in Texas and people ask where I'm from it's probably because of the accent difference, so it's not as annoying.

Actually my sister lives in NY now and she was telling me how people would ask where she was from and when she would tell them Iowa a common reaction was "OMG what's that like!?"
posted by delmoi at 8:41 AM on October 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

if the first thing out of someone's mouth when they see me is a comment on my red hair, I tend to think they're a moron.

Oo, this reminds me of one of my favorite Miss Manners quotes: you know you're a polite person when you can meet a pair of identical twin redheads and the first thing you say to them is, "So, what grade are you in?"

This is instructive for this question, too: not everything that seems remarkable to you should be remarked on.
posted by palliser at 8:47 AM on October 10, 2009 [26 favorites]

I live in a country where a majority of people's ethic heritage is the same country and most people are white. I usually ask nonwhite people "Where did you grow up?" because, like you said I'm usually interested in their ethnic heritage, and I'm not trying to make them out as the "other" (in any case, I'm usually more "other" than them). Unfortunately, nonwhite people here have grown so accustomed to being asked "where are you from" as code for "what's your ethnic heritage" that I often get answers, even to my modified form of the question, which are "oh my parents are from X". But it works most of the time.
posted by beerbajay at 9:03 AM on October 10, 2009

Very tricky question to ask. I've worked with someone with Asian ancestry, English accent who was born and raised in Uganda, settled in Canada. Assuming people don't look American/Canadian is dangerous. There are lots of people who are 2nd and 3rd generation, of mixed race/ethnicity, or who inherited white blonde hair from a distant ancestor and were born around the corner. I wouldn't ask about accent unless I knew the person more than just casually. Usually by the time you know someone, they've told you something about themselves and you'll know whether it's something you can ask about or not. I'm in Toronto where at least half the city has an accent other than ordinary Canadian. And, if you do ask, know your geography.
posted by x46 at 9:06 AM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

err.. I'm usually not interested in their ethnic heritage... *facepalm*
posted by beerbajay at 9:07 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Building on what heatherann said, some variation on "So, did you grow up in [our town]?" seems to be a fair and interesting part of getting to know someone, no matter how much they do or don't look or sound like you and your family. I use it a lot, but usually I offer my info first ("Oh, I've lived in Toronto since I was 14, but I was born and raised in Montreal. Did you grow up here?"), especially if the person I'm talking to looks or sounds different enough from a white native-born Torontonian that there's a good chance that they may be quite tired of this set of questions.

If your conversation with anyone new doesn't get to the point where this discussion of equals (versus what could be seen as a conversation between a Local and Someone Exotic, no matter how well-intentioned you are), then you may never know.

Inigo Montoya: Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo Montoya: I must know...
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo Montoya: 'kay.
posted by maudlin at 9:16 AM on October 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

As the others have said - usually depends on how well you know the person, do bear in mind that if you use the question as a conversation opener this is somehting your interlocutor has probably heard dozens of times - at least as a Polish person living in the UK I have. I don't mind being asked about my ethnic origin, however, I do mind the version of the question which goes somewhat like that:
Person asking: Where are you originally from?
Me: Poland
P.a.: Wow, your accent doesn't sound Polish at all!
Me: Hm, thanks, I guess?
I mean, would you tell me if I had a really strong Polish accent? Thought not.
posted by coffee_monster at 9:17 AM on October 10, 2009

I get asked this all the time and I think it's REALLY REALLY RUDE. At best, your Australian waitress has said "Near Perth!" eight times today already and she's sick of it. At worst, the minority you're interrogating is reminded again and again that they are "other" and that they will never be seen as just "a person", they are "an Asian person" or whatever. Please don't do it.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:45 AM on October 10, 2009 [16 favorites]

Nearly every white person I know is some mixture of Irish, German, and/or Polish, and unless they're from one of those countries, their experience usually doesn't significantly differ from mine. Other ethnicities and cultures are more interesting to me because I'm not exposed to them on a daily basis.

I know a fuckton of people who just don't think this is appropriate for small talk. Two in particular, both ethnically Chinese, will flatly and truthfully answer "Texas" and "Virginia," respectively, when asked where they're from because that's where they were born and grew up, and the experiences of living in those two states are what colored their upbringing. Granted, if I were constantly being harassed by people asking where I was "really" from because they couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge their interest in my ethnicity, or being told (sometimes overtly) that I couldn't be from where I was from, I'd be pretty pissed too.

The point of it all is, "exotic" is not a compliment. Like with your birth defect, inherent physical attributes don't make people interesting...the experiences they've had in relation to such things, however, can.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:52 AM on October 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm Mexican and look the part. I get asked this a lot, and I don't mind it at all. I, however, have had people ask me this in order to find out if they should discriminate against me. THAT is not nice.
posted by cobain_angel at 10:55 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, this:

And if I lived somewhere where I had a noticeable accent? I wouldn't feel belittled. People LOVE accents.

Yes, go right ahead and objectify that girl with that omgthat'ssocuteeeeeeee accent. I love being an The Girl With a Noticeable Accent, rather than a real actual person with actual interests and who has made significant contributions to the community /end sarcasm.

I would like to see half of the posters here actually live in a foreign country in which they are the minority for several years. Then they'll see how the novelty wears thin after a while... and may even become insulting.

Basically, when you meet someone and the one and only thing you are curious about is their supposed 'exoticism,' you are objectifying them. The other person is not your cultural dictionary, and the other person is not a 'representative' of the culture that you are curious to know about -- the other person is a person. Treat them like one.
posted by moiraine at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2009 [11 favorites]

I'm from TN, but have lived in the northeast for 10 years now. Living in NYC, I still get asked pretty frequently where I am from. Doesn't really bother me. I actually like my accent, and have never tried to get rid of it. I'm often puzzled by Southerners who do. I realize it may come with some baggage, but I'm not particularly ashamed of my roots.

As an interesting counterpoint, I work in an office largely populated by Europeans and nationalities from around the world. The first time I went for drinks with my office mates (and after a few rounds), they proclaimed my upbringing in quasi-rural Appalachia to be the most "exotic" of the group.
posted by kimdog at 11:05 AM on October 10, 2009

Wow. I'm not allowed to tell people I like the sound of their accent?

My personal experience: I spent 8 years living in the Netherlands (I'm American by birth) and was pleased to be able to become close to fluent in the language. When someone nicely asked me where I was from, as they didn't recognize my accent, I was pleased to tell them. I was a rarity over there - an American who spoke Dutch - and I was gratified when someone took enough of an interest in me to ask about my accent (rather than just thinking, "Oh, you talk funny" or continually asking me to repeat myself). Brits would ask the same question (lots of them over there), often telling me that I sounded "transatlantic" (which makes it sound as if I was born & raised on a boat in the middle of the ocean), and that would lead to a conversation about different American accents and different British accents. Telling a Bostonian like me that I don't sound like Matt Damon is like telling a Liverpuddlian that s/he doesn't sound like Ringo Starr. But that's a tangent...

Some accents (and languages) are very beautiful to me. The idea that I cannot compliment someone on this, particularly as I'm the kind of person who spontaneously tells people if they have lovely hair or incredible dress-sense, strikes me as ludicrous.

Regarding accents, I say: be pleasant, be interested (in more than just the pat answer or simple flirtation), and IMHO if someone gets offended, that's the chip on their shoulder, not your approach.

Regarding ethnic heritage: stickier, particularly as the question can smack of "you ain't from here". Is discussing ethnic heritage something on the "Stuff White People Like" list?
posted by pammeke at 11:13 AM on October 10, 2009

I think the most tiring thing about being asked where I'm from (white Canadian in the American South) is that everyone seems to have the same response:

"Oh, you're Canadian, eh?" And then try and make me say 'out'.

That was the best conversation-starter you could come up with? indeed.

I avoid asking people where they are from unless I think I might have something interesting to say about where they might be from (I met an Australian once who did know the only other Australian I knew).
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:13 AM on October 10, 2009

Slight Texas-accented US citizen here. Wherever I go in the world I am quizzed about my ethnicity/race. Apparently I pass for anything from South Asian to Lebanese to Spanish to Greek to Latin American to natives and neighbors of those places. The truth is a lot more boring.

I'm asked by strangers who identify themselves as natives of the place they came from most often. Sometimes people just start speaking Spanish or Arabic before confirming I know what they are saying, especially in NYC and TX. I even got jokingly dressed down by a professor in grad school who had assumed for years that I was a native of his country. He thought I had hidden my true identity with a blah US name which resembled a typical name in his native language!

The questions doesn't bother me or my mother who gets them too. I don't mind answering either. Generally I do not to ask them of people because I know not everyone feels the same way I do about such interrogations.
posted by vincele at 11:23 AM on October 10, 2009

Now, maybe it would be different in a city like NY where most people have traveled too. I know when I'm visiting someone in Texas and people ask where I'm from it's probably because of the accent difference, so it's not as annoying.

I'm a New Yorker, and I still get this sort of question. A lot of people can't ethnically 'place' me. They'll see a bit of this or a bit of that (and a lot of times they're wrong), but it's something I'm used to at this point. I don't feel othered by it. When I get the "where are you from" question, I usually say Brooklyn, unless it's clear from the asking that they mean ethnicity. Then again, I've had people also express surprise that I'm from Brooklyn, because they were expecting me to have some thick accent.

It can be a little weird when people come up to you and assume you're ______ and start speaking (language of that people) to you. Unless it's English or Spanish, I can't respond.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:23 AM on October 10, 2009

Wow. I'm not allowed to tell people I like the sound of their accent?

Nope, not a stranger. Not unless you're willing to hear how "cute" it is that you yourself say or do things just a little bit "wrong" in return.

"Oh I just love the way you walk different than most people. It's just adorable."
"The way your skin color is just a bit different than most people around here. It's neat!"

See, even if you mean well, that's condescending and/or patronizing anyway.
posted by rokusan at 11:45 AM on October 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

Rokusan, I genuinely don't see the difference between telling someone that they have a beautiful accent, a beautiful hat, beautiful eyes, or a beautiful nose-ring. I like my accent. I speak differently from a Texan. A Texan telling me that they like my (New England) accent is not insulting. Dutch people telling me that they like my (American) accent is not insulting. Cute and adorable don't come into it. Accents aren't cute or adorable, any more than a piece of music is cute or adorable.
posted by pammeke at 11:54 AM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

And speaking with an accent - any accent - is not right or wrong. Everybody speaks with some kind of accent. No one's talking about someone mispronouncing words or incorrectly conjugating verbs. Speaking errors are not part of having an accent.
posted by pammeke at 11:58 AM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: pammeke - what I feel like some people saying - and correct me if I'm wrong - is that when the asker is in a position of privilege (e.g. white American talking to Latin American immigrant), commenting on their accent or appearance reduces the person to an object, even if that's not your intent.

I've been to Paris several times, and people there have asked me if I'm British or Spanish, apparently because I do not speak French with an American accent. There's no reason for me to be offended because there is no history or power differential between me and them. There is no inherent difference in privilege between a person from Boston and one from Houston. But there definitely is between someone from a non-European country and someone of European descent.
posted by desjardins at 12:09 PM on October 10, 2009

Previously on the blue: "No, where are you really from?" "Screw off." and "What are you?" "Tired of answering that question." (Not quite the same question, but still relevant.)

There is an immense amount of baggage and pain for some people in this area. I would really, truly appreciate it if you don't use "where are you from?" (In fact I am always impressed, relieved and thankful on the inside when a person manages to meet me without asking that kind of question - without treating me as an Other.)

To find out the same information, you can try:

Do you live around here?
Yes./No, I live in [area].
(If they live somewhere else, you could ask about that area. And then...)
Have you always lived around here/in [area]?

If they're recent immigrants, they can now talk about where they moved from if they want to. If they tell you they have always lived around here, or that they moved from another place in the US, please then treat them as you would a white person - because they really are likely to be no different. Even if there are influences from other cultures in their lives, they are likely to be more minor, and you'll just have to find those out the same way you find out about more in-depth stories in white people's lives, which comes with time. And if there are major influences in their lives from other cultures, they'll come up naturally in conversation sooner or later.

It's about a sense of belonging, of not forever seen as the outsider. I thank you for caring, and for not making life harder for us.
posted by catchingsignals at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2009

Desjardins, thank you for the explanation. I got distracted the mention of people with regional American or Australian accents. I guess I only ask about accents when I think I might recognize a very broad regional accent (such as Eastern European) and have genuine interest (or extensive experience) in that region. Otherwise, it seems like a frivolous query looking for trivia rather than a desire to find a common conversation topic with a new acquaintance.

Apologies if my obtuseness was a derail!
posted by pammeke at 12:23 PM on October 10, 2009

I'll agree with anyone else here: asking where somebody is from on the basis of an accent is not offensive, but be aware that EVERY conversation I have with a stranger here in NYC involves telling them I'm from England but no not London, and it's the least interesting conversation I could have. But it's to be expected, and I certainly don't think badly of anyone for asking.
If you're asking on the basis of looks, you have to be more careful. Wherever they say they're from, you have to accept that; if you're interested in their ancestry you can ask about that but it's a different question than "where are you from?" and a more personal one. Anyone born in the USA is from the USA, wherever their parents came from, and it's a little offensive to say that what you call a "2nd generation" person is from any place else, although they may well be happy to discuss their ancestry if asked about that.
posted by nowonmai at 12:57 PM on October 10, 2009

Rokusan, I genuinely don't see the difference between telling someone that they have a beautiful accent, a beautiful hat, beautiful eyes, or a beautiful nose-ring.

Eyes are safe, but then again they don't change over time or have a one-to-one relationship to anything racial or national. Hats and nose-rings are worn by choice and can be removed: they're deliberate fashion choices. Not the same at all.

Accents are generally not things that people have on purpose, and you have no way of knowing that it's not something the person is making an effort to change or remove, as is often the case especially in America, where the melting-pot paradigm is dominant and multiculturalism is a bit of a social mine-field.

It's like saying "Oh you look good with that extra weight" to someone that looks a bit larger than when last you saw them. How the heck can you presume it was a deliberate thing, or that the other person intends it to be a positive?

If you don't like that comparison, it's the same as saying "Oh I love the color of your skin" to someone. Would you really do that without realizing how it sounds?

Why does it matter if the person's a stranger or not?

You can tease a friend.
posted by rokusan at 1:01 PM on October 10, 2009

As a British native living in the United States, I hear "I love your accent!" from strangers or new acquaintances fairly often. There isn't really a good response I can give to that -- saying thank you seems bizarre, because I can't really help the way I talk.

It's easier to respond to a statement like "You don't sound like you're from around here" (not said threateningly, I generally assume!), because then I can credit the asker's assumption politely and pleasantly and give a short/long explanation of where I'm originally from.

I don't mind being asked if I'm English or Australian or Dutch or Irish (all of which have happened -- so huh, maybe my accent isn't that definable!), and I don't mind having to explain exactly what part of Britain I'm originally from if you ask nicely and sound like you're actually interested in knowing the answer (rather than wanting to re-enact some Monty Python sketches or ask if Benny Hill is still alive. No, let's not, and no, he isn't.).

I met a man recently whose name was Scandinavian, with an accent to match. After we'd been chatting a little while, I said to him, "Sounds like you and me are a long way from where we started out," which gave him a chance to talk about being Norwegian but having a Swedish name, and we went from there.

I realize much of my answer pertains largely to taking a cue from an accent rather than from skin color, but I hope this might be useful.
posted by vickyverky at 1:37 PM on October 10, 2009

what I feel like some people saying - and correct me if I'm wrong - is that when the asker is in a position of privilege (e.g. white American talking to Latin American immigrant), commenting on their accent or appearance reduces the person to an object, even if that's not your intent.

Des, I'd say that sort of implied power situation underscores what's wrong about it and makes it more obvious, yes.

Even among perceived peers, though, it can have a talking-down quality, or in MeFi terms, a certain "honey"-ness.

Oh, I love what you tried to do with your hair!
posted by rokusan at 2:21 PM on October 10, 2009

As a brown person who often gets annoyed by this question, I also agree with everyone upthread that it all has to do with askers intent.

If you're genuinely interested in knowing where I'm from, then great. I'm happy to engage you in conversation.
If your curiosity lies in knowing what flavor of brown I am, but cannot bring yourself to ask that question (I'm curious about your ethnic background?), then I'll just remember you as a rude and obnoxious person.
posted by special-k at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

MrTaff is Tibetan.( I may have mentioned that a few times before.) He really DOES NOT LIKE being asked where he is from... for a few reasons.

In part because it's often people from various asian backgrounds asking, as if to claim him (he seems to be asian-homogenous looking apparently)... and when it's a Chinese person they will inevitably say... "Oh, you're Chinese!" which just about makes him want to stab them in the eye with a chopstick.

Many, many other folk hear Nepali and continue to refer to his Nepaleseness (?). For god's sake, he says Tibetan and they just can't process it. It's embarrassing for them. It happens all the time. Some folk have continued for years with the Nepali thing even though they are corrected every time. They are different bloody countries!

Other folk say things like "Oh yeah, that's why you're so calm".. which is code for inscrutable. And it's absolute insulting, and marginally racist, bullshit. He's a normal person with the full range of human emotions but people think because he is reserved they can project all this "calm" on to him.

They're often the same folk that rave on about H.H. the Dalai Lama. MrTaff is not even a buddhist... he's a Bonpo... but folk imagine he must be a Tibetan buddhist because he's Tibetan. As if you'd assume all Irish folk are Catholic.

So... it's not just the asking... it's the inevitable ignorant and insulting follow-up. And that is just for Tibetan people. I should imagine just about every culture and "race" encounters the same problems and hates it just as much.

I have two half-Tibetan daughters and I get asked a lot about their lineage. ToddlerTaff gets a lot of remarks about how beautiful she is... which seems like the beginning of objectification... how exotic, how unusual etc. I am proud to state that they are half Tibetan... but I can see it getting old and making her feel uncomfortable soon.

So, MrTaff says he's from India. That's where he grew up. And that either confuses folk or shuts them up. I say my girls are half-Tibetan but it's only been three years, and only once or twice a day.... . one day soon I will probably start saying "They're 100% Australian. Got a problem with that, Mate?"

If you really feel the need to point out that someone is different and doesn't belong... ask where their parents live or something. That probably won't give you a full picture... but it might shut you up and the askee might not feel as picked upon. Maybe.
posted by taff at 2:39 PM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

I live in Foreign and I regularly get asked where I'm from or what my accent is. It's occasionally annoying but I generally remember that I'm the only person from my nation that people here have ever interacted with, and I make an effort to be civilised even if I am sick of it. Regardless of how often I get asked, it's not your fault, and at absolute worst I'll give you an extremely brief answer and the answer to your follow up question is that things in my country are "OK". Incidentally, I genuinely enjoy the part of the interaction where you completely mis-guess my country :-) My assumed birthplace has spanned the globe. 2 days ago someone tried out their German on me, despite the fact that I can't string a sentence together in that language. So that's my experience as not-particularly-thin-skinned askee. It's basically cool. Oh, and it's much cooler to ask something about my country than to tell me something about it.

I also love accents, and am fairly likely to ask about them. I think "I love your accent" is kind of patronising, I prefer to explain that I'm fascinated by accents and would you mind cluing me in? I do worry about offending people, and I don't always ask, but nobody has seemed put out by that, whether they're native English speakers or not. Incidentally, if you are curious about a person's background but you think that accent is potentially a loaded issue, "that's an interesting name, what does it mean?" is usually something that people aren't bothered by, and in my case it would involve mentioning 3 generations of my family history.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:25 PM on October 10, 2009

I get a lot of this.

I am half Chinese (father's side), half ethnically European (my Lithuanian and Dutch grandparents' families came to the U.S. around 1900). The Chinese half is third-generation. The surname sounds more Vietnamese than Chinese. I do not look especially Chinese (if remarking this isn't trading in more stereotypes).

The most amusing instance was my visit at an academic conference to a meeting of the Society of Ancient Military Historians (this was before the fame/infamy of Victor Davis Hanson). They were all older, white guys. I was a new Ph.D. After I introduced myself, one of them asked, "Are you from Vietnam, young lady?"

Even when I'm not the "enemy," I don't find it pleasant.
posted by bad grammar at 3:27 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I don't recognize your accent, I love the sound of it! Where are you originally from?"

Please don't ask that question to someone you don't really know.

I get TONS of this, being Bangladeshi - about the only place I don't get asked this is in Bangladesh and even then they peg me as "foreign" (I was born and raised in Malaysia). It annoys me so much when people ask the "Where are you from"/"Where is your accent from" question, mainly because people aren't actually interested in my answer - they want me to confirm their perception that I'm Indian or Sri Lankan or something. I have seen faces literally FALL when I say "Malaysia" or "I live down at St Lucia".

The people who ask me this as a first/second interaction thing aren't really interested in me; they're interested in Exotic Other Personness. If it's someone I'm more familiar with, then that's fine, because by that point I know they're not going to expect a standard answer, they've regarded me as a person, and they'd be more open to discussing this about themselves.
posted by divabat at 3:54 PM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

When people ask me where I'm from, I usually say Florida because that's where I grew up (from 3-18). But then they ask me where I was born, so I say Georgia because that's where I was born. They usually still seem perplexed because what they really want to know is "why are you brown?" I wish they would just ask me that because then I would tell them that my parents emigrated from India to the US in the 70s. But, for all intents and purposes, I don't feel like an Indian. I don't even feel that much like an Indian-American. I just feel like an American, who grew up in Florida. So I find the assumption that where I'm from (part of my identity in some ways) must be foreign to be tres annoying.

If you want to know about someone's skin color or eye shape or accent, you could just ask them about their family background; where did their antecedents come from? Don't try to hide it. Be honest. I think it's fine to be curious about other people. It's one of the most awesome things about living in the US, that there are so many different looking/sounding people with all kinds of backgrounds.
posted by bluefly at 5:09 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mod note: few comments removed - you all know where MeTa is, please use it for sidebar discussions or go to email, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:15 PM on October 10, 2009

Best answer: The people who ask me this as a first/second interaction thing aren't really interested in me; they're interested in Exotic Other Personness.

This is true. And I say that not as someone who gets asked but as someone who sometimes is dying to ask. But I don't, because it's rude. And because I see that wanting to pin a flag on someone I've just met because their face or accent is intriguing to me -- rather than listening to what they're saying, as I would with a boring ol' white or black person -- as latent racism.

Racism isn't just burning crosses on people's lawns; it's the natural impulse we all have to sort the world into Like Me and Not Like Me based on appearance. The degree to which we recognize it in ourselves and fight it, is the degree to which we can say we're not racist. Me, I want to be very not racist, so I try to find the things a person chooses to tell me as defining them -- what music they like, what job they have, how they feel about Roman Polanski -- and fight that impulse that makes me think that whether they are Vietnamese or Cambodian is the important thing.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:13 PM on October 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

When I was living as a "white" person in an Asian country, I hated that "Where are you from?" was often the first question people born and raised there asked me. It made me feel like no matter how long I lived there I was never seen as belonging there, and also, that I was more of a curiosity/novelty than a person with a life. I really hated it. No problem if it was asked after some conversation but as an introductory ice-breaker, I hated it. It often kind of seemed like "Hey, you're funny looking, why?". So I think it's all about when/how you ask.
posted by Chrysalis at 6:44 PM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

What's your ancestry? Always worked for me...
posted by Muirwylde at 7:02 PM on October 10, 2009

Uh, I usually just come out and ask. I am actually interested in placing different accents and dialects for my own future reference, so the genuine interest shows through.

"I was wondering, whereabouts do you hail from? My tin ear isn't very accurate with that yet."
posted by arishaun at 7:13 PM on October 10, 2009

What's your ancestry?

Africa, like you.

I was wondering, whereabouts do you hail from? My tin ear isn't very accurate with that yet."

Does it matter?

Seriously, some of these clumsy attempts at not asking the question will still get pinged by those of us who keep getting the question as "oh dear here it comes again". Get to know the person, let it flow as part of casual conversation. No need to hide it in "whereabouts".
posted by divabat at 7:36 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love the people saying, "No way people get offended by this question; that just can't be right because I LOVE asking it and always do."

I'm sorry that you're discovering that something you enjoy is offensive and/or annoying to some people. Is it so interesting to you that you'd risk making the person you're asking uncomfortable? So you "love" learning about different accents and countries and cultures. You are not unique in this. Many, many people are "curious." The person you're asking gets this ALL THE TIME. Give them a break. Go take a book out of the library on xyz culture.

I'm not saying that you're racist or have evil intentions. If I say to you, "I'm not from here," then you could ask, "Oh, where are you from?" But my talking with an accent or having an unusual skin color does not equal my saying "I'm not from here" and is not an invitation for you to ask where I'm from.

And yes, some people might be thrilled to discuss their background/ancestry/race. In that case, they'll probably bring it up themselves.
posted by thebazilist at 8:31 PM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

Is there a polite way to ask someone where they're from?

Personally, I think "May I ask what your background is?" is the most polite and most accurate question to pose to a person of unknown ethnic origin. The reason "Where you from?" is so annoying is because that's not what the asker really wants to know ("No, where are you really from"). Minorities know they're minorities, and that people are curious, innocently or otherwise, about their origins.

The last person who asked me this question said "Excuse me, I hope you don't mind, but could I ask what your background is?" It made me smile.
posted by Rora at 8:33 PM on October 10, 2009

To repeat myself succinctly, I agree that one cannot phrase this question in a way that will guarantee avoiding offense. In spite of the asker's intentions, however kind or well-meaning those intentions might be, one cannot gauge the recipient's feelings about a question they very likely answer very often.

Like I said, I get asked about my ancestry/background in New England, Texas and everywhere in between. All the time, wherever I go. I don't mind. The askers usually come from places far from here and want to talk with someone from their homeland. An interesting conversation usually follows.

However, just because I don't mind, doesn't mean the question flies with everyone. So with people you don't know well, why not err on the side of caution and make strangers comfortable in conversation?
posted by vincele at 9:13 PM on October 10, 2009

I'm a non-white person with a non-US accent. English is my first language. There is no polite way of remarking on my accent or my looks. You will be patronising at best and rude at worst. (And I'll probably mutter "I'm from San Francisco" and turn away.)

If it comes up in conversation, that's different; but it's never a good starter. (Speaking only for myself, of course. Mom always says I'm too sensitive.)
posted by phliar at 11:28 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

The thing is, there's no easy answer. I often get asked where my name comes from when introduced to someone. My response is usually, "My parents gave it to me."

There's a difference between asking this of tourists versus immigrants. Immigrants often are trying to assimiliate and the question of where one is from brings direct attention to the fact that one is "other" or foreign and the question becomes alienating as a result. Tourists or visitors are quite well aware of their outsider status and may be a little more open to the question, however, but that's not to say that it wouldn't offend then either.

It's especially egregious if you've just met the person.

That being said, I would say it depends on the person and the rapport that you have with them. The fact is that this is not something I would be comfortable with being asked by someone I just met as one of the first things in conversation.
posted by ooga_booga at 12:46 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Canadian with Chinese ancestry here. The "where are you from?" question is painful to me because it serves as a reminder that many of my fellow citizens will always view me as somehow less Canadian than they are. I was born and raised here, and I happen to really *like* being Canadian -- I happily mangle French in my attempts to be bilingual; I believe in universal healthcare and the dream of multiculturalism; hell, one of my summer jobs was working at the legislative building, explaining the structure of Canadian government to schoolkids. It sucks being told that my citizenship is somehow less "real" because I don't happen to have the correctly-shaped eyes.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 12:55 AM on October 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

Semi-regular experience when I'm outside Ireland:

Eejit: "Where are you from then?"
Me: "I'm from Ireland"
Eejit: "Oh God, you're from Oireland, are ye? To be sure, to be sure, begorrah, would you like a drink?"

or, once or twice,

Eejit: "Where are you from then?"
Me: "I'm from Ireland"
Eejit: "Are you from the English part?"
Me: "ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!"
posted by knapah at 7:08 AM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I asked someone where she was from after she called me 'hon' 3 times in a the shortest coffee ordering exchange ever (I'm so not crazy about that). She said Maryland. I said, 'oh, I head that in Baltimore people use 'hon' a lot more than in other places.' (Thanks Metafilter!)

I thought the whole exchange was kind of abrupt, and I was not saying it in the nicest way because I don't like the diminutive, but she was extremely pleased and started talking about Baltimore. It was actually really sweet.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:28 AM on October 11, 2009

Best answer: Lots of good answers here as to why you should not ask this question to someone you have just met, and like others, I also do not ask this question on first/casual acquaintance, and usually wait for the other person to bring it up, should they want to, as I get to know them better.

Others have given lots of good reasons why you should not do this. I will give you one more. People with accents are sometimes in your country because they are refugees, and the story of why that is may be sad and painful and nothing they would like to talk about to someone they have just met. Your asking makes them have to think about how to answer, and how much to answer. Dee may want to tell you she is from Bosnia, for example, but there is a rather painful backstory there, and you cannot know if she wants to discuss it with you unless you know her at least a little bit. She may be fine with it, but she may not. You have no way of knowing if this is a question that will make someone uncomfortable when you ask them this on first acquaintance. This is why I never ask this question.

Another example, my sister is half Korean, the illegitimate child of an American G.I. and a Korean woman. Her mother kept her for about a year, but decided my sister would face too much discrimination in Korea, and gave her up. My sister spent time with a foster mother and in an orphanage, until my parents adopted her when she was 4. She was desperately ready to have a family at that point, and her bond with my parents is extremely tight. She looks very obviously Eurasian, but has no accent at all. She gets asked about her background quite a bit, but she really does not feel it is anyone's business but her own as to why she looks the way she does, and how she came to be in America. She really feels that she should be taken at face value, and that her "backstory" is something she will only share with friends or those she is comfortable telling.

My sister happens to know the story of her birth, but there are other adoptees out there who may not know their full ethnic background. They may look "exotic" to you, but not really be able to tell you their ethnicity, and may not want to share the reason they can't when they have only just met you, as it may involve abandonment, neglect, illegitimacy, or a hundred other things that are nobody's business but theirs.
posted by gudrun at 9:10 AM on October 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just ask, "So where are you from?" and leave it at that.

I'm Chinese-American and I usually don't care if people ask me, unless they keep pestering me about it. The worst is the amazement that I "speak such good English" (actually, it's speak English so well, but that's not the point). The implication that Asian-Americans are less American that other people and are all foreign born gets tired.

Person: Where are you from?
Me: Los Angeles.
Person: No! Originally.
Me: Ohhh, Portland, Oregon.
Person: No, before that.
Me: I was born here.


Person: So speak such good English.
Me: So do you!
posted by Miss X at 12:52 PM on October 11, 2009

When I lived in America: I got asked this all the time and I'd just reply "San Francisco". Sometimes people are smart enough to ask where my parents are from but then I feel like they're tricking me. I mean, I tell them my ethnic background is Korean and they say, "OMG I looooove Korean food!" what am I supposed to say? I usually reply that I love burritos.

Now living in England: I get asked this all the time and I usually reply, "California" and the usual response is, "haha Yeah you sound like it, what part?"
posted by like_neon at 1:40 AM on October 12, 2009

I think this thread proves pretty well that there's not much of a concensus on whether or how this is an acceptable question to ask. I personally tend to err on the side of taking extra care to be polite in situations like these, so I probably wouldn't bring it up unless the other person did.

Most people here in Australia can pick me as a Kiwi pretty well, apparently my accent is still as strong as it ever was, so people usually just jump straight to the "so where in NZ are you from?" bit. It doesn't bother me in the slightest (until they start making fun of my accent, which while not particularly offensive to me, is boring and has so totally been done to death dontchaknow)

and of course the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry

Outside Australia I get mistaken for an Aussie from time to time, and did so even before I moved here. It confuses me, sure, because the accents sound SO different to me, but I've never been offended or annoyed.

I had a customer once at work back in New Zealand (before I ever moved to Australia) who asked me if I was from New Zealand and when I said I was indeed, refused to believe me, and argued with me for several minutes telling me I couldn't possibly be a New Zealander because I didn't "sound right"? It was quite bizarre and I was about three seconds away from going to get my passport out of my bag just to get rid of him when he finally left.

Also, an American I met once, on finding out I was from NZ, complimented me on my English. It was very awkward.
posted by lwb at 3:20 AM on October 12, 2009

If you're someone who gets asked this a lot, does it annoy you?

Yes, if people try to guess where I'm from, or worse, assume they know where I'm from.

I'm Bangladeshi. People seem to love running up to me in the street asking me if I'm from Brazil/Columbia/Spain. I find that bizarre and annoying.

I also get annoyed when people don't ask where I'm from, but say stuff like "So do you get a chance to go back to India often?" Argh!!

Is it more rude if the person is 2nd generation (or more)

YMMV, but I think so, because it could imply that they're foreign in their home. Many of my 2nd generation friends deeply dislike the question "where are you from" and will reply to it with a glare and "Richmond".
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:40 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mod note: a few comments removed - this is a touchy subject and comments should be answers to the question, not talking about how some people sure are touchy.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:08 PM on October 12, 2009

I'm not crazy about this sort of line of questioning, particularly the kind availablelight's getting at where to be blunt the person wishes they could ask me what race I am because I'm clearly not white, but their PC whatever has them doggedly trying to find a way to ask in any way that is NOT about race, but therefore inadvertently becomes racist because the pussyfooting verbal dance around it means they can't find a way to ask that divorces my appearance from my culture. I was adopted as a baby and therefore culturally as "white" and American as I could possibly be, so I'm the epitome of that "Boise" responder. Every question after I answer with my "Boise"-like response just becomes and more and more awkward as the whole thing devolves into my interviewer growing clearly frustrated they can't find a polite way to ask me why I look different from them.
posted by ifjuly at 7:57 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd like to convey my sincere appreciation to everyone for answering this question and for putting up with my naïvete. I have truly learned a lot about an experience that as a white American I can never have. It does not seem useful to mark a best answer since there are many perspectives, all of which are valid. No absolute consensus was reached, but the majority say that it is a question better left unasked by the casual acquaintance and certainly by the stranger. If asked, it should be broached with consideration for the person and the asker's relationship to him or her, and the answer should always be taken at face value.
posted by desjardins at 11:22 AM on October 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Indian living in the US. Mostly I don't like "where are you from?" because it implies that I'm not from here or that I'm a foreigner in my own country. I can just about put up with it, though. The "no, really" part gets stupid, though.

Normal-seeming person: Where are you from?
Me: New York.
Actually an idiot: No, I mean really.
Me: Manhattan.
Now frustrated idiot who thinks I'm an idiot: No, originally where are you from?
Me: Beth Israel Hospital.
Utter toolbox: Ugh! Fine, where are your parents from?
Me: Oh, Mumbai, India.
Jerkface: Huh, you don't sound Indian.

Bleh. I love talking about my heritage and my ancestry, but I don't particularly feel inclined to validate other people's preconceptions of my foreignness or assumption that I can't be American because I'm not white.

On the other hand, I'm perfectly fine with "May I ask about your ethnicity?" or something similar. A polite inquiry that leaves me room to back out of the conversation if I don't feel like having it is much appreciated (although I've never shied away from it when asked politely). Acknowledging that I have a clearly different racial background than you do is ok by me; implying that I couldn't possibly be from wherever I'm standing is pretty annoying.

For what it's worth, though, I don't mind if a relative stranger asks me, so long as they're not being an idiot, toolbox, or jerkface. It's not a taboo subject and, honestly, given the choice between someone asking or someone staring at me intently while they try to divine it from the ether, I'll take asking every time.
posted by Errant at 5:03 PM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've learned over time that people living in NYC generally don't like being asked where they're from.

Years ago, I asked a cab driver where he was from, and he responded with a lecture that basically amounted to: "When you ask me where I'm from, what I hear is that you don't think that I belong here. It's obvious that I'm from somewhere else, but it's also obvious that I'm here, now, with you. Isn't that what's important? And yet, when we've barely started talking, you demonstrate that it's more important to find out where I'm from than to think about me as someone who now lives in the same city that you do."

And I have to say that, even though I'm white and Jewish and willing to speak my mind, which leads a lot of people to think I grew up in New York, even I get tired of the conversation that inevitably follows when someone asks the question, and discovers that I'm from Kansas. Did I grow up on a farm, do I have a dog named Toto, etc. Either that, or they write a cliche story in their own mind about a small-town boy coming straight to the metropolis, and without bothering to find out if that's what actually happened, they start asking me questions about it. "It must have been quite something to come here straight from Kansas. How did that make you feel?" etc. When in fact, I traveled quite a bit as a kid, and by the time I moved to New York, I had lived in four different countries.

Having had these experiences, I make an effort not to ask the questions that I assume people I meet get asked all the time. For example, say you meet someone who introduces himself as "Atticus." Don't immediately start talking about To Kill A Mockingbird. If you do that, he'll think you're just another idiot. In fact, every time he introduces himself to someone, the question on his mind is "Is this person going to be just another idiot? Ah, yes, of course they are."
posted by bingo at 11:57 AM on October 16, 2009 [8 favorites]

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