Are you from here? Um...
April 29, 2014 5:56 PM   Subscribe

When people ask the question "Are you from here?", what do they mean really? Is it, were you born here or do you live here? How do you answer when you have moved around your entire life?

I can't believe I'm burning a question on this, but I'm curious.
I moved around my whole life because my dad was a retail manager. Once I hit adult life, I moved a few times. There were some states I lived in multiple times. Having just moved again, I get that question a lot. I give the standard, I moved around my whole life so I'm not really from anywhere.
How do you, nomads of Metafilter, answer the question?
posted by MayNicholas to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I take it to mean, did you grow up here, or move here more recently?
posted by thelonius at 6:02 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

What people mean by "where are you from?" or "are you from here?" is very context dependent. If you look obviously non-white, have an obviously non-white name (i.e. anything that doesn't sound European or Anglo), or have an accent, the "where are you from" question is loaded. In those cases, people sometimes want to know where you're "really" from, i.e. your racial background, your ethnicity, or where your or your parents emigrated from. My patience with this line of questioning varies. Sometimes I'll leave it at the town in Southern California where I spent most of my formative years, sometimes I'll elaborate more.

If none of that applies to you, then I'd say in your situation you can just say where you most recently lived plus "my family moved around a lot for my dad's work, so I'm from all over the US."
posted by yasaman at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

i've just come up with a short answer, "i'm the end of a few generations of military families, so i'm from all over" and then if i feel like i'll narrow it down some, "i've spent a lot of time in states xyz and abc." it's also the kind of question people ask a lot if for some reason they've pegged you as "other" (race, religion, accent, etc) - if you think that's an issue, the advice would probably be different.
posted by nadawi at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't moved all that many times, but I've officially hit the point where there isn't one succinct answer to the question. I usually say, "I just recently moved here from [city], but I did most of my growing up in [region]." I've also heard "I'm from all over the place," which is also totally normal.
posted by Sara C. at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It depends on context. The less white-American you look, sound, or act, the more likely the question is meant to mean, "Were you born in another country?"

In my experience, "Are you from here?" tends to refer to an area within generally-recognized borders. In most cases within the US, it means "within the US". The alternative that I've heard is, "Are you from around here?", meaning the general geographical or cultural vicinity, e.g. NYC, LA, Chicago, Louisiana, the South, etc.

The more insular or isolated the community, the more likely they're asking about whether you grew up in the vicinity, rather than asking if you're an immigrant. Hawaii is probably the best example of that, for both geographical and cultural reasons.
posted by WasabiFlux at 6:07 PM on April 29, 2014

When I ask this in America, I mean "Where did you grow up? This area?" meaning the greater-city-area and counties nearby to where we are.
When I am asked this in America, it means "Ooh! You have an accent that I can't place... what is it?"
posted by anonymisc at 6:11 PM on April 29, 2014 I personally just use this question with new acquaintances as a cheap excuse to talk about the city, other cities, our childhoods, and traveling, and basically make small talk.

In no way does it mean "you look like a foreigner, you weird foreigner" or anything else beyond that.

9/10 times I assume someone lives in my town unless there is an event going on and we have many tourists, or maybe but not always, if they have an accent.
posted by quincunx at 6:11 PM on April 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I always (perhaps too charitably) interpret it to mean "did you grow up in this city/area where we are right now?"

I've heard people with background similar to yours answer "no, I sort of grew up all over, but I've lived here for several years now."
posted by The World Famous at 6:11 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I ask where someone is from I am just fishing for a conversation hook. Sometimes this fails (I know nothing about the some places so I awkwardly say "Oh, huh"), sometimes I remember a random fact about the place (that I'm sure the other person has heard a million times), sometimes I have personal experience. But it's making conversation and it may take a few false starts or not start at all!

If you don't want to talk about where you're from, you can easily distract me with a comment about TV or books or something.

I weirdly never get asked this question unless someone has heard my accent peep out and wants to congratulate themselves on guessing I'm from Canada (or make that joke I've heard a million times).
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:12 PM on April 29, 2014

This is a classic among us military kids - "Where are you from?" is the ultimate unanswerable question. Its a running joke, particularly on Mil Brat Facebook pages. My answer? The East Coast of the US.... but, I was born in xxxx, and lived in yyyyy for twice as long as other places and we were discharged in xxxx, so I went to college there...." Eventually people get either engrossed or bored to tears.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:15 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a white american female with possibly a yankee, southern, hybrid accent. This is more of a general inquiry.
posted by MayNicholas at 6:17 PM on April 29, 2014

I've usually taken this question as nothing more than a conversation starter: a bland means-nothing way to start talking to someone new.

If I've counted it up right, I moved 21 or 22 times before I was thirty; my usual answer to 'where are you from?' is "I was a Navy brat; we moved around a lot". If they push for details, I'll give the state I was born in.
posted by easily confused at 6:22 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I usually answer with the place I'm living at the moment (ie, "yes, I live in [neighborhood]" or "no, I live in [city]").

People are often asking about ethnicity/family name, and in that case they'll usually continue the line of questioning in that direction, including wild guesses about ancestry. I just give whatever (true, but likely incomplete) answer is likeliest to get them off my back, and then parrot their question back at them, because people who are insensitive enough to ask about a relative stranger's race/ethnicity/family history usually like to pontificate about themselves anyway.

People are also often asking about accent/where you grew up, and in that case, they'll usually just clarify with a follow-up question about that, too. I have a particular place my family lived (for about 7 years) that I consider "where I grew up," so I answer with the city that that home is in.
posted by rue72 at 6:22 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use this question as a conversation starter. I don't care how you answer as long as you chat.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:24 PM on April 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

I never lived anywhere longer than 3-4 years until after I graduated from law school. Now, I just answer "my family has been here since before the Fire." When I wasn't in Chicago, I would answer "well, I graduated from high school/college/law school (whichever was most relevant) in [town where that happened]."

95% percent of the time, no-one cares what the actual accurate most complete answer is. They are just making small talk and want an answer that opens conversation, not shuts it down (which is what most exasperated or snarky or there-is-no-answer-to-this-question-answers do). Sure it's an annoying question for you, sure you don't have an easy answer. Get over it and help the person who is trying to make small talk. Say something simple and polite. Even just "well, I've been here since [year]". Then ask an appropriate question that demonstrates polite interest in the other person.

If it's someone who is really trying to get to know you, then you adjust accordingly and tell the long boring story. If it's just polite conversation, just routine small talk, you just say something simple and lob an easy shot back.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:26 PM on April 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

For you, it's a conversation starter. One memorable and brief answer I've heard is "I've lived all over due to having family in the military, but if you ask me, I feel most at home in a tree."

[I usually make some possibly unfair snap judgments to decide if the question is going to lead into this and answer accordingly.]
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:31 PM on April 29, 2014

I always assume it means "Do you live in this area, or are you just passing through?" unless it is from people that know that I live here. If it is from the latter, I assume it means "How long have you lived here?"

It actually doesn't matter, you can answer anything you'd like to this as with most small talk.
posted by arnicae at 6:31 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I understand "Are you from here?" to have different implications from "Where are you from?"

"So, where are you from?" is a conversation starter. "Are you from around here?" tends to act in the same capacity. "Are you from here?", in my experience, is a more loaded question, implying "You seem different from people around here"/"You seem like an outsider". Of course, it all depends on who's asking and the exact situation.

Again, just my experience, mostly based around California and Arizona, and friends who grew up in other states.
posted by WasabiFlux at 6:40 PM on April 29, 2014

I've spent chunks of my life in different cities from childhood on, and find it tiring to discuss a) because I can't remember much about city x where I lived when I was five (or about the place I lived when I was 20, for that matter) and b) because it's a pain to explain why/who/etc.

So I usually just mention where I live now. Which is a very multicultural place full of 1st & 2nd generation immigrants, which means people are often asking about ethnicity (you can tell because they ask twice - "no, where are you from"). They want to talk about food or their good buddy from high school who is also "from" z. Which I also find tiring. So I give a short answer and change the subject.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:43 PM on April 29, 2014

I'm leaving some out, but basically here's my trajectory:

SoCal (13 years) > Oklahoma (2 years) > Banff, Alberta (2 years) > Ottawa (6 years) > Vancouver/Victoria (6 years) > Toronto (2 years) > Montreal (4 years) > Chicago (23 years).

I never answer that I'm "not really from anywhere," for no other reason than it shuts down conversation.

> Are you from here (Chicago)? Pretty much, though I'm a transplant.

> Where are you from? I was born in SoCal, and went to college in Canada, but I'm basically a Midwesterner.

> I can't pin down your accent. Where are you from? Kind of all over. I was born in SoCal, lived in Canada for 20 years, and have been in Chicago ever since.

As others have noted, when people ask such questions, they're typically looking for conversational common ground. So I try to open that up rather than shut it down with an I'm-from-all-over answer.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:44 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm genuinely curious where people come from, so even though I also ask this question as a conversation starter, I really do want to hear the answer. I mean it as 'where did you grow up'? (Weirdly, I was on a plane the other day and asked my seatmate where he was *coming* from, and he misunderstood and said Brazil, where he grew up).

When I ask it of people who are, say, of Asian descent but obviously American, I say something like, 'are you from California'? or whatever state or city I'm in, as it somehow seems to me like it makes it more clear I'm not suggesting they're an outsider. If I ask someone with an obvious accent, like a cab driver, I usually say 'how long have you lived in X city'?
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:54 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

i tend to think of all the places i've lived as part of who i am (which is what people are really digging for here), so i call myself a COCANEWY. CO (colorado) CA (california) NEWY (new york). make it up as you go, ya know?
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 6:58 PM on April 29, 2014

I have a friend who tells me the correct answer, if you're from all over, is to just give the place where you graduated from high school.

My own approach, since there are 4 answers to that question for me personally, is to just chose whichever one seems to make the most sense in the conversation, or whichever one suits my mood at that moment.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:03 PM on April 29, 2014

Is it, were you born here or do you live here?

For me, I have returned to and am currently living in the city I was born in, but people usually find "yep" to be a conversation killer. I think oftentimes they ask the question because I don't seem like the typical native of this area. I usually list off the other places I lived in between, and let them pick which other place they want to talk about.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:04 PM on April 29, 2014

Where I live and work, if someone asks me 'are you from here,' 100% of the time they've just stopped me on the sidewalk and are really asking if I can point them towards Bourbon Street. So I just say yes. If someone really wants to know if you're from here, generally they ask where you went to school, meaning high school.
posted by CheeseLouise at 7:14 PM on April 29, 2014

Funny some of the comments here. Personally I'm not trying to shut anyone down who asks the question. I just don't want to bore them with the details. I certainly don't consider myself from the previous place I lived, or from the place I currently reside. Hence, my standard answer. Where I graduated high school and college were 2 of the shortest residencies I has, so I never even bother with those states.
Like I said, just a general inquiry. I have no problem being asked, just never sure how other people answer/ how much of a reply the asker wants.
posted by MayNicholas at 7:18 PM on April 29, 2014

"I am now!" would be my answer. If the questioner wants to know for practical reasons (Directions, favorite restaurant) they can ask away. If questioner wants to know more they can then go on "Oh, where were you before here?"
posted by beccaj at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2014

Your question reminds me of this great article, (part of a series) on The Atlantic's website.

It validates what many are saying in this thread: it's context and region dependent, and you usually know what people are "really" asking when they say "Where are you from".
posted by lesli212 at 7:48 PM on April 29, 2014

I ask this question a lot to open conversations and and I admit that I do ask people "where are you from" as well. Many times people have had a situation similar to yours and they say something like 'my father was in the army, so I grew up all over, but I went to high school in Norfolk..." or something similar.
posted by seesom at 7:56 PM on April 29, 2014

I have a nomadic life history too. I hear this question as "did you grow up here in the environs of this city we are now in?" and answer accordingly.

I think meeting people at a bar in the touristy part of a touristy city, it would probably mean "do you live here." But most times you're meeting people, being introduced by friends or whatever, that's kind of a given.
posted by gerstle at 8:08 PM on April 29, 2014

I've moved around quite a bit myself. Before I lived in the city I now call home, I'd say, "No, I'm from [home state]."

These days, I answer "Now I am."
posted by sevensnowflakes at 8:08 PM on April 29, 2014

As to whether people want the long answer- I don't think there's a definitive answer but when deciding how much detail to give, consider the usual conventions of conversation- don't ramble but don't be abrupt. Include some interesting info/detail but don't make it a list. As with most small talk starters, I want you to answer in as much detail as is friendly and interesting.

Also, perhaps this is less true in the states, but ime having moved around quite a bit is not unusual. Perhaps you've moved around more than the average person, but it makes me roll my eyes a bit when people refuse to just answer the question and instead have to tell me how nomadic (read: cosmopolitan) they are. That's the vibe I get when someone says 'nowhere, really'. I mean, you're not applying for a passport. It's just a conversation. And you were born somewhere. I don't mind if your answer is not straightforward, but saying you're from nowhere is shutting the conversation down if you leave it there.
posted by jojobobo at 8:21 PM on April 29, 2014

I've seen it be all of the options. I answer "I live here" (or "I live in X" if I'm out of town) because the response is unambiguous, and they can re-ask if they meant "where were you born?"
posted by flimflam at 8:30 PM on April 29, 2014

It's a very context-dependent question, and a very vague question. You just have to guess what the person really means, and answer that. "Are you from here?"
Yes, tourist, I can give you directions.
No, I have no idea what you're talking about, did that guy you just referenced used to be mayor or something?
No, not always from here, I recognize that you just used west-coast slang, you can't fool me.
Kind of, I live in (2 towns from here).
Well, I moved to (metro area) 5 years ago,
" ... from [previous city in which I lived 3 years].
Not really, I lived in the Midwest most of my life before this,
" ... but I grew up in [parents' state].
I'm a good American, I'm from everywhere.
posted by aimedwander at 8:57 PM on April 29, 2014

"Born in [X], lived [here] since [year]." is my typical response.
posted by komara at 9:08 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I've been a nomad. I've never lived in one place for long."

The end.
posted by jdroth at 9:20 PM on April 29, 2014

I moved around a lot when I was a kid too. My parents are both from NY and grew up in the same general part of the state. We often spent months with their families in between postings overseas. and I ended up living in various parts of NY on and off until I was 45. So I just tell people I'm from NY and leave it at that unless they really want more details.
posted by mareli at 5:08 AM on April 30, 2014

They are trying to figure out who you are, if you have some of the same friends. It is a fun way to make a big world feel smaller, cozier. They are looking for a commonality. The best answer would be one that would lead the conversation into a common area. A sports team or hobby you both may like or, if you think they know someone you know, then bring up that person. Asking someone where they are from is equivalent to dogs sniffing each other's butts. It's simply a way to tell if you are a friend or foe.
posted by myselfasme at 5:39 AM on April 30, 2014

I have a similar background. If you're asked in the south, it means, where were you born. I usually say, "My family is from Pittsburgh, but we moved around a bit when I was young." If the question is asked politely, then we usually move onto some other topic, (in the South, the next question is, "where do you go to church?")

Sometimes, if that answer piques the asker's interest, the follow up will be, "Was your father in the military?" In which case I'll say, "Not when I was younger, although he did end up working for the military later in his career."

I'd just have a single sentence rote answer, something pleasant that doesn't require a lot of explanation. "My Mom worked for IBM, IBM stands for I Been Moved! So we moved around a lot for her career." Or in your case, "My father worked for X, and in his job we moved a lot. I've been lucky enough to have lived in a lot of places in my life."

I've been asked to list the places I've lived, and sometimes I'll say, "It gave me a gypsy soul, now I find that I enjoy relocating, although I really like living in Atlanta."

But it's easy to get all tangled up in your story, so once you've given your answer, you can ask the asker, "so are you a native?"

But I totally get you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:21 AM on April 30, 2014

Since you're a plain old vanilla white person, people are probably just asking if you're "from here" so they can see if you know any of the same people, via schools, neighborhoods, etc.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:50 AM on April 30, 2014

I take it to mean "where did you grow up?" Note that this is not necessarily the same thing as "where were you born?" If you were born in St. Louis but moved to Atlanta at age 4 and lived there through college, far as I am concerned you are "from" Atlanta.

If you moved around a lot, "I moved around a lot" is a fine answer. If you don't want to shut the conversation down, you can then ask the person where they are from. If you want to open up the possibility of discussing the places you've lived, I actually think you stumbled on a great answer in your OP - "I moved around a lot as a kid because my dad was a retail manager." I think if you leave out the retail manager part people may think there might be some personal, possibly traumatic, reason for the moves, so they won't ask for details. Adding that in would help indicate "I'm not hiding something here, so if you want to ask for more, ask away."
posted by breakin' the law at 7:49 AM on April 30, 2014

Sometimes I say I am from the past.

I'm currently on my third country, seventh city and 18th move and "Where are you from?" flummoxes me because it is an impossibly long answer and I frankly don't feel like am 'from' anywhere anymore.

Most of the times I just say "Canada" and if they ask for more detail I'll tell them I don't know their cousin who lives in Calgary.
posted by srboisvert at 9:40 AM on April 30, 2014

I've lived in one metro area for 99% of my life, so my answer is easy and boring. If I was in your situation, I would probably say, "I was born in [city], I've lived all around the country, and I've lived here for XX years now." I might add roughly the number of cities and states I've lived in, especially if it's a small talk situation - definitely good conversation fodder.
posted by peep at 10:31 AM on April 30, 2014

Hi MayNicholas. I get asked "where are you from" / "are you from here" / "are you from around here" constantly by strangers here in Canada, I would guess about 1-3 times month for the last 15 or so years. The last time I was asked this was a week ago. It always comes from a man who is trying to not so subtly pick me up.

That said, my case is somewhat different from yours. I'm Canadian and have moved around quite a bit. I'm also not white and people have a hard time figuring out my ethnicity, so I guess it is an easy conversation starter. I assume they expect me to talk excitedly about whatever exotic country I supposedly have ties to and the conversation will blossom from there. However, I get tired of hearing the question and actually find it quite offensive... Especially as when I say "Canada" the odds are 50-50 they will either respond with "well what about your parents, are they from here?" or they will then ask for specifics about where exactly I live.

So, in my experience it is probably a conversation starter from a stranger who is interested in getting to know you on a personal level, and likely physically attracted to you. Of course, maybe they are just making small talk out of genuine curiousity - the likelihood of this increases if you have an unusual accent or other striking feature that marks you as an "outsider". That said, I do find (at least in my experience) when strangers want to simply make small talk with me, or try to pick me up in a polite fashion, they will offer a random observation about the weather or transit, since it is not personal and cannot be seen as rude, nor can it be taken the wrong way.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 4:08 PM on April 30, 2014

I reply with either, "I'm from all over," or, "I'm from [wherever I moved from last]," depending on my level of interest in talking about the subject just then.
posted by Pecinpah at 6:16 PM on April 30, 2014

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