With the title of this article, you might think, well why don’t you just ask them where they are from? Of course this would be the easiest and most direct route, but in my experience it isn’t always the most diplomatic. In fact, it can sometimes be a source of insecurity and alienation, more than you may realize.
When I was younger and my curiosity and love for all things international was beginning to develop, I used to be much more abrasive and less considerate in the way that I would ask people the ever pending ‘where are you from” question. I would get so excited when I heard an accent, unusual name, or even heard them speaking in a foreign language. In my haste and inexperience, I would often just ask blatantly: Where are you from? Sometimes, I’d embarrass them, other times they would respond without hesitation, but I learned that the results were not always consistent.
As I grew older and began to tame and tailor my approach, I learned that blatantly asking people about their origins might not always be the best approach. In fact, it often reminds me of the old southern/western notion portrayed frequently in movies, ‘You’re not from around these parts are you boy‘.
In this article, I’d like to start off by answering the question you may be asking yourself right now: Why wouldn’t you just ask someone where they are from? Because that will essentially teach you better ways to ask. It may seem like a simple question, but it can be one that has slightly deeper implications to some people. Bear in mind that much of this is situational and would be far less relevant say at a language exchange event, hostel, or international group meeting where it is almost understood that everyone is from somewhere else. As you might suspect, much of my thoughts I have on this have to do with communication, language, and the interactions that I have had with others in my travels. As I’ll explain, I believe that context is everything.
Reasons why you might not want to be so direct in your questioning
Trying To Fit In
One of the things that you have to realize about most people who are learning a second language is that they’d often do anything that they can to fit in. The last thing that they need is to feel alienated from the start. It can be a huge hit to one’s self-esteem or confidence in studying a foreign language. I have seen this a lot with immigrants. This happens in two main ways. I’ll explain both independently.
First, second language learners are often challenged by the new sounds and grammar of a new language and will frequently make mistakes that may seem silly to a native speaker. We all do. I know I make plenty of them in the languages that I try to speak. It is these mistakes that tends to separate a native speaker from a non-native speaker (and they also make great learning points, but that is another post). A native speaker can usually spot these non-native speakers with ease, I know I usually can. However, is it really worth reassuring them that they have an accent immediately by asking them directly where they come from? Some people won’t be bothered by the question, but some will be even if they don’t show it. Instead, why not give them a confidence boost by showing them how well they are communicating and talk back, temporarily ignoring the question that is itching at you. Without asking, it might even come out naturally in conversation.
The second problem with this question is something that I have seen time and time again with first generation Americans. I’m sure it exists elsewhere also. I’ve only noticed this exclusively in the USA and in parts of Western Europe, but it may exist in other areas where large amounts of immigrants exist such as Australia or the UK. As I mentioned in the past, I’d often be able to spot these newcomers easily and be able to call them out about their newness. However, I began to realize as I got older how disheartening and/or insensitive that might be for them. If you think about it, immigrants typically face lots of obstacles to arrive to new lands; things that most of us cannot imagine. When they arrive to a new country they are eager to become ‘the new them‘, to integrate, and to have a new beginning. Something they have sought after, sometimes for many years. Think back for a second, how many times have you asked someone where they come from whom you suspected to be a new immigrant? In those times if they said “here”, did the question, where do you really come from ever cross your mind? I can tell you, it has for me. Allow me to explain with a few examples.
The other day I was talking to some people from France. One of the girls looked ‘French’ and the other although speaking French without flaw, seemed ‘not French’ in appearance to me. I wanted badly to ask, where do you really come from? But danced carefully around the question. I realized this is only a judgement question and it can leave people feeling unaccepted. We all want to have a cultural identity and be accepted in our societies. It is harder for people who change cultures drastically or are brought up between two distinctly different cultures. It can be especially frustrating for people who have given their life just to assimilate.
In a small way, I can relate. I remember one time I was at a language exchange event in Valencia, Spain. I was talking to an older man from the United States for about 15-20 minutes. Around the end of the conversation, he stopped me and asked me, “Where do you really come from?” I quickly retorted, “I am from Louisiana, as I said, you don’t believe me?”. He responded, “No. I believe you have lived there for a long time, but you’re not from there.” I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or to rejoice that I had achieved some new degree of extreme cultural immersion. It was from this moment, I thought about the lives of first generation who often come from ‘foreign’ or distinctly different cultures and are never really accepted as being ‘from there’.
Another quick example of this was when I was once talking to a small business owner who had immigrated from Iran some 20 years ago. I previously knew that he was from there and had exchanged some basic Persian phrases with him before, but I remember one day in my quest for cultural conversation I asked him if he goes back home often, as if it were as easy as me visiting my parents house (visas, cost, time, politics involved, et cetera). He looked at me with a half-smile and said, “I cannot go home. I am a refugee. This is my home now.” It his me like a ton of bricks. He wins. Accepted.
Timid or ashamed
This I have experienced to a lesser extent, but I have met some people who were hesitant to tell people where they are from. This could be for a number of reasons. One common reason is that these people come from a small area or lesser known country and they think you have probably never heard of. A second common reason is that the people may think that you have a poor misconception of their country or people. Both of these of course are usually false notions, but I have still seen people hesitate with them.
It Could Be Considered As Impolite
I have to preface this with saying that the majority of people won’t take the “where are you from question” as impolite; however, I have met individuals whom I think considered it to be an impolite or unacceptable question to ask someone you just met. Like for instance, you are asking too much personal information too quickly. Even I admit, that this has only happened a small number of times to me, but I have noticed some situations where it might be more socially unacceptable to randomly ask.
I have learned a few tactics for not being so blunt and to the point. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I used to ask right up front, but I found I got mixed results. I still want to know where people come from, more than ever actually. The majority of the time I still find out. I just find ways to do it more softly. Here are a few suggestions:
Vulnerability is one of the most important traits of getting to know people. To learn about others you have to share things about yourself. For more on this, you’ll definitely want to check out Brene Brown’s Ted talk.
Make good use of context clues
One of the most helpful things that I have learned how to use is context clues. Physically the way someone dresses and their appearance can be clues theoretically, but this is changing ever so rapidly in a globalized world. Judging based off of appearance or ‘looks’ is becoming less and less relevant as people integrate and mix. Dress or things that people wear can be big helpers. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was working out in the gym. I was sitting next to a guy who was working at the station next to me. I had talked to him before and noticed that he was ‘foreign’ I guessed possibly eastern European, but realistically I had no clue. I noticed that he had on a necklace. The necklace had on a symbol that I recognized as being the Basque cross. After the next set, I got his attention and asked him about his necklace. I said, “Is that the Basque cross?” Surprised, he said,”Yes, how do you know that? I’m from South America, but my parents are Basque”. After that we began to speak Spanish (as he didn’t grow up speaking Basque which is a completely unique language in of itself) and have since formed a friendship. I think we could have become friends still without this interaction, but it wouldn’t have been as easy of a transition had I asked where he came from the start just because he ‘looked’ different.
Appearance should be the last thing you pay attention to
Where judging by appearances goes wrong. I used to think that I could ‘tell’ where someone came from just based off of looks, but I have been proven wrong so many times; it is now hard to say. There are still some people in the world who you can guess by dress, physical appearance, or perhaps the way that they carry themselves, but sometimes you can be dead wrong. One time where I got completely proven wrong was when I was talking to these two girls whom I met while traveling in Spain. They were both dark-skinned and so the last place in the world that I expected them to come from is where they did. As we started talking and getting to know each other, they asked me where I was from. I told them, and then asked them. They looked at me, and said, “Guess!”. Puzzled, I said, “well I don’t know, could be a bunch of places.” Laughing they said, “Sweden!” Meeting them helped me to remember how ridiculous prejudgment can be (I suggest you read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; it talks a lot about this). ‘Never judge a book by its cover’. Happy to say that we are still friends. Moral of the story, is that physical appearances really aren’t the way to go.
Natural Conversation, pay close attention to what they say, use half-tells
Even if I know, or think I know, almost without a doubt where someone comes from, I have adopted a technique that allows them to tell me in natural conversation without having to ask. This not only teaches me patience, but also not to put so much emphasis on where someone comes from and treat everyone as individuals rather than countrymen or women.
For me, knowing where they come from is important because I love to learn about their culture, practice their language(s), or even find out a different perspective that they might have. So one thing that I like to do is to just have a conversation about something that I enjoy be it languages, cultural things, or food and eventually they will say something like “in ____ language” they say this or “in ___ country they do this”. These are perfect entrances to softly ask something like “Do you speak that language?” or “Have you been to that country a lot?” This is where people will often tell you without you having to ask. Another common one is if someone says something like, “I’ve been in this city for two years.” It is a perfect and natural opportunity to ask where they were before.
This article might be common sense to some people, but I think that it can definitely apply to some people. As I mentioned, most of what I am saying is very contextual. In some situations, it wouldn’t apply at all. In other situations, I have found this to be a delicate question. I do care a lot about where people come from, but it is likely not for the reasons that you might imagine. Please don’t get the wrong impression about me and think that it only matters where someone is from. I don’t look at it as a bad thing or a way of classifying who a person is. For me, it is a source of strength about our differences and learning from others and not about identifying people with a certain region, group, or attitude. I’ve met people from different places around the world that have completely turned everything I thought about those regions, places, or people completely upside down. It has little to nothing to do with labeling people past the idea of understanding ‘where they are coming from’ in cultural perspective and upbringing. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you did, then please feel free to like share, tweet, or re-post. I’d appreciate it.