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Why I Don't Ask "Where Are You From?" (And Why You Shouldn't Either)

Knowing where someone is from gives you clues about them. For example, when you find out I'm from the South, you may think, "Oh that's why you ate grits every day as an after school snack... and you think it's totally normal!"

Yes. It's also why I grew up wearing tights... or panty hose for the more sophisticated among us. And finally, I give my Southern heritage for having a college minor in English while still trying to make a case for the phrase "must have could."

"Where are you from?"

This question is a common conversation starter, even among homogeneous groups. Place gives us basic information and a context for getting to know someone.

Oh, I've grown up in Cleveland my whole life.

Well, I was born in Hawaii, but moved to Salt Lake City when I was five, so that's where I say I'm really from.

I grew up in the military. I'm from everywhere and nowhere.

In cross-cultural situations, however, I've found that "Where are you from?" can be a loaded question. 

The person with the accent is tired of the question. And if they take pride in their American identity, it can feel like a slight against being fully accepted into the group.

The multiracial person may feel it's a "polite" attempt to ask "What are you?" which is almost always offensive. And I discovered undocumented immigrants shy away from this question, concerned the asker may be fishing for information about legal status.

Of course, I was never trying to offend anyone by asking "Where are you from?" But just because I didn't mean to be hurtful with my words doesn't make it any less true. When we come from different backgrounds, sometimes changing our language, even if we don't intend disrespect, is the most loving action we can take.

So now I never ask that question. Even when I really, really want to. Even when I'm super nosy. Even when I think I may have visited that person's country of origin, and I'd love to share that experience in common with them.

Nope. I wait for others to choose to tell me about their past on their own terms. I've had conversations with folks from diverse backgrounds about this very topic. Their responses encourage me to encourage you to take this question out of your ice breaker repertoire.

There a different question I ask now instead. Download the e-guide below to read more!

I promise not to spam you. (I'm not even sure I know how to!) 

2 comments

  1. Same. I really, really try hard not to ask unless it comes up in conversation, like if the other person obviously references growing up in a different place. I don't have an accent, but this is still one of the first questions most strangers ask me. Haha, I read something on Reddit about how someone responded to this question with, "Do you mean 'why am I not white'?" And that just nails it; what this question boils down to is, "Why don't you fit in?" and it can be pretty nosy.

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  2. Hi Marielle! Yes, exactly. It can be heard as "Why don't you fit in?" and that can just sting. Thanks for adding your perspective.

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