artphoto by splunge
artphoto by TheophileEscargot
artphoto by Kronos_to_Earth
artphoto by ethylene





Mecha Wiki

Metachat Eye


IRC Channels



Comment Feed:


09 June 2010

So, where' ya'll from? Please settle an internal arguement I am having with myself. Is it impolite to casually ask someone (clearly from another part of the world) where they are from?


So I have always been a huge anthropology buff. Over the years, I have learned to identify people's country/region of origin through their accents, names, and appearance etc (with a clear margin of error, of course). Just a fun little mental exercise, and it helps me learn about other cultures and parts of the world.

So here is my question, when someone comes in to my work with a name that sounds like a Star Wars character (like "Naboo Vader") and an accent I can't place, how rude is it to ask them in a small-talky way where they are from? Most of me says this is incredibly rude, and I would never do it, but part of me is asking WHY this should be rude. Is it actually rude? How would you feel if someone in another country asked you that? I don't think it would bother me, so is it our immigrant history here in the states that makes it seem rude? Is it considered rude elsewhere?
There's a small intrinsic rudeness in emphasizing someone's difference from you - especially one that they might conceivably feel sensitive about.

I am confident that Miss Manners could think of a wording of the question that deftly extracted the information in the guise of warm friendliness.
posted by Joe Beese 09 June | 21:22
It isn't fine if you only ask that question of people who have what you think of as funny names and accents. (I'm guessing that's probably what's making you feel uncomfortable.)

Even people whose names and accents seem "normal" to you may not have a single, straightforward answer to the "from" question if they've moved around a lot. And they may not feel like going into detail.

Note also that it can be awkward to ask what "country" someone's from. Many people's nationalities don't line up neatly with current political boundaries.

That said, if you generally ask people where they grew up as part of getting to know them, it's probably harmless.
posted by tangerine 09 June | 21:41
It's rude if you ONLY ask this of people who seem to have an overt difference from you or from the majority. In truth, people really surprise you. The "Star Wars name" people end up being from Altoona, PA, and the "Jim Andrews"es end up having grown up as military dependents in the shadow of Mt. Pinatubo, cook a mean oxtail, and speak three other languages besides English.

People are really varied and interesting. But people whose names or skin colors or holidays differ from the dominant culture wherever they are are already extremely aware of their differences from those in the surrounding majority. Some may be really comfortable seeing themselves in an "ambassador to the world of whitey" role, which is nice of them, but some may just find it tiresome because they've gone through it so much and are seen as "representatives" of their cultural backgrounds rather than as individuals with lots of cultural influences, as we all are.

I think in the context of an honest, general interest in people's individual life stories, the question itself, asked of everybody out of curiosity, is fine. I always like answering it (even though to be honest, I have to say "all over the place" or "depends how you look at it"). If the context were "Oh, Different Guy, you seem like the exotic person here - where are you from?" it can potentially be grating.

Do consider asking everyone. It's surprisingly interesting.
posted by Miko 09 June | 21:42
Or what tangerine said.
posted by Miko 09 June | 21:42
Nothing is rude unless you ask it rudely. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt for just this reason. "Wait a minute, am I overreacting like some kind of dick if I get offended by this? Yes. Yes, I am." is a good thing to keep in one's mind.

Ask away, preface ("Sorry if this sounds rude...") if you feel the need.
posted by Eideteker 09 June | 22:15
The "Star Wars name" thing was just to illustrate the fact that even thought I have met and worked with people from all over the world, every once in a while I get a name that I just can't begin to place where it possibly could originate. I wasn't trying to imply it was "silly". I used to teach ESL, and I currently work with people from 5 different African nations, just about every major Asian country, Fiji, Guam, Java, St. Lucia, and a couple of Balkan countries that are younger than the car I am driving, so it isn't so much a "oooh you are sooo WEIRD" thing as it is wanting to learn about people, places, and things. As my husband says, I have "laser eyes".

I had a man come in tonight with a name that was actually very similar in structure to "Naboo Vader", so I ran with that as an example.
posted by evilcupcakes 09 June | 22:23
I'm from Canada, eh? When doing presentations to Americans I have often been asked if I am from Minneapolis with Fargo running a close second. It's never bothered me but if I had brown skin maybe being asked where I am from would bother me.

When I am curious about where people are from I generally ask "I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, in Canada. Where did you grow up?" In addition to getting an answer to my question it's also a nice open ended kind of question that can start a conversation.
posted by arse_hat 09 June | 23:00
so it isn't so much a "oooh you are sooo WEIRD" thing as it is wanting to learn about people, places, and things.

I think what's important to keep in mind is that while your intentions are not to other the person, other people who have asked that same question (probably over and over) may have been motivated by judgment rather than curiosity.

Your asking the question may therefore trigger the recipient of the question feel judged.

So to some extent, it's a question of what's more important to you: Satisfying your curiosity, or risking making someone else feel judged and othered.

I do think the risk goes down the longer you know someone, and the more history they have of understanding your good intentions. They may even volunteer the information you're curious about, without your having to ask.
posted by occhiblu 10 June | 00:24
And as for my own experience, when I lived in Italy and struggled with Italian, I most appreciated it when Italian strangers helped my obviously-foreign self out without making a big deal about guessing where I was from, because it made me feel self-conscious and like I was failing at living properly in Italy. Also, saying that I was from "America" felt kind of silly to me (it's a big place, after all), but it was pointless to be more specific because few Italians had ever heard of the places I actually consider myself to be from, or if they had heard of them, they didn't know enough about them to maintain a conversation about them, so I ended up feeling awkward plus the conversations really didn't ever go anywhere. It was tedious.

The only conversations that did go anywhere tended to be those in which strangers then decided that since I was American, I was responsible for anything they disliked about American culture or policy. That was also tedious.

And that's without any additional layer of race, racism, or colonialism involved.

Again, I had no problem discussing this stuff with people I had known for a while. I just hated when it was the first or second question out of people's mouths, because it made me feel like a big walking American flag and it wasn't a pleasant feeling.
posted by occhiblu 10 June | 00:32
I'm not sure if it's actually rude.

But as a mixed-race guy, I do get irritated when I meet someone and they start up with the "help me fit you in the right racial pigeonhole" questions.

"Where were you born?"
"North London".
"Oh, so where's your family from?"

But being irritated by something doesn't necessarily mean it's actually rude.
posted by TheophileEscargot 10 June | 05:06
I have brown skin. In a college setting, when people ask me where I'm from, I take it to mean "where did you go to high school/where do your parents live/where do you consider home?" Outside of that, I hate hate hate being asked where I'm from, because the answer that I'm going to give (uhhhh, Palo Alto) is not what the askee looking for (exotic Indian village!).

Evilcupcakes - You probably wouldn't ask me where I'm from, because my accent and clothes are distinctly not "foreign" and may in fact be a little too California-y. If I were you, though, I would hold off on asking someone you don't know very well where they are from unless it comes up naturally in conversation (talking about hometowns or previous jobs or something like that). Otherwise, you run the risk of appearing too concerned with trying to fit the other person into some predefined mental category.
posted by unsurprising 10 June | 06:01
I asked this question on metafilter and got a lot of useful replies, especially those from people who weren't born in the US/whose parents weren't born here. I also got some nice and some not-so-nice emails as a result.

Excuse me, are you from around here?
posted by desjardins 10 June | 07:57
If you don't want to read the AskMefi thread, the consensus FROM NON-WHITE PEOPLE was that it's rude to ask unless you know the person well, because they've already been "othered" in 100 different other ways. There was something of a debate amongst whites; most didn't seem to have an issue with it, but there's not the same history of discrimination and exoti-fying.
posted by desjardins 10 June | 08:02
I'm in the same boat as unsurprising, with a dash of the mixed-raceness of TheophileEscargot. It clearly frustrates them when they ask "Where were you born?" and I say "New York". I get the added bonus of answering the family question with "My mom's from Ohio." Which isn't even that true (she only lived there for 5 years), but man oh man, people don't like their expectations fiddled with. TOUGH LUCK.
posted by knile 10 June | 08:19
Huh. I always have thought of it as one of the questions that everyone - and I do mean everyone - gets asked within five minutes or so of meeting somebody new. Certainly I always hear it. I assumed it was a searching for common ground, as in "oh, Palo Alto? My cousin's hairdresser's boyfriend adopted a dog from the pound there once! Have you ever been to the pound?*" kind of thing, not any form of othering. But then I am kind of dim sometimes.

* Not palo alto-ist. Have never been to Palo Alto and am totally unclear on where it even is. Kind of a nice name for a place, though. Tall Fence? Tall Stick?
posted by mygothlaundry 10 June | 09:31
Mixed race girl here. I cringe internally when it's one of the first questions someone asks me, because it's happened so many times before, and it has never led to a conversation that I found interesting in any way. The only enjoyment I get out of these interactions is giving very literal and truthful answers to people's questions. I'm from Arizona. My parents are from Illinois and Oregon. My grandparents are also from Illinois and Oregon. Occasionally if someone is being really pushy and obnoxious about it, I'll amuse myself by making up the some outlandish story--like my mom's is mixed Lebanese/Korean, and my Dad is Inuit/Thai.

I don't mind it so much when it's someone who has previously expressed interest in other aspects about my life--my work, my hopes and dreams, my friends, etc. It makes me feel more like they are relating to me as a person and less like some racial categorization puzzle that they want to solve.

As TheophileEscargot said, it's not necessarily rude just because I hate the question.
posted by creepygirl 10 June | 09:37
I think that it would be OK (and I have done it) in the context of enhancing one's CONNECTION with the other person. Not as a datapoint in whatever is going on in one's perception.

I have had several people nail that I am from Southern California. Apparently there is an accent for that.
posted by danf 10 June | 09:46
I ask people where their name is from if it's interesting. People ask me that sort of thing all the tme. "Oh that's an interesting name, where's it from?" My presumption is that the person could be from anyplace, but that names usually come from somewhere and if you're just meeting someone it may be one of the first things you can talk about that isn't how they look or about the weather.
posted by jessamyn 10 June | 10:53
I would NEVER ask someone where they were from based on appearance. That's just gross. If you walk in with distinctly ethnic looks, but you speak with what is clearly a British accent, I can pretty much narrow down where you are from. I knew a guy who's parents were from Cameroon, but he grew up in Germany. He always thought the "confused cocker spaniel" look people would give him (here in the states) when he started to speak in a perfect German accent was funny.

When I lived in SoCal, people always asked me if I was from Minnesota. It hadn't occurred to me until then that I had a distinct rural Washington twang. Now my accent is a weird combination of the two... gag me with a spoon, dontcha know?
posted by evilcupcakes 10 June | 11:02
I think part of my fascination with names is because mine is so unusual. Maybe because people think it's ok to make comments and jokes about my name, it never occurs to me someone might be sensitive about theirs.

I can't TELL you how bored I am of being called Miss Scarlett or hearing about "not giving a damn" and "birthin' no babies". Not offended, just BORED. I don't even hear it when people say it. The one guy who got the epic WIN award from me was the one who came into my lab and said "Scarlett? As in "Miss Scarlett? In the Library with the lead pipe!?!?!"
posted by evilcupcakes 10 June | 11:09
I like Jessamyn's approach.
posted by aniola 10 June | 11:22
Note that there are also whites who get "other"ed. For instance, I lived in Salt Lake City for five years a decade ago, and when I told people that after I moved away, I frequently got "Oh, are you Mormon?" (for the record, the polite term is LDS, I believe.) My internal reaction to that was to judge, but I'd just explain that people are people, too.

Nowadays, I tell people I'm from Davis. I'd much rather the conversation head toward bicycles and farmer's markets (they have these things in SLC, too).

Anyway, yes. The "where from" question tastes sour to me. Asking name origins seems like it would work well for that point in a conversation, though.
posted by aniola 10 June | 11:39
My instinct is to defer to people who have been othered because of their skin tone or "exotic" name (or for other reasons, as aniola points out). I am an intensely curious person, but to paraphrase one of the comments in the AskMe thread, my desire to know doesn't trump someone else's comfort.

OTOH... as I mentioned in that thread, I have a visible birth defect, and if you're going to sit there and squirm and uncomfortably dance around the subject, I'd rather you just ask and get it out of your damn system. I can't even imagine what people in wheelchairs go through. "So were you in an accident? Were you in the military? Will you ever be able to walk again? Does it hurt?"
posted by desjardins 10 June | 11:55
I was going to post the "asking about their name" thing and was chuffed to see that Jessamyn already had; I feel like maybe all my decisions aren't so bad now.

desjardins: whoa, those are the EXACT questions I get from people, and all I have is a cane and brace. Well, that and asking where I got my fly-ass pink faux-giraffe cane (A: Jewel-Osco). But agreed on both paragraphs of yr post 100%.
posted by jtron 10 June | 12:33
A pink faux-giraffe cane does indeed sound pretty fly-ass.

Also, I used to tell my classmates that my hearing aids were radios that allowed me to communicate with Russians (this was during the Cold War).
posted by desjardins 10 June | 12:40
I agree with danf that it should be used to emphasize the connection, but I just never know how to express that, particularly with people I'm just meeting. Example: I have a coworker who actually works in our other office, so we know each other in passing but not too well. She is, I believe, from "around here" (Wisconsin) but spent quite a bit of time in southern India. Her husband is ostensibly from there; I've met him once or twice, and he's very nice. He is very dark-skinned, unlike most of the Indian grad students around here, and he's an artist; I don't know if that's his primary line of work.

My dad does a lot of work in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, which is where she spent time. So how do I say, "Where is your husband from?" without telling a big long story about my dad's work -- even though I'd probably bring some details in eventually to emphasize the connection? Or, for that matter, without spending time in the realm of "that's so fascinatingly exotic"?

And what about a guy like Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and then adopted at age 3 by a couple in SWEDEN? He has multiple restaurants emphasizing both cuisines, and I believe he then married a woman from Ethiopia. But he is very clearly Swedish.

People have really interesting stories, and I understand that they (like I) would probably get tired of telling the same ones over and over again. It's just hard to create a balance.
posted by Madamina 10 June | 14:50
Madamina - "I'd love to hear more about your time in India; it's so cool that you had an opportunity to spend time there" or some less-awkward variant of that. And then at some point in the conversation, the husband will come up, or you can bring it up in a "oh, so did you meet your husband there?" kind of way.
posted by unsurprising 10 June | 15:52
The "Star Wars name" people end up being from Altoona, PA

Ha. Guess (for those who don't know) where Anil Dash is from? Star Wars name and all.

Harrisburg. Frankly, close enough for government work.

I, uh, did ask. :-S My excuse: I'm from an inquisitive family and ask that sort of question a lot. But I have had awkward moments in the past because frankly I grew up in a town that was 99%+ white until the 1980 census, and as accepting as I am of non-whites, there's still a bit of that old "why aren't YOU exotic" in the back of my mind.

As it was, with Anil, I was able to bring up the fact that a second cousin married an Indian-American in a dual Christian/Hindu ceremony. In Fort Wayne! They were ... high-school sweethearts. Exoticism normalized.
posted by dhartung 10 June | 20:21
I get the added bonus of answering the family question with "My mom's from Ohio."

I somehow missed this comment. I do this too. When I'm especially annoyed with the "where are your parents from?" question, I say, "Oh, they live in Palo Alto too." I'm fully aware that this is not what the askee wants to hear, but I refuse to say the words "small Indian village" for some random person's benefit.
posted by unsurprising 11 June | 00:29
I never ask, and I never ask a person about their age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Like others in this thread I am often asked where I am from and then the conversation becomes unpleasant. For example, "Where are you from?" "California." "No, where are you really from?" "Well, Los Angeles actually." Other person gets sly look in their eyes, they're going to catch me with their next question for sure: "Well where were you born then?" "New York City." Other person: crestfallen.

And not even ethnically based: "Are you from Chicago?" "No, I grew up in Los Angeles." "Ohhhh I hate Los Angeles." Me: jaw drops.
posted by halonine 11 June | 12:34
Steve Byrne imagines how Bruce Lee had sex. (NSFW) || Wii!