61

I live in the UK but am not originally from here, having moved in the last decade.

Quite often when I talk to people I get asked where I'm from. It usually seems to be in response to my accent, as I'm white, and since it's not a commonly heard foreign accent I completely accept that most people who ask are simply curious and do not intend any discrimination (although I'm sure that some of them do). Nevertheless, it's a question I'd prefer not to answer for personal reasons.

I feel that saying "None of your business" even in the most polite way I can think of (along the lines of "I'm sorry but I'd prefer not to answer that") is likely to cause the other person to be taken aback or even think I must be hiding something potentially sinister, since I'm reacting as if I were asked a deeply personal question while, in their eyes, they were just making conversation.

Sometimes I answer with the name of the town I currently live in, especially if I'm asked when I'm travelling to another place, but in most cases people insist by saying "I meant originally".

Is there a way I can make it clear that I don't want to answer the question, without making the other person think I have something personal against them or that I don't want to talk at all?

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    This question was closed, but the answers given might give you some insight. Welcome to the site :) interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/3457/… – Erik Jun 18 at 8:26
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    I realize this may cut against everything that you're trying to accomplish, but would you be willing to expand somewhat on why, specifically, you are so resistant to answering this question? The reason may impact answers. Since evading the question is a fairly uncommon behavior, a bit more information on how you might like to direct the small talk would really be helpful in describing strategies to help them do so without giving the impression you state you would like to avoid. – Upper_Case Jun 18 at 15:23
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. If you're thinking of writing an answer instead, PLEASE READ OUR CITATION GUIDELINES FIRST. – Arwen Undómiel Jun 18 at 18:00
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    @stanri In a way, Upper_Case's comment makes sense: Right now, a few answers have come in that focus on e.g. avoiding the 'no, but originally' follow up question that might be asked after 'where are you from' is answered with OP's recent location, instead of on making clear OP does not want to answer at all. Those answers seem to assume from the question that OP's reasons for not wanting to answer are due to having an accent, migration history and being asked about the 'originally' one time too many. If OP could clarify their reasons a bit, all these assumptions may be stemmed. – Tinkeringbell Jun 19 at 8:16
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    If George doesn't want to clarify, answers should assume there's a good reason for not wanting to answer, and focus on making 'I don't want to answer' clear to the people that are asking these questions. In that case, George, you can flag the comment from Upper_Case as no longer needed and it'll be deleted eventually :-) – Tinkeringbell Jun 19 at 16:39
67

This is going to be amazingly hard to pull off, without making people frown a little. You rightfully remark that outright declining to answer the question will be seen as strange:

since I'm reacting as if I were asked a deeply personal question while, in their eyes, they were just making conversation.

'Where are you from' is a form of small talk. Reacting like you're being asked a deeply personal question is likely to alienate people, like you said, because small talk is related to a need to feel approved by someone else and maintain a positive face.

Sites on small talk suggest you can use the 'where are you from' sentence, but other sites list it among some of the worst small talks you can make. That last one suggest answering the question with another question: "Do you mean where I was born or where I grew up?", but again while this may give a 'subtle' hint that you're on to something, it doesn't really make clear you have personal reasons for not answering the question.

I think there are a few approaches you could use:

  • Be honest. As you said, it might throw people off if you do this, but it's the most straightforward way. You can soften the blow a bit by using I messages and stating your feelings: things like 'I'm not comfortable talking about that' have worked for me in the past, most people are sensible enough to drop the topic. After that, take the burden of continuing the conversation upon yourself, be the one to switch the topic to emphasize you don't want to talk about that and have another bit of small talk ready that you can use to show some interest in the person you'd like to continue talking with. I usually notice this follow up sends the message that you still approve of the person, that you value their conversation and if you ask them another question it will allow them to feel like they've saved face.
  • Answer the question with another question. You could either use the one from the site I linked above or something like 'Why?'. This is more passive-aggressive than being honest, and if you can I'd recommend honesty first. But I've successfully dodged questions I didn't want to answer in the past with things like 'Why are you asking?'. If you're lucky, someone will get the hint and know they asked a question you're unwilling to actually answer. Be prepared to have a small talk about your accent, or say something mindless in response to a comment about 'just, you know, showing some interest'. It does have a risk of entirely killing the conversation, being seen as hostile, or people not getting the hint, so I really recommend honesty first.
  • If you don't mind being more proactive and avoid the question instead of only avoiding to answer it, steer the conversation in such a way that people don't get a chance to ask you where you're from. You can do this either by becoming the person to ask questions or making sure there's stuff other than your origins for the other person to ask questions about. Honestly, the first is easiest. People love talking about themselves and being a good listener, letting them talk and asking honest questions can make a great impression upon people. "Be interested, not interesting." is a valid technique to make people think of you as a nice person1. The second one requires you to share other things, that people can ask you further about. It's a bit harder to do, but it includes replies like 'I'm fine! I went to an amazing restaurant last night. And you?' in response to being asked 'How are you'. Someone remotely competent at making small talk will now ask you about the restaurant and food.

As a last note: As you say you sometimes share the name of the town you're currently living in, if you want to do so and avoid the 'no, but originally' follow up, resort to point three again and steer the conversation by telling people your home town, ask them where they are from AND what that place is like in one go, then just keep them talking. By asking more than 1 question at a time, I've often had success and people didn't remember to ask their own questions that were more irrelevant to the topic of the second question.

1: Dave Kerpen - The Art Of People, p. 25-29

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    Something that might be worth adding, but for the first two, having a follow-up smalltalk question ready should help the flow of conversation. If the other person isn't expecting their question to be an issue, they might not continue the conversation easily on their own - if you continue the conversation you'll draw attention away from their question. – Roland Heath Jun 19 at 5:32
  • @RolandHeath that definitely is already included in my first point, it could work for the second but it might break the principle of 'If you ask a question, listen to the answer' which comes with its own set of problems (mainly, it shows an amount of disinterest that can be interpreted as not wanting to talk at all). That's why for 2, I recommend anticipating some reasons people give and making noncommittal remarks in response to that, instead of replying to the answer given with a question on another smalltalk topic. – Tinkeringbell Jun 19 at 7:35
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    I must say the first approach, honesty, has always worked much better for me in keeping people engaged, while the second one does much better in handling the more persistent people that I want some more distance from. – Tinkeringbell Jun 19 at 7:35
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    agreed, it's far more fitting for the first point (and that's exactly the approach I'd recommend as well). Trying to express that succinctly and clearly was giving me too much trouble though. – Roland Heath Jun 20 at 3:06
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Some people just want to know this trivia, no matter how irrelevant it is for them afterwards. Maybe you'll say a country they've visited and they will follow-up with "I loved city X" or "monument Z" and others just want to know that "George T is Y-ian"

Since you've moved in the last decade, I'm assuming you feel pretty comfortable where you live now, so you can partly dodge the question by talking about your experience there, in the UK. In this talk, given by Taiye Selasi at TED, she says:

When someone asks you where you're from … do you sometimes not know how to answer? ... Don't ask where I'm from, ask where I'm a local!

So you could answer with:

I've been living in Cambridgeshire for so long that I consider this to be where I'm from! Gotta love all those nature and surroundings.

This gives people a cue that you don't want to talk about your nationality, it isn't a direct denial and it gives material for them to continue their small talk, if that was the original goal. If they insist, you can just be honest and state you're not comfortable sharing your birth place.

39

I live in Spain, and have done for the past ten years.

Constantly, when talking to people I haven't met before, I get asked where I'm from.
It's because of my accent - I've been here long enough that my Spanish accent isn't bad, but that also makes it harder to place. People aren't sure whether I'm French, English, maybe Belgian, could even be Canadian, who knows?

Normally I don't have a problem sharing this information - it's part of getting to know people and is a perfectly normal question to ask or be asked.

If, on the odd occasion, someone asks and I don't wish to tell them for whatever reason, then I might just say:

Nowhere in particular.

or:

I've moved around a lot and lived in various different places, but I've been here for the last decade and it's my home now.

Then retort directly with:

How about you?

If they continue to pry, simply say:

I'd rather not say, if you don't mind.

(Note the rhetorical and very British "if you don't mind" - it's not a question, it's a polite way of saying "Mind your own business")

And that should be the end of it.


Small addition, thanks to user Rainbacon, who asked me:
"How do people typically respond when you say that you'd rather not say?"

I've only ever had to say it to people that I don't really want to continue speaking to anyway - belligerent drunks, for example.

Mostly, people will happily drop the subject when I ask them a question in return.

But normally, I don't have a problem just telling people, because these are usually people I work with, or friends of friends that I'm chatting to in a social situation, and to not simply say where I'm from would be quite odd behaviour.

20

I got teased a lot about my accent as a kid, so perhaps I'm a bit sensitive to what, for many people, is intended as a casual conversation starter.

A tactic that I've used in the past when small talk crossed boundaries is to acknowledge the question and use it as a starting point to slide the conversation in a different direction. For example, you might say

I've moved around a lot in the past, that's why my accent is hard to place. But I've lived here for ten years now, it's interesting to see how much changes in just a decade. I like the way the town center has been redeveloped...

(Perhaps not the best example, as urban development can be a contentious political issue in some areas. But the idea remains -- tangentially address the question and segue off in a more comfortable direction.)

20

Since you seem to be asked this question frequently in a common situation, I would recommend coming up with one, "good," answer. Something creative and in-line with your personality (funny, sarcastic, dry, etc., as fits you) will give you good results much of the time.

Many of the people who ask you this are doing so in an effort to make small talk. Small talk is not question-and-answer, so direct, complete, factual answers to questions are often worse than vague statements as long as they leave large openings for continued conversation. Ideally, your canned answer would leave an opening like this. For anyone with whom you do not want to have a longer conversation, it is easy to end it later.

You have some reason that you don't want to talk about your origin; whatever reason you have is your business. Almost all of the people who ask you this don't know this reason and likely aren't trying to dig out uncomfortable facts. Reward their kind attempt at conversation with something that gives them opportunity to continue the conversation.

Just in case, for people who have less than kind intentions, a mostly direct but still slightly evasive answer will likely cause them to clarify their question (hence, "I mean originally"). They believe that they have an imperative to question you on an inappropriate conversational topic. This is similar to asking someone you don't know about the spirituality or religion they identify with or how much money they make. Likely, you will not have a good connection with most of these people anyway so the conversation is pointless.

A few direct examples, to choose based on your personality and adapt:

  • Sarcastic/Dry: [pointing over shoulder] "Over there. Do I need to go back?"
  • Brooding: "I've been trying to figure that out. Did you ever read [some recent armchair psychology book]?"
  • Witty: "I'm from a tiny country wedged between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. You should see how difficult it is for the flight attendants to figure out what meal to give you on flights from there."

Each shows that you've heard and understood the question and that you have intention of continuing conversation, which you may choose to end later. Yet each completely redirects the conversation from the subject you wish not to answer. If someone chooses to redirect back to your origin after one of these answers, they're clearly on a mission and you'll have to decide if you're willing to share cold, hard facts with them (based on their relationship to you).

As an indirect example that I use frequently, for when I'm asked, "how are you?" My answer is often, "living the dream." It matches my personality and it is frequently well out of line with my situation as the person whom I'm answering clearly observes. (For example, buying parts to fix a broken toilet.) I don't believe that most people asking the question truly want to know how I'm doing; they're either making small talk or being polite. If I get a quizzical look (e.g., from the cashier checking out my toilet parts), I often follow up with, "it's not my dream, but it's somebody's dream." More importantly, it is an opener for the person to continue conversation if they choose, with topics including (certainly not limited to, from experience):

  • Living (being alive, happy, free, healthy, etc., which includes the weather)
  • Dreams (or hopes, desires and aspirations), because I mentioned that
  • Personal disposition (like, "you're very positive," or, "I'm not that positive")
  • The situation at hand (like, "you dream of fixing toilets?")
  • (Unsolicited) advice
  • Diversion, possibly with the thought of, "that question didn't work, let me try another."

Most importantly with this example however, I do not want to answer this question because of my personal situation. Very rarely do I get a follow up forcing the question. In one case when it did happen, I was proactively told by a third party that the person forcing the question made the situation awkward by doing so.

Clearly, I don't do this with my doctor ("how are you doing?" is a necessary factual question) as you wouldn't with a customs inspector (for whom, "where are you from?" is a necessary factual question).

8

"Originally" is a Russian doll (no pun intended). When people ask this, there are many ways to answer, based on the time dial--I often think to myself, "How far back do you want to go?".

Proactively choosing the timeframe you will use in your answer presents a strong opportunity to deflect discomfort, while being truthful and interesting, perhaps even revealing something better and more satisfying than what the inquirer was fishing for in the first place.

I can give the state of my birth (in the US) and that satisfies most people, but it is rather boring and there are times when I don't want to give that info for personal reasons of my own. If there are good reasons to keep my more proximal origins a mystery (or simply to share the unexpected, which might interest them more), I might respond, "My ancestors come from Scotland and Germany". I can tell the founding story of the Scots, which is further interesting--or even "the tradition of my ancestors is that we came from Troy". Such an approach can be more effective at starting conversations than killing them, depending on the knowledge and interest of the other person.

The question itself can be small talk, or it can be more. While people are often trying to scratch the surface to get a fingerprint for you in their own minds' database or to help you feel at ease without necessarily trying to glean information, bear in mind that with any new acquaintance, it is also natural to search for familiarity and commonality. I do love meeting third cousins, etc.--I learn so much and enjoy my associations more that way. Some people whom I have admired turned out to be not extremely distant relations, which gave me greater respect for our common ancestors.

If you are pressed to divulge the piece of information you'd rather not, some honest and unvarnished variant of "I prefer not to answer" will suffice. As others have pointed out, it is always fair to opt out on the basis of propriety.

Religion, far from causing discomfort, can also brighten our associations. My beliefs include that man is the literal progeny of the Divine, and so I have not uncommonly said, "I came from a home in heaven, and unless I am greatly mistaken, so did you!" It often brings a smile even when there is not exact agreement, but many have taken the compliment.

As with all things social, your mileage may vary. I am of the opinion that it is truly impossible to find a one-size-fits-all programmatic approach to interpersonal relations. Rules fail, but true principles endure: Honesty never wounds permanently, and good cheer is a key.

5

The path of least resistance is "from TOWN_NAME" where TOWN_NAME is either the town you are in, a nearby major city or the place that you consider your current residence. You will have to train yourself a little bit to say it naturally, without an obvious pause, but after you get the hang of it the majority of people will accept it. There are all sorts of taboos in society about questioning strangers ("prying"), and especially in today's politically correct atmosphere it is very dicey to dispute someone's origins.

You will still get the occasional person who will conclude that somehow ordinary rules do not apply to them, or you, and demand to know where you are from originally. Do not give in to this. Firmly, confidently state that you are originally from TOWN_NAME, maybe taking care to flash a moderate smile that says "piss off". If the person still insists at that point, they are way out of line, and you can point out that you no longer wish to continue the discussion with them. Even if the person gets mad, everyone else will consider you to be the party in the right.

A more brazen option that I prefer to use with phony people (such as salesmen trying a cheap "get to know you" tactic) is to answer: "Here." If they ask, "really?", repeat in a serious tone, "Yes. Here." There is really only one reason a person would answer such a question with "here" - few people fail to get the hint.

There is also the more adventurous "Why do you ask?". But I have found this to be a dissatisfying choice, most of the time the other person just acts awkward and the guessing game is rarely interesting - turns out most people are not very worldly.

Lastly: Stop obsessing over your accent. An accent does not automatically mean you are a foreigner. People can have accents due to class, being ethnic or cultural minorities, parents traveling when they are young, having immigrant parents, reasons of class or speech impediments... I for instance spent my childhood outside my country of birth, I actually have a perceptible accent in my native language despite speaking it very well. If I went to my hometown people would certainly wonder, if not ask, where I am from "originally". If you just confidently assert that you are from UK, no polite person should question you, accent or not.

3

I would, and have, responded in a deliberately vague manner:

Overseas

(In the UK, "across the Channel" might suffice.)

It's deliberately vague and cannot be misconstrued as a misunderstanding of their question, which prevents "I meant originally" responses. If they ask where specifically, they are prying:

I answered as specifically as I intend to.

I've never had anyone respond to that other than a somewhat awkward silence or "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry" .oO(Yes you did). If I'm trying to keep it lighthearted, I'd incorporate a joke (the first two are specific to the US):

Sorry, Donny has asserted his Executive Privilege and I can't speak on that subject.

I'm from the most tremendous place, it's the greatest, ask anyone. If you think you'd disagree, SAD. Others have said it, I could say, but I won't.

North of Antarctica*

Above sea level*

Below the sky

Due South from Santa/On Santa's route

*Not applicable to all locations, but sufficiently vague for my purposes.

In my experience people usually give up pretty quickly when stonewalled.

protected by Em C Jun 18 at 19:35

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