75

Introduction

This question is different from this excellent one, since it is not about tourists. The differences will become clear later on, I hope.

I will, as usual, use fake names (Alice and Eve this time) and also name places (L. A. and New York), that do not need to coincide with the actual cities.

Alice is a US citizen, born and raised in the US. Her name is very uncommon, though. And her appearance doesn't match "Average Jane's" entirely.

Eve is nice and open-minded and looks more like your "Average Jane".

Situation

I met with Alice and Eve, who didn't know each other before, in New York. I do know both, so I was the common denominator. It was nothing formal, just a nice evening at home.

After some introduction, like where I met Alice and Eve for the first time, a dialogue between Eve and Alice ensued:

Eve: Where are you from?

Alice: I'm from Los Angeles. My whole family lives there.

Eve: I love L. A.! But where are you from originally?

Alice: (short pause) Also L. A., I was born there.

Eve didn't seem to notice anything, and they went on. After hearing the question, I looked at Alice to see her reaction, and, although it was subtle, I do think that she wasn't glad about "Where are you from originally?". Also, she seemed a bit more reserved afterwards. On a sidenote, Eve also told a lot about herself, it was not a one-sided questioning.

At the end, Eve said, that it was a nice evening and Alice was great, but maybe a bit distanced. I said, that I felt that question to have been rude. She disagreed, noting how I was being over-sensitive and how she loves foreign cultures. She just had wanted to get to know her better and was genuinely interested.

Now, Alice was polite and said that she had enjoyed the evening and how Eve was a nice person. She didn't complain, but I doubt she would have, fearing it may hurt me. I also didn't want to pressure her for the sake of my couriosity. So I just gave her the chance to voice her opinion, in case she wanted to, and decided to ask the community here.

Question

Is it rude to ask someone "Where are you from originally?". Is there maybe a better way to phrase the question?

Please note, that this is not about proving me and my reasoning right. I'm genuinely interested in how such a question is perceived. And this is, in contrast to the other question, not about tourists or the like. While Eve didn't know Alice, there was no reason to suggest, that she was, e. g., a tourist. And there may be cases, where just the name is very uncommon.

Average Jane: Someone you'd see in a TV ad representing the audience

closed as primarily opinion-based by Ælis, avazula, sphennings, Alina Cretu, gparyani Nov 22 '18 at 18:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    Can you explain what you wanted to know? Is this one of those American things that others don't understand & probably means where did your grandparents come from? – Mawg Sep 8 '17 at 9:29
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    @Mawg I didn't ask the question, so I can't tell. But I would guess, that Eve was curious about differet countries/cultures and wanted to start a conversation about that topic. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 8 '17 at 9:40
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    Can I just clarify, @AnneDaunted, what you were actually asking? Were you indeed simply assuming that they had not been born in LA, or (for you) is "from originally" synoynmous with "where are your family from"? – owjburnham Sep 8 '17 at 11:41
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    @owjburnham I weren't the one asking that question. But I had the impression, that the intention was something like "So you live in L. A., but where are you from, originally?" (like which country). – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 8 '17 at 14:30

23 Answers 23

26

AS a mixed black/white N. American I find these lines of questioning difficult. It is as if I am expected to explain why I look foreign to the questioner. If I were foreign perhaps I would feel differently. Either way, I am not responsible for their misguided assumptions.

Ultimately I am unable to satisfy the questioner's curiosity. As their expectations remain unmet, the questioning will usually continue into where my parents are from originally. This illustrates the underhanded, if not cowardly nature of this line of questioning.

It would be better to be more direct, but few have the boldness and tact to do this properly. Of course the question remains as to why it is so important for the questioner.

It is not always rude when handled correctly, but often times I am left feeling as if I am foreign in my own country. If I skip the run around by explaining my background the questioner will often become uncomfortable.

The worst is when the questioner expresses skepticism at my explanation or attempts to argue the point.

Perhaps Alice was not offended by the question, but she feared that the discussion would take a turn for the absurd as it has in the past. This is might explain why she withdrew from the conversation.

If the questioner is truly interested, then they would be better off engaging the individual in a less superficial way. This kind of information will come out naturally as a friendship progresses.

  • 3
    "It would be better to be more direct, but few have the boldness and tact to do this properly" - what way is this? – Xen2050 Dec 8 '17 at 17:26
67

Yes, It is rude. The person asking is trying to get confirmation on whether the person is really from the place they say based on their physical appearance and/or name. But, context matters and it depends on the person being asked on whether to be offended or not.


One of my best friend's heritage is Gambian, but he himself is from London. We've had a conversation about this exact same scenario. People who were natively from the UK would ask the exact same thing. He has always preferred it when someones asked where his parents were from to get information on cultural heritage, rather than the assumption he wasn't originally from the UK. He's a first generation immigrant, so this isn't the case for everyone. He would normally see it as someone being ignorant and the other person being naive/"that's the way they've been brought up" rather than being outright rude.

To me, a good alternative would be to not ask at all. Ethnicity shouldn't be really on the cards in a natural conversation if they're only curious about where the person they're asking is from. It should be believed that they're from where they say. The best way would be for the person to volunteer their ethnicity organically rather than be asked.

But, if you are curious about their ethnicity, it should be asked at an appropriate time and place. Written at the bottom of How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole

Being curious about someone's ethnicity is perfectly fine, but just be aware that how and when you ask it has an impact on people, and if you're an asshole about it, the impact is othering. I've never been curt enough to say it when people ask me about my ethnicity, but the question that always pops up in my mind is, "Why? Why do you need to know at this particular time?" Ask yourself why you're doing it before you question someone about their background. If their ethnicity is relevant to the conversation, or perhaps you're at a point in your friendship where the question is appropriate, then it's fine. But chances are, if you're asking just to ask, you really just shouldn't.

In the words of Dodai, "Keep yourself in check and don't be a jerk." It's that simple.

  • 1
    Thanks! This adds a new perspective. So the question is perceived as some subtle accusation of lying about where someone actually comes from? – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 7 '17 at 12:19
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    @AnneDaunted that, or implying that they're not really from there (and don't really belong there). In the case of Bradley's friend, the implication of "where are you from, originally?" can be that while he lives in the UK now, he is from some other place and does not really belong in the UK. – SQB Sep 7 '17 at 12:24
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    I have mixed feelings about this answer. On one hand I kind of agree, but on the other hand I meet a lot of "foreigners" at conferences, my direct co-workers that I deal with on a day-by-day basis have about seven different nationalities, and I'm a Dutch person living in the UK (i.e. I'm a "foreigner" myself), and talking about our native countries and sharing observations about various countries is very common. No one is offended, it's just a way of learning more about the world; I learned a lot from e.g. Ireland (both good and bad) by talking to my Irish co-workers for example. – Martin Tournoij Sep 7 '17 at 22:30
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    Yeah, I agree with that @BradleyWilson, but your answer goes a bit further than that and says that "Ethnicity shouldn't be really on the cards in a natural conversation". I think that goes a bit too far, as I generally find this to be a very interesting topic of conversation. – Martin Tournoij Sep 7 '17 at 22:50
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    @Carpetsmoker I think the piece you might be missing is that people who are, say, from L.A. but look somehow foreign are likely going to get pretty sick of ethnicity being part of so many of their day-to-day conversations with new people. They're not in the position of Dutch and Irish learning from each other, they're an American just like the other person except everyone keeps acting like they aren't. So especially in the US, and especially somewhere like L.A. with plenty of non-white US citizens, it can be good to avoid risking dragging people through that. – Cascabel Sep 11 '17 at 15:26
59

I can speak from experience when I say yes, it is rude. Most phrasings translate to something like:

Alice: Where are you from?

Bob: I'm from mycity

Alice: But where are you really from?

Which implies Alice either doesn't believe/accept Bob's answer, which is completely rude or is otherwise unsatisfied, which is none of Alice's business.

This seems to happen more often when mycity is a common destination for immigrants, or even people moving within the same country (think New York or Los Angeles). In these cases a scenario like the following is (in my experience) less offensive/more acceptable:

Alice: Where are you from?

Bob: I'm from mycity

Alice: Oh, ok. Are you from there originally?

Bob: Yes, born and raised.

Note the subtle difference here. This doesn't imply that they are in fact originally from another location. It's asking, rather than assuming.

This approach (again, in my experience/opinion) translates more to something along the lines of:

Alice: Oh, interesting. I know mycity is a great place and many people seem to move there from other locations. Were you born there or do you fall into that category as well?

This says to me, "I accept your answer; you are from mycity. Now I'm curious about another topic."

Of course, this is only one person's account and if you're unsure whether it may cause offense, it's best not to ask.

  • 1
    The problem with this answer is that it totally avoids the elephant in the room that OP is asking about. Eve was not asking about Alice's geographical history, she was interested in her ethnic background. Not down-voting, by the way, just a comment. – PoloHoleSet Oct 26 '17 at 15:22
23

In Austin, where most people are immigrants, this is considered very OK, and as a Welshman, it is a conversation I have with just about every new person I meet.

I know what the person is asking; I do not mind them having this information; and I am interested in knowing where they are from, too.

There are a variety of different questions wrapped in those four simple words "where are you from?", so people usually ask it more specifically:

  • What's your heritage? (About half Welsh, the other half is a pot-pourri of Indian, Gypsy, Spanish, Dutch, Scottish, Irish, and more).
  • Where were you born? (A town called St Clears, in Wales)
  • Where are you brought up? (Various places around Wales, London, and Greece and places between)
  • Where were you educated? (University of Bradford)
  • What nationality are you? (British, include Brexit grumbles here)
  • Where were you living before the US? (London, UK)
  • Where were you living before Austin? (Wisconsin, briefly)
  • What company do you work for? (programmer for a company called Magento)
  • What's your accent? (I think it's close to Received Pronunciation British, with a little Northern British thrown in)
  • What's your religion? (easygoing atheism - my parents followed the teachings of an Indian guru, my wife's Christian, but I'm not religious)
  • What's your allegiance in this current game we're playing? (Aldmeri Dominion).
  • What do you identify as? (Welsh, geek.)

So you need to unwrap what they mean by the question, but "Name, Job, Heritage" seems to be the North American (or at least, the Austinian) equivalent of the archetypical online "a/s/l?". In both cases, these are background/context-setting questions. It is OK to find out someone's background and to set them into a context. It's part of the process of making friends. It could be offensive only to those who find their own identity or past to be offensive.

Just in my 8-person team at work, we have (or had) people who were born in the Ukraine, India, Germany, Wales, Mexico, and Texas. Avoiding talking about where you're from would be utterly impossible.

It can be very polite to express interest in people's background, and it is to be encouraged.

However - it's probably impolite to reject the answer you're given, and say "no, where are you from originally?" And sadly, there's no way to ask "name, job, heritage?" in a way that is guaranteed not to ruffle anyone's feathers.

Don't let that stop you, though. Keep making friends!

  • 3
    This is totally different she was a native who just looks different, not an immigrant like you. She is from LA originally. – crobar Sep 8 '17 at 14:14
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    @crobar However she defines "originally" (is she Tongve?), she'd no reason to take offense at background/context-setting questions. Instead, as I wrote, her offense most likely came from rejection of her offered answer, than from the question itself. As for my opinion as an immigrant being irrelevant, I wrote not only of myself, but of my team and the general Austin population, including native Texans. Not all have obvious heritages or accents, but none take offense at discussing them. My point was that it's as common and inoffensive a topic as the weather, in TX at least. LA is... different. – Dewi Morgan Sep 8 '17 at 15:59
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    The things is, none of your questions carry the same baggage as the original question. (Personally, I wouldn't ask about religion, but the rest are fine.) What Eve really wanted to know is Alice's heritage but the way the question was phrased strongly implied that Eve assumed Alice hadn't been born in the US. It's unclear whether she meant it that way, but I wouldn't be surprised if Alice felt insulted and was simply trying not to let it show. – Llewellyn Sep 8 '17 at 18:04
20

Abstractly speaking there is nothing wrong with asking someone where they are from, especially in places like United States (or Canada) that have a lot of immigrants. Many people like to talk about other countries and how different certain things are (in my high school that was a fairly common topic for people getting to know each other).

However is is rude to continue to pry once the person gave their answer because it implies that the person is more "foreign" due to their appearance even though everyone in North America, except natives is an immigrant or descended from them, and white folks are just as "foreign" to this place as any other non native people.

If you are really interested in someone's cultural background, a better approach might be to get the ball rolling yourself by discussing yours and if they are interested they can then also volunteer stories from the "old country" or some quirky beliefs their family has etc. And if they aren't interested in talking about that don't try to force it

17

If someone tells you they are from L.A. and you say "yes, but where are you from originally" then you are implying that they are not a real Angelino, unlike all those people who aren't being asked this question. That is why it is rude.

Before asking this question you should ask yourself why you think this person is not a real Angelino? Is it skin colour, or accent, or name, or what? How many generations does a family have to live somewhere before they are considered authentic residents?

If you are genuinely interested then you might consider questions like "Thats an unusual surname; where does it come from?", which expresses interest in their family background without implying that their identity as a native of Los Angeles is somehow bogus.

11

Here's the thing about things like this: I am white. I look white, I have generally white features. I have never, after saying where I'm from, been grilled and cross-examined until I eventually cough up that my ancestor came over from Moravia way back whenever. It's never happened. If you're white, it's probably never happened to you, either.

The fact that some people feel compelled to do this when they meet someone who looks nonwhite, but not when they meet someone who looks white, should be kind of a red flag that it might come across as racially insensitive.

My two cents, anyway.

  • 3
    Well, I'm also extremely white and even have a very British name, yet I have been asked about my heritage. The category of "white" is one of the broadest that one can fit into, it's not uncommon at all to be asked about it - the difference may be that you may be less likely to know what your heritage is in the first place. I'm not sure what your social circle is like, or why they value race so much, but I can't say race has such a universal impact on the OP's question as this answer asserts. – Knetic Sep 9 '17 at 1:53
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    Asking about your heritage is not the same thing as saying, "where are you from?" "LA." "Okay, but where are you really from?" I'd be pretty skeptical if you claimed to have encountered this sort of third degree. – Charles Srstka Sep 9 '17 at 1:55
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    In the Midwest, it's very common for white people to ask each other where they're from, and it's universally understood as asking where one's ancestors are from. Even after being aware for many years that this is apparently only a Midwest thing, I still hesitate if someone asks me where I'm from, because I've been conditioned to say "Germany" despite the fact that my ancestors have been here for about five generations. – Kevin Krumwiede Sep 9 '17 at 3:41
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    I'm from the Midwest, and I've never had "I'm from South Dakota" not be good enough. And it's never occurred to me to say I'm from Moravia, either. Hell, I've only ever even been there once, for a couple of days at that. Never lived there, don't know the language, why would I say I'm from there? – Charles Srstka Sep 9 '17 at 5:31
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    What I have been asked is, "What kind of name is that? It's crazy, it has no vowels!" :-P This isn't the same as contradicting me when I say where I'm from, though. – Charles Srstka Sep 9 '17 at 5:39
10

Yes, many people will perceive the question as rude, and some will find it racist as well.

Asking the question implies that, for some reason, Eva presumes Alice wasn't born in L.A.---that something about Alice caused Eva to assume she was born elsewhere, even though Alice had just said she was from L.A.. Whatever that reason was, it's a rude assumption to make, because it suggests that Eva has some concept of what Americans typically look like, and Alice doesn't fit it.

This is a pretty common issue, common enough that the exact question ("Where are you from originally?") and its variants commonly show up as examples of what are called "microagressions". I know there are people who dislike the concept of microagressions or the discussions around it, but that's irrelevant to the point that a lot of people have pointed out publicly that they get asked this question a lot, and find it rude.

8

My reading of the situation is that Eve was genuinely curious about Alice, perhaps because of her unusual name or physical appearance, and was trying to learn her ethnic background by asking questions that, at least in hindsight, came across as rude.

I wonder if an alternate approach might have avoided the unwelcome implications of Eve's questions? For example, if it was Alice's unusual name that sparked Eve's curiosity, what if Eve had asked "You have a very interesting name, one I'd not heard before. Can you tell me anything about it?"

If it was Alice's physical features that made Eve curious, in my view that's a more delicate area, and one I wouldn't recommend pursuing, but if Eve wanted to pursue it, and if it wouldn't come across as an unwanted sexual advance, perhaps Eve could have said something such as "You have a very attractive face and such striking features! Would you mind if if I asked where your family heritage is from?"

8

Physical characteristics like ethnicity are the most immediately noticeable part of a person, and it's natural to be curious, but I do find this conversation topic to be annoying and uninteresting, and I'm sure many consider it outright rude if you ignore the fact that they steered their initial answer away from it.

A general rule is don't force a conversation topic on an unwilling participant. You don't talk sports to people who don't watch sports, and you don't talk about Exotica with Exoticans who are obviously trying to avoid the topic.


If I'm asked "where are you from" and I answer "Domesticburg", it often means I'm happy to talk about my experience in Domesticburg. It also suggests I don't care to talk about my non-Ameristanian genetic history. A person is more than the color of their skin, and perhaps I'd enjoy a conversation that doesn't repeat the exact same conversation I've had with hundreds of strangers in awkward forced social settings in the past "Yes, my family is from Exotica. Yes, I speak Exotican but I'm rusty. No, I don't really have recommendations on where to visit. No, it wasn't a huge cultural shock moving to a new country. Yes, some uncles back in the old country." Yawn.

If you follow up "my whole family is in Ameristania" with "but where are you originally from", I take it your subtlety meter isn't calibrated the same as mine. It gives me the impression that only purple-colored people can claim to be from Ameristania without being challenged on it by you. This is doubly true if you lead off the conversation this way, so we've had no meaningful interaction other than your questioning my background.


I disagree with some of the others answers advocating "asking in a nicer way". Switching to an indirect version of the exact question "wow, you have [some complimentary feature that happens to indicate your Exotishness]" doesn't help at all. I'm not offended by your asking about my background, I'm just disappointed in your inability to see that I don't want to talk about it. Trying to extract it with weasel words just causes an internal eye-roll.

6

The question is worded "ask someone" but infers "ask a westerner", this answer responds to the "someone" variant, not "westerner".

In colleges with multicultural student populations, "Where are you from?" can be a safe question for anyone to ask. The reason for this is that nearly everyone can be expected to come from somewhere distant, and even people of western appearance are quite often from Poland, or Hungary, or Mexico for example. (based on recent, actual classmates). It is a reasonable question to ask anyone.

In general, even away from multicultural campuses, the question itself does not typically seem to arouse offence or hostility in Toronto, Canada. This does not mean that people will not take offence to the question.

The question wrapped inside your question seems to be: "Is there an easy way to assume that someone has just taken offence to the question?"

The safest bet, if you look western, and the person is 2nd generation, is to simply assume that they will take offence, and let it come out when they volunteer the information. Perhaps being a citizen from birth who gets perpetually mistaken for a tourist gets old quickly...

Even if you look western, and the person asked is 2nd generation, the reaction to being accosted by a lost tourist frantically speaking a language the listener is expected (hoped) to speak based on their appearance, is usually to clarify the situation with hand signals, not immediately become offended. (Although an assertion rather than a question, the answer is still to say where you are from, or are not from, or become offended.)

A quick caveat here is that your friend from Vietnam may have just learned Japanese. While guessing if they are Japanese when they understand a store sign likely isn't offensive, if asking the question isn't safe, guessing isn't safe either.

If you ask, and they play dumb, like in the OP's example, they probably took offence, or maybe just felt cornered by the line of questioning. Remember, people who would have the most interesting answer to that question "Where are you from?", might not always have immediate fond memories of the place. (Possibly even the reason they left.)

The confusion likely stems from nuanced communication, over ignorance of the implication. (hypothetical example: 8-year-old feels compelled to bring mommy up to speed by clarifying that they mean "Where are our ANCESTORS from, mommy.") If a child would find the question an easy, unambiguous one, there is likely much being left unspoken.

Having said that, the opposite can be true in a very multicultural environment, potentially magnified by the attitude students can have to experiencing new and interesting things.

Over the past three years at the neighbourhood college, students have systematically asked each other where they are from, quite often directly after learning each other's name. Nobody gave, nor expected the answer "Toronto" unless it came out that there was an actual Canadian in their midst.

The question is often taken as a compliment that anyone would take an interest in their homeland (or home city), and perhaps in contrast to expectations, the compliment is considered to carry more weight if the one asking is assumed to be 'native' or an ambassador of the country in which the conversation is taking place.

  • 1
    There's a difference between where someone is from, and asking again "where are you from originally?" after being given an answer. The former is quite common. Your answer doesn't seem to address the later question, which is where the problem comes in: they just told you that they're from Los Angeles, so what basis do you have for assuming they're really from someplace else originally? – Zach Lipton Sep 9 '17 at 5:12
  • @ZachLipton this answer explicitly ONLY addresses the meaning of asking a second time, and also (hopefully) makes the point that you do not need to assume anything to ask someone about their racial/cultural associations. edit: the first asking could sincerely mean "how long was your commute in to work today?" – lpt Sep 11 '17 at 15:39
4

Like others have said, yes, it is rude and probably will be interpreted as racist to ask someone where they're really from. As a caucasian male born in the US, I can't remember ever being asked where I/my family is "actually" from.

In my experience, the more harmless way of asking about a person's background is asking "Are you from [current city]?".

In your scenario, Eve asking that lets Alice talk about where she's lived as much as she'd like and gives Eve much more flexibility in the follow-up questions. For example, Eve could then ask Alice what brought her to the New York, what she misses about LA, if her family visits her here, etc.

4

It's a bit rude to outright ask someone "Where are you from?" based solely on their appearance. And as Bradley Wilson pointed out above, it shouldn't matter when you're just meeting someone.

One could ask:

Where did you grow up?

or

Did you grow up in (whatever area/city/town you are in now)?

This also opens the door for follow-up questions that can help you learn more about the person themselves and create a better bond with them.

If they grew up in the local area you might find common ground with respect to schools, universities, social clubs, or mutual acquaintances. If they didn't, you have the chance to ask them about how it was to grow up wherever they did. Either way it helps you connect better with the person, and they (usually) like that you took a genuine interest in them as a person.

4

To the hundreds of people who have asked me where I'm coming from: I don't consider it rude. I take it as a sign of interest. Most people are proud of their heritage, at least those living in the UK, and don't mind being asked about it.

  • Hey, could you tell us a little more about your background? Where you were born, how you look like (white male, black woman, ...), etc...? – Ælis Nov 21 '18 at 16:05
4

Asking "where are you really from" implies the questioner thinks you don't belong here, that you look like a foreigner, that you aren't one of us.

It is alienating, and therefore rude. Alice is the one accused: From her point of view, why does this matter to Eve? Why would she press it? The only rational explanation is that Eve treats people differently if they are native or not; which makes Eve a bigot or racist that is trying to figure out how she should treat Alice. No wonder Alice becomes cautious in dealing with Eve: Eve has already revealed a bias that excludes Alice from Eve's "one of us" inner circle.

4

Another perspective: Sometimes I just want people to ask what they really want to know.

I have darker skin and a lot of people can't tell what I am. Personally, I don't mind people asking (as long as it's out of curiosity and not for discriminatory purposes). For me, I'd rather people just ask "what's your race/ethnicity?" or "are you Filipina?"

Other ways of asking which they think are more "polite" just come off as annoying to me due to the indirectness and assumptions made e.g. that my parents are from another country so if they find out where my parents are from then they'll know what race I am.

As your friend did, I'll just answer the questions and hope they'll figure out they're not asking the correct questions. I've had one conversation go like this:

Sherlock Holmes: How long have you lived here? Where were you born?
Me: I've lived here for X years. I was born in LA.

Sherlock Holmes: Where did your parents meet?
Me: In LA

Sherlock Holmes: But where is your dad from?
Me: He's from LA.

Sherlock Holmes: What about your mom?
Me: She's from San Francisco.

Sherlock Holmes: But where were they born?
Me: They were both born in California.

Sherlock Holmes: Well what about your grandparents--where are they from?
Me: Well one of my grandmas was born here. The rest are from China.

Sherlock Holmes: Oh! You're Chinese!

It's a lot of frigging questions to answer for a Sherlock Holmes who doesn't actually care where I, my father, my mother, or my grandparents were born but just wants to know my race.

Just ask!!!

3

It is likely not applicable in your exact situation, but if it's the manner of speech that piques your curiosity, and if you can honestly say the following, then:

I love your accent! Where are you from?

is a great way to convey friendliness and curiosity.

I originally got this idea from an article about language learning many years ago:

...immigrants and travelers sometimes aren’t treated very well. To reassure them that you mean well, here’s what to do.

Say something like, “I like your accent; where are you from?” This lets them you you are friendly, and it lets them know that they should tell you about growing up in Moscow, not about the apartment where they now live in New York City.

2

Eve is rude, and asking the question again, implies: 1. she did not believe Alice 2. She does not believe Alice is a local, with complete disregard for her being a US citizen.

And yes, it comes across as ignorance, which is what a lot of racism is based upon. You should have stepped in a explained to Eve how ignorant she really is and gave her education on the diversity of you country.

Eve harking about how her interests in foreign cultures, when someone with different ethnicity is in front of her just resonant ignorance AGAIN. Missed opportunity to understand each other. Eve needs a lesson in culture intelligence and her behaviour exhibits subtle racism.

Put yourself in Alice shoes and see from her perspective that she had to put up with an ignorant person for an evening.

If that happened to one of my friends I would have asked the same question to Eve, but where are you really from, again and again and again. See how she feels, and see if she becomes reserved, then maybe she is a bit too sensitive?

Ask Eve to look up Jane Elliott Blue eyes, brown eye experiment.

  • Although I didn't ask for it, I also appreciate flaws in my reaction (or lack thereof) being pointed out to me, so thanks for that! However, asking Eve about where she is from (originally or not) would probably have resulted in her telling us day and night about every detail of her ancestry. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 10 '17 at 9:32
2

No, but you need to be careful how you do it. Specifically, you need to be careful about what news editors call a "hook."

It's best to ask the question in a reasonable context. For instance, if someone says, "I flew in this morning," you might ask, "Where did you fly in from?" If someone demonstrates a strong knowledge about a certain of the country (or world), you could (in many cases) ask, "Are you from there? You know an awful lot about it."

But don't do so in a way that seems to exclude people. Don't comment on their "accent" for instance, or the way they look or dress as your "hook" for asking the question.

So if you ask people where they ware from, and they tell you, and you want to know where they are from "originally," ask them if they have lived anywhere else. Or have they lived in "L.A." (per the question) all their life.

  • Asking about accents is pretty benign, even flattering especially when it's "I like your accent", isn't it? – Xen2050 Dec 8 '17 at 17:41
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I don't find it rude. I was born in one hemisphere, raised for 10 years in one area of another, and then traveled to the far end of the continent that I was on. Throughout my teens and twenties (and perhaps early thirties), people seem to be interested in knowing where my accent comes from. I have no idea. In numerous different geographical regions, including places I've lived before, people have asked me that. (And, ultimately, my answer is that I didn't know. It wasn't clearly identifiable as any place I've been before, because when I've gone to any of those places, people have asked me that same question there too.)

In the OP's question, someone thought the provided answer didn't provide the desired information, so more information was sought. Congratulations on being found interesting.

"Don't ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence."

I remember reading somewhere (in recent months)-- there are plenty of intentionally rude things that bad people do on purpose. If you're going to pick battles, choose one of them. Don't waste your life's efforts getting worked up over minor incidents like unintentional misunderstandings.

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Wording:

Is it rude to ask someone where they are from originally?

The wording in this question can be considered rude or cause the other person to be uncomfortable. It implies that they are not originally from x city/state/country.

However, immigration is becoming more frequent in many countries and people are becoming more curious. Asking about ethnicity or cultural backgrounds is different than bluntly assuming they are not originally from the US. Note: a person's ethnicity is different from their cultural background. Ethnically, I am Chinese but culturally, I am Canadian.

As a 1st generation Canadian born Chinese, I frequently get asked "where are you originally from" and depending on how sassy I feel, I will reply with:

Where am I from? Canada. I was born in Saskatchewan and lived in Toronto my whole life.

or, to subtly correct how they are asking where I'm "originally" from:

Are you asking about my ethnicity or cultural background? Because culturally I am Canadian but my parents immigrated from Hong Kong.

I work in public service and people get curious about where I'm from as my name/looks doesn't lend clues to my background either. I have a German first name, French middle name, and English spelling last name. My mother's family are from a Chinese village with unusual Mongoloid features (tanned, high cheek bones, square jaw, wide double fold eyes).

What I find rude is when people attempt to speak to me in Mandarin/Korean/Japanese (I speak Cantonese), or directly ask if I'm from Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, etc... all based on the assumption that I "look like I'm from there" since all Asians "look alike". I don't accept using the word "oriental" as a descriptor because you're lumping all East/Central/South Asian countries as one cultural identity.

I am more receptive to:

Can I ask what your cultural background is?

What is your ethnicity?

Name, that's unusual spelling. How did you end up with a German name?

Last name, that sounds Chinese. Where are your parents from?

Because I'm visibly ethnic, I'm used to these types of encounters. I use it as an opportunity to educate on the language they are using.

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Good answers, but... The question in your title is very different from what you ask in the body of your question. No, it is not rude (or racist, ignorant, etc) to ask someone where they are from originally. Nor is it polite. It depends on the situation and company.

If a person asks this AFTER someone has specifically stated where they are from, that demonstrates either poor listening skills (rude) or a failure to differentiate between an individual and their ancestors (more ignorant than rude, IMHO, but close enough).

  • Hey, do you have some source or other kind of stuff to back up your answer? – Ælis Nov 21 '18 at 15:15
  • @Noon, my answer here is based on 40+ years of observing my own specific culture (with a Western North America, upper-end blue-collar bias). Considering that "rude" is a very individual interpretation of any given action, I don't know what authority or evidence we might seek out that would be of higher value than that of any individual who thinks about such things. One piece of evidence I can offer is the show "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates. The entire show is about genealogy, and no guest has yet seemed offended, demonstrating that context is everything. – Change Machine Nov 25 '18 at 0:04
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The concept of asking about someone's origin isn't rude... but the choice of words can be: it would be easy to make it sound like you assumed a lot of things about this person simply due to her looks. This is the rude part. But being curious about someone and wanting to get to know them better isn't rude.

"But where are you from originally?" isn't the best choice, because it assumes she wasn't born there, without actually having any information about it.

Also, maybe this is not a question for the first day they met. Although it can be.

For example, while in Taiwan our local friends brought us to a museum exhibit about the history of local natives. I noticed that one of the friends looked very much like the old black and white pictures. She looked kinda exotic compared to our other local friends. So I decided to bank on my tourist status as an excuse for dumb questions and put my foot in it and simply asked. After giggling and wondering how I had found out, this led to a quite fascinating conversation about the history of her country. In case you wonder, she was a mix of local native Taiwanese ethnicity, Chinese, plus a Japanese grandparent.

Eve didn't seem to notice anything, and they went on. After hearing the question, I looked at Alice to see her reaction, and, although it was subtle, I do think that she wasn't glad about "Where are you from originally?". Also, she seemed a bit more reserved afterwards.

This is very interesting. Since I like to figure out my fellow human beings, I am often on the lookout for such clues.

You sensed that Eve had offended Alice. As the one who introduced them to each other, you had an opportunity to act as some kind of moderator, perhaps say something to defuse the budding conflict, but somehow you chose not to. I wonder why. What stopped you?

Your short story tells a lot about how a simple misunderstanding will escalate when people don't communicate.

Alice was offended, but she opted to hide it. My opinion is that in this case, it's her damn problem, case closed.

You knew she was offended though, but stayed silent. Again, you could have talked and could have solved the problem, yet you did not.

Eve sounds like an enthusiastic person who likes to know and care about others. She sounds nice. Perhaps she talks a little bit too much before thinking, and she made a small slip...

I said, that I felt that question to have been rude.

After the fact is too late.

She disagreed, noting how I was being over-sensitive and how she loves foreign cultures. She just had wanted to get to know her better and was genuinely interested.

Consider the possibilty that she's sincerely interested.

Now, Alice was polite and said that she had enjoyed the evening and how Eve was a nice person. She didn't complain, but I doubt she would have, fearing it may hurt me.

Ah, come on. If you give off the vibe that telling you the truth would "hurt" you, then it's your problem. You felt there was a problem. You should have solved it.

When you felt Alice was offended, you should have stepped in. For example you could have laughed, or pinched your forehead, whatever. Bring the issue up, then explain what the issue is, then clear it up, make sure everyone says what they need to say so they don't leave with a grudge. Defuse any conflict. Make it humorous if you have to. Take sides, if you feel like it.

Alice is a US citizen, born and raised in the US. Her name is very uncommon, though. And her appearance doesn't match "Average Jane's" entirely.

Yeah, I get it that you find it really embarrassing to say that Alice is brown? Or maybe asian? Or any other non-white ethnicity? Also you mention Eve enquiring about "foreign cultures". You're realy doing your best not to tell, but I can tell Alice definitely looks foreign.

Why are you embarrassed about this?

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