There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about the following exchange between two people, the first wishes to broaden their cultural horizons while expressing an interest in the acquaintance's heritage.

This genuine interest; however, is betrayed by the imprecision of the question:

Outgoing: "Hi! I'm ______, nice to meet you."
Shy: "Hi, nice to meet you too. I'm ________."
Outgoing: "Oh yeah, so where are you from?"
Shy: "CurrentCity"
Outgoing: "Oh." (surprised the listener failed to understand)
"I mean, where are you originally from?"

The intent of re-asking the question is to say:

I'm asking based on your facial features, style of dress, or manner of speech; i.e. noticeably different, or similar to my own. "Outgoing" could have said:

Are there any countries, languages, customs, or styles of fashion or music or literature, that I might already have a keen interest in, that you have been influenced by or possibly have insider information about, that could lead to many lively and fulfilling conversations between the two of us?

I would like to know if there is a simpler way of expressing the above: a clear way to express the full intent behind the question in a way that is both unambiguous and conversational. In such a way that the listener may respond:

Outgoing: "Oh yeah, so where are you from?"
Shy: "CurrentCity"
Outgoing: "Me too! I just spent all week talking about CurrentCity though.
Shy: "Well I (grew up in/just visited/did my residency) in Taipei..."

  • @Catija you turned the wordwall from readable back into wordwall. – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 19:01
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    What? How is that a word wall? Why are you using code markup and random paragraph breaks at all? – Catija Sep 7 '17 at 19:03
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    @lpt if I understand correctly, you are looking for a conversation starter to find out if there are shared interests between you and a relatively new friend/stranger? – Tinkeringbell Sep 7 '17 at 19:17
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    @lpt Then I would like to refer you to the question mentioned by Crazy Cucumber. Part of that question is also "Is there a better way to phrase the question" – Tinkeringbell Sep 7 '17 at 19:58
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    No. "Where are you from" isn't asking "what's your culture/native language and what about it can I delve into so that we can have a conversation." People don't ask "Where are you from" for that purpose. It falls into the realms of "small talk" and you're asking for the opposite of that - a question that will lead to an in-depth conversation with someone about their cultural heritage. – Catija Sep 7 '17 at 22:02

One relatively safe way is to ask:

So, were you born here?
Did you grow up in CurrentCity?

You can also ask where they went to School/University as an indirect means of finding this out.

If the asker is of similar race or ethnicity they can ask something like

Hey, do you speak MyLanguage by any chance?
Have you ever been to MyHomeCounry?

In general when you are asking where people are originally or really from etc, you're implying that they are foreign or out of place which some people resent, especially if they were born in CurrentCity, so it's probably best to avoid that.

  • please stick to the question. although the wording is identical, this question explicitly refers, as stated, to the asker NOT implying that they are foreign or out of place. this is why this is a separate question, to eliminate feedback concerning alternate intents behind the same wording. – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:17
  • in fact, the question explicitly stated that Curious may in fact share the race/culture/language with Reticent – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:18
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    @lpt Implication is something that the asked person may perceive without you intending it, in which case they'll still feel angry, so if you want to avoid that you might want to phrase things in a way that are unlikely to give that impression. I also added a little bit to the answer – Maxim Sep 7 '17 at 20:27
  • this question was posted solely for finding or generating a wording that does not allow for erroneous implied meanings, unlike the original. meaning that your comment defining implication was restating the core idea behind posting this question. acknowledging the ambiguity necessitates seeking a wording with no unintended implied meanings. the explicit purpose of asking this question on this forum is "to phrase things in a way that is unlikely to give that impression" – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:38
  • the edits you made about MyLanguage and MyHomeCountry make good sense, but are you now suggesting that one wording of the question cannot be used by all people from all racial/regional backgrounds? also asking someone about their birthplace and childhood are MUCH more personal than the tl;dr clarification paragraph – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:41

You can ask some variant of:

  • Where are your ancestors from?
  • What can you tell me about your heritage?
  • What values do you cherish in your family?
  • What does your name mean?


People are naturally interested in their ancestry and are often proud of their heritage, culture, and values. Phrasing it in terms of people and kinship makes the question much more conversational and less fraught with land-mines than a question about one's style of dress, accent or skin color, although many gracious individuals will not have any problem discussing these because they understand the connection to their roots and are happy to share it.

Some will be embarrassed and will not know about their own heritage. Some may still take offense at the question no matter how nicely it is worded. It is not normal to be diffident about where one's name comes from, what it means, or what is one's heritage or ancestry. In these cases you can help them to develop a wholesome curiosity in these by making an inquiry with a clear intention to laud their virtues and to know their culture and values. You can give truthful examples about what you have learned about others who might have some common ground with them. E.g. "The Salvadorians I have met have been unanimously cheerful and generous. I want to know where they get it from.". This may spark some flicker of recognition of their own culture, values and virtues, and even if it misses the mark of their own background or interests, it is a gracious compliment of a pleasing attribute they may internally receive further motivation to strive for or to recognize in others.

Others may value their heritage on a deeply personal level but may consider it too sacred or private to discuss openly. Still, it is entirely appropriate to achieve at least an approximate understanding of their special strengths, and such conversation often does develop into communication and appreciation of their more definitive attributes. In such cases you can always clarify that you are trying not to pry but that you also prefer not to be too superficial.

Some people may simply be unwilling to discuss their identity and origins, and so it is in good taste to concede them their desire, with clear good will on your part.

In many conversations I have had, it becomes more natural to ask about second languages, etc. once a place of national heritage is established, e.g.:

Stranger: "My family is from Russia"

Local: "Privet!" (Clarifying that this is the only phrase I know in Russian, but it is a clear token of friendliness.)

There is nothing about the fact of having a distinct national heritage that singles a person out as "foreign" or "out of place". All people have a heritage that traces back through some place that is with increasing frequency different than the place where they now reside or are visiting, as implied in the question.

These are clear, unoffensive questions and they avoid the trap of trying to trace a complex timeline of where a person has lived or visited, which nowadays is very lengthy and is usually much less meaningful than one's ancestral origins.

  • "where are your ancestors from" is an alternate wording, though is there reason to believe it would be less triggering than "where are you from"? – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:52
  • also you seem to echo the sentiment that asking "no, where are you from" does not literally mean (in common usage) "no, list all the houses you lived in, ever" – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 20:54
  • It is a different question and it usually provokes a different response. Some people are more thoughtful about it once they can externalize it. I feel that the ambiguity of the first question "where are you from" contributes to a feeling of confusion owing to the multiple interpretations that exist, while "where are your ancestors from" is much more precise and can be answered with concrete and informative examples. – pygosceles Sep 7 '17 at 20:58
  • i understand where you are coming from with the ancestors angle, and you are paraphrasing the original post in that comment so we clearly agree. the problem is the questions you propose come across sounding very much like an inquisition, or cross-examination, but conversational was a main criteria – lpt Sep 7 '17 at 21:07

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