How to Ask Someone ‘Where are you from?’

Where am I from? I was born in Southern California, to immigrants from India, thanks for asking.

Last week, while in an elevator, a well-dressed, slightly-older woman looked at me intently and said, “You have interesting skin,” before asking its origin.

I have dark skin, black hair and large brown eyes.

Despite the fact that this issue has been written about over and over and over again, people still don’t get that asking “Where are you from?” is problematic on many levels. The question may come from a good place, but it often puts the recipient in a bad one. It’s also worth considering who gets asked about their origins and who doesn’t. If you don’t ask everyone where they are “from”, why not? Why is the question frequently aimed at people who have darker skin, immigrant parents and yes, interesting backgrounds, if not to emphasize difference?

Here are some ways to ask someone about their heritage without sounding boorish or entitled:

Use a compliment. Sports Illustrated model Chrissie Teigen is asked about her Norwegian-Thai ancestry daily and doesn’t mind, but she had this advice for the curious: “I usually go with ‘What’s your background, you are beautiful”.

Be direct about what you are asking. On DCentric’s Facebook page, reader Laurie Peverill volunteered that she asks strangers about their “family history”, instead of the nebulous “Where are you from?” She adds, “Assuming that very few of us are actually from here originally, everyone has a great answer.”

Ask other questions first. DCentric reader Jasmin Thana also used Facebook to convey how she is dismayed that “Where are you from?” is often the first question strangers ask her. “Know my name first. Have a conversation with me, then you can ask where my ancestors are from. The question annoys me because they’re trying to put me in a box and if people just guess correctly, the look on their face is like they just won a prize.”

In a DCentric post from April, my colleague Elahe wrote, “All of this isn’t to say that I, or other second-generation Americans, aren’t also proud of our heritage and roots.” But the hope is that one day, people will be content to see the children of immigrants as peers, and not ethnic riddles to be solved.

  • kelli shewmaker

    i’m from texas, and usually two words into opening my mouth, people say “where are you from?!” i say, “well, i’ve moved around a lot, but i grew up in texas.” i don’t want to be pigeonholed as a texan any more than i imagine anyone wants to be stereotyped in any way, whether by their looks or accents or anything. i appreciate diversity, and i’m interested in people’s backgrounds, so when someone has an accent i usually ask, “where is your accent from?” i’ve found that to be the best conversation starter. i hope no one has been offended, but i can say that no one has ever seemed put-off by my question.

  • Anonymouspoast

    Is this really that big of a problem?  I’m not saying that it’s not something that people could find annoying, but whats wrong with simply answering  “I was born in Southern California, to immigrants from India, thanks for asking”.  It’s a straight to the point answer to a straight to the point question.  Why let little things get to you, why not focus your thoughts on more serious problems like disparity in prison populations or opportunities for employment and education.  Getting the world to tip toe around asking you what your ethnicity is not how to fix the larger racial problems facing the world.

  • Anna John

    Thanks for commenting and for being so civil. :) I didn’t include the entire conversation from that day, but yes, it was a problem and sometimes it IS more than just “annoying”. I don’t understand why I owe someone I’ve never met an explanation or history lesson. On the day the exchange occurred, I was suffering from food poisoning and in no shape to be social, let alone entertain a dozen questions about what exact part of India my parents are from, why the questioner has never heard of it, whether I like a certain curry or if I know Ravi Patel over in accounting. Those queries can be exhausting and promote a sense of isolation or “otherness” on a good, healthy day.

    There’s nothing wrong with the simple “answer” you derived from my caption, but there IS something wrong with people feeling entitled to it, before they’ve had the decency to ask my name, how I’m doing, what I think of the weather and a few dozen other things.

    Writing a post about one issue doesn’t imply that it is the only thing I care about or will write about, ever. Additionally, while you were taking the time to type your comment, on Facebook, a different reader posted, “THANK YOU FOR THIS. This is exactly how I feel and why I’m sick of this question.”

    I’m not requesting that the world tiptoe around anything, but some common courtesy would be nice. One of the racial problems facing us is the concept of “privilege”– something my questioner was exercising when she interrupted my day to sate her own curiosity, just because she felt like she could.

  • Layne S.

    I know it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when people ask me this, and I know I am irrationally bothered by it. I know people want me to say which country I was born in (S. Korea). But I always reply that I’m from Michigan. People will usually ask where my family is from, and I say that my family is German-Irish, came to Detroit in after the turn of the 20th century (I’m adopted). I totally agree with Jasmin Thana, if I’m asked later in a conversation, I don’t really mind. I get bothered when people walk up to me, do not ask me anything else, and then get offended when I give them the truth.

  • Anonymouspoast

    “Privilege” is a problem, not just concerning race but also economic status, sexuality, social status, etc.  While your questioner that day may have felt privileged to ask you this and expect an answer I have to ask why you didn’t feel just as privileged to deny them the satisfaction of that answer.

    While I agree there are better ways to go about finding out what someones heritage is than what you have experienced.  I’m sure everyone has something that they get asked on a regular basis that is either rude, annoying, or innapropriate.  I have a friend who is homosexual and hates when people ask him what role he plays in his relationships.

    This is a country that breeds rudeness specifically because of the privileges granted us as citizens.  If I let racial stupidity get to me I’d never see my grandparents (who blame everything on immigrants) or go into the local latin market that I love (where I’m treated less favorably than those who speak spanish).  My point is that, while you are right, why would you dwell on the these things that bother you so.  If you really want to impact the racial inequalities we all deal with why not focus on bringing light to problems within the institutions that govern our fine country, not the tactless uneducated people who have no concept of humanity.

  • Mlthompson42

    I am guilty of asking where people are from based on their accent, but I usually start with “You’re accent is beautiful!”

  • Guest

    The idea that only white people ask only people of color “where are you from” is erroneous.  In fact is is only in the United States where I’ve experienced this to be a problem (for obvious reasons).

    White people ask each other the same question all the time because of accent or appearance.  I am German and have many friends from all over the world.  We are always asked the same question by all people everywhere, whether we (or the inquisitor) are French, Filipino, Ghanaian, or Australian.

    Granted in America the motivation may be different, what’s wrong with a simple answer?  Is there really any reason to be ashamed by the answer?

    Do not confuse a questioner’s perceived motivation with the validity of the answer.  The two are very separate.

    You might respond with your origins AND ask where they are from in return.

  • Lauren

    I think this article raises an excellent point and is a topic that deserves attention (and a chapter in an etiquette book), but I would like to point out that women of color aren’t the only ones who get asked such a personal question. I don’t know if people realize that, but I thought I’d share:

    I’m a 3rd generation American of Russian and Polish ancestry, but my features often leave people guessing what my background is (probably because I am the product of a mother who is tall, tan and blonde with Aryan features while my father is short, pale, and skinny with strong Ashkenazic Jewish features). I am frequently asked “what I am,” to which the obvious answer is “American,” but I know what they mean and generally say “half Russian and half Polish.” People like to play the guessing game though, and tend to peg me as Italian or Lebanese. I’ve also gotten Puerto Rican, Columbian, Argentine, North Indian, and Israeli…

    When people ask, I don’t find it offensive because I am also curious about other people’s backgrounds. Even as a child, I’d ask my friends (who at that time were mostly Caucasian) where they “were.” The typical answers were “Italian,” “German,” Irish,” or some other mix of European backgrounds, but I still found it so interesting! It didn’t strike me as a rude question because America is a melting pot, or a mixed salad if you will. So few of us are “from here,” so it seemed so natural to inquire as to people’s family backgrounds. I mean, unless you’re Native American your family had to have immigrated here at SOME point, right?

    The only comment that I ever receive that I find borderline offensive is when people describe me as “exotic.” I know it’s meant as a compliment, but wtf is that supposed to mean? How can someone be “exotic” in America? WE ALL LOOK DIFFERENT!

  • maco

    I usually ask this to British people. And then they answer “England,” and I say “well I can tell THAT, but WHERE in England?”

    PS: I know there’s more to Britain than just England. I’m trying to learn to recognise the regional accents. I can tell English apart from Scots and usually Welsh as well. It’s pinpointing beyond that that I need work on.

  • Jessica L.

    It drives me insane when people ask me that question. It’s always the first question. Because I’m not white, I have to be a foreigner? I was born in L.A., thank you very much. I’m usually obnoxious about it, because when I get asked the question, I always say, “California.” Then they go, “No, where are you REALLY from?” And I push it, until they re-phrase themselves- “Where are your PARENTS from?” …”Oregon.” Then it changes to…”what’s your ancestral background?” Oh well, that question changes my answer a bit, then. I’m of Korean descent, and you’re welcome for being made to ask it appropriately.

  • Anonymous

    then you are even more annoying.

  • Samir

    Very interesting topic.  I’m someone who is also a child of Indian immigrants, so I have a better handle on this when I’m curious about someone else’s background.

    Some people are more approachable than others, just as in any other situation, so that’s the first thing people should really think about.  It’s like starting any other conversation with a person.  If you use the same tact, you’ll be less offending.

    It’s also important how you word your question.  We’re all curious.  And curiosity can be attractive to some, and annoying to others.  It’s important to figure out when you just keep your mouth shut and just keep your curiosity inside.  But otherwise, asking genuine curiosity-filled questions seems to have worked for me.  And it seems to have brightened people’s days when I’ve been inquisitive enough to be admit I was enticed by their exotic looks, speech, or mannerisms.