The question: Where are you from?

+6 votes

Sometimes people ask me where I'm from. If I tell them the place I am from (like the nation/city/province where I was born) they occasionally elaborate on their question, suggesting that the real question they had was "what is your ethnic heritage?" or "where are your ancestors from?" I assume that maybe they are looking for a story that better reflects what the see or how they perceive certain looks to associate to certain places (like race or nationality).

I tend to avoid asking that question until asked first or when it suits the conversation (in certain contexts).  I also think I avoid over complicating the answer, even though my brain is stirring with interesting ideas/stories, enriched (over complicated) by my interest in genealogy research.  I feel like an interest in genealogy and/or DNA might influence how people discuss "where they are from".

 I am curious about how other people interpret this seemingly simple question and how do you respond? 

in The Tree House by Tannis Mani G2G6 Mach 2 (20.8k points)
People ask that question  because they have a mental image (a stereotype) of  people based on

1. There place of origin (country, state, or region)

2. Their ethnicity.

There is even a difference in the  minds of some people between persons of American slave ancestry, West Indies Ancestry, and African ancestry whose ancestors were legal migrants and not slaves.

Some migrants carried forward cultural traditions and even attitudes, handed down over the ages, especially amongst those that live(d) in rather homogeneous communities (Irish, Germans, Swedes, Germans, Quakers, Mennonites, for example). You can find that today in some states or parts of states like Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania.


Anyway people want to know where you are from, so they can pigeon hole you, and pull up their stereotype of expectations. There seems to be a strong need for certainty and discomfort with uncertainty amongst many in our species
I generally answer with the State I live in and follow with "why do you ask?" That's where conversations begin. Normally they clarify that is because of my accent or appearance and many times its heritage they are really looking for, the country my family came from. There are genealogists everywhere!
Interesting approach! I might consider answering that way one day. Wouldn't I love to get into a genealogy conversation! It's so interesting and you can learn many things from other people too.

5 Answers

+7 votes
I usually respond with Nation/City/State of the US, too. Though, I know some people if they are asked "Where are you really from?" they may be offended by that. Gotta be careful in that case.

And yes. Context is key. If it's out on the street it's rude to ask that. On a genealogy site it's fine.
by Chris Ferraiolo G2G6 Pilot (793k points)
I don't know if its all that rude.  Everyone seems very happy to discuss their origins with my husband.  I think people just like to be noticed.  It sort of shows you care to ask people about themselves.  Better than being ignored.
I guess. I just know some people who'd get offended by someone saying "No. Where are you really from?" That kind of thing.  But, everyone's different. I wouldn't mind sharing if asked, personally. For some it's a little much.
I agree with you, and also empathize with those who may feel offended (although personally I would love to bore someone with the ins and outs of my genealogical history, haha!).  I have heard often that some people consider the question "racist" because it implies that you look different than the majority.  However, it can also be unconfirtable to have someone question your answer even if you do "look like the majority". I once witnessed a person at the gym getting lectured for answering "I'm Canadian" (a seeimingly innocent answer). The  person asking felt that they should not call themselves Canadian if they are not Indigenous. I felt bad for the guy because he kept trying to explain that he was born in Canada and so were many generations of his ancestors and therefore he didn't "belong" to anywhere else. I suppose this is similar to the "no, where are you really from?" question.  It made me think about how there are so many different perspectives in varying extremes depending on their own family histories/experiences.  I general stick to city of birth myself, but I can't help feeling I'm missing out on some interesting conversation by avoiding being more specific. Wouldn't it be neat to strike up a conversation with someone who also does geneaology research (or who had even heard of wikiTree)? :)
Let's put it this way. I'll go into details only if I get Morgan Freeman to narrate. =) "Chris was born one wintry morning in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts...."

And yeah that would be kind of neat and totally random. I think it would happen more often at those genealogy conventions I hear about. Wikitree, Geni, Ancestry and a few others had booths at a con. Practically broke the servers on Geni, though. Whoops.
+8 votes
When I was young, the proper answer was, "My Mama."  Now I would say I am from New York because that is where I have lived most of my life and where I identify.  I would never say Hawaii, although that is where I was born.  As far as ethnicity, I am very mixed and no one can guess.  They've tried.  I was pleased as punch a few years ago when I was looking for a house because the realtor knew right away I was Italian.  I look like my Italian ancestors although I am very fair.  So were they.

My husband is from Latin America.  Whenever he meets someone he asks.  But he is asking people who look like immigrants or are speaking a foreign language.
by Lucy Selvaggio-Diaz G2G6 Pilot (860k points)
+6 votes
Most people ask me this question because I have a strong accent, not a Canadian accent, so they want to know.

Sometimes I will straight out say I am from New Zealand.

If anyone asks me if I am british, because I sound british, then I just nod and agree. I'm not going to disabuse them if thats what they think.

Besides, I am 72% British as my recent DNA tests told me, so I am not lying.  Well, not exactly!!  LOL
by Robynne Lozier G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
Oh disabuse them/us! I love love love accents-- the sound, the variety-- and I love learning the distinctions. Sometimes I'm embarrassed when I get it wrong but I appreciate knowing that no, someone is not from England but from New Zealand or Australia or South Africa... (in the case of "English" accents). Then you've got the regional varieties depending on which part of the British Isles...

Then there's the musical wonderfulness of accents from the African continent.  I live in the Washington DC area where we have a diversity of immigrants.  Most cab drivers I've met here are not native -US -born.  I am sensitive to the "where are you from?" question as it can be insensitive and even perceived as racist. When I do ask, I will often start with an acknowledgement of their beautiful accent. In most cases my inquiry leads to a discussion of family and history and aspirations.

When I'm asked, I say California.
I would also much prefer to be corrected than to go on thinking I know what accent I'm listening to, then turn out to be completely wrong one day.  Once I find out where someone is from (or has presumably lived somewhere long enough to have an accent), I think I could learn much more from them about that place (if they were willing to share of course), and maybe have a very interesting conversation about their perceptions of the place they live now.
+4 votes
People rarely ask me, for some reason they already made the assumption that they know where I'm from and what ethnicity I am.

I am not of Hispanic descent and I am not Filipino.

I really can't speak Spanish and I don't really know why you don't believe this.

I honestly wish people would ask me instead of deciding on their own.
by Lynnette LaPlace G2G6 Mach 2 (24.7k points)
+3 votes
I think the whole DNA origins things has become so pop culture it is leading to these kinds of questions because it is the "it" thing to talk about.  I doubt most people who ask it are trying to put you some kind of ethnic box.  I think they are looking for "matches" or points of commonality.  I think it has replaced the question "What sign are you/"  and honestly has about as much science behind it....   all the origin studies are different among the different companies because they are dependent upon what / who is in the database they use.  

So I respond with my paper trail %s vs my DNA ones and by that time most people are moving on to some other line of questioning.
by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (848k points)

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