Where are you from?
A seemingly benign question yet its use in ‘small talk’ context is actually detrimental and counterproductive.
What is deemed appropriate or rude depends on the current cultural climate but too often we perpetuate damaging stigmas and biases because we refuse to question the accepted ‘it’s just the way we do it’. Too often I will hear men argue that ‘It’s just a compliment!’ followed by a ‘Where else can I approach women than the street and bars’. The discussion is closed. It’s my way or the highway. Those of us that challenges the ‘way’ have so many roadblocks to encounter it is depressing. In the same way, I am faced with ‘It’s just small talk.’ when I attempt to tackle the ‘Where are you from?’ issue.
As the appropriateness of approaching women is down to context and the acknowledgement of the developing interaction between two individuals, so is the appropriateness of asking where someone is from.
You have been talking for a while now with that person and the references to places or names keep coming up in the conversation but you are missing information to have a well-formed image so you casually ask ‘Wait..where are you from?’. Your interlocutor answers swiftly and apologetically and resumes his story. In fact, there is now a greater inclusion of details and of explanations making the interaction even richer than pre-question.
Now, you’ve just met someone and so far only names have been exchanged. Before even a polite ‘How are you doing?’ you are faced with a ‘Where are you from?’. In my experiences there are two main reasons for this question up front.
Paris. Pic: Alexandre Prévot (Flickr)
One of them stems from the idea that it’s a good conversation opener. It is like the adult version of the ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ but more austere and less fun. Strangely enough it is a very counterproductive way of engaging conversation because the question is not open and more often than not, creates a wider gap between people as it raises differences between people. One will attempt to put your answer in link with a holiday spend not too far from there or with an acquaintance that may come from the area. What this achieve I do not fully understand as it stays superficial and most often than not brings the conversation to a low and even to that awkward silence.
The other reason is to size you up based on a heard accent. Most people wouldn’t dream of putting a stranger in a uncomfortable position, especially by pointing out the differences between themselves and the other. After all, would you dare to ask ‘So how much do you earn?’ based on the clothes someone is wearing or asking someone in a wheel chair ‘How did it happen?’ upon meeting them for the first time. That’s because most of us are sensitive to what others might feel and making someone feel uncomfortable is counter-productive to our needs for connection. Somehow we don’t mind making people with accents feel uncomfortable.
Actually if one assumed the accent to be due to a speech impediment, buccal malfunctions, neurological diseases, learning difficulties or adoption, one would refrain from using this question because we would consider the awkwardness it might bring to the other.
Yet when the assumption is that the other is a foreigner, the question seems to come with the idea that you cannot possibly feel uncomfortable. If you left your place of origin without a choice, to seek refuge for example, surely you are so grateful to be here that the joy outweighs the pain of the memories and the difficult journey. Even if you are the next generations of refugees, of course you still bow to our feet with gratefulness and you probably have no pain whatsoever associated with your family’s history because you didn’t live it directly. If you left out of choice, it can only be because our place is so great. It can’t be because you are fleeing personal trauma and abuse. Even if you are, again, the joy of being here surely outweighs the pain of what you left. If you choose to come here for work or studies or love, then you made the choice so you can’t be that homesick after all. I mean ‘it’s just small talk so no reason for you to be uncomfortable’.
Hong Kong. Pic: eGuideTravel (Flickr)
Let’s assume now that you are faced with an individual you did come out of choice and is equally joyful about their place of origins and where there are at the moment and happy to go through the set way of small talk. How is stereotyping their place of origins or saying you’ve been on holidays to the other far end of the country that they don’t know about, helps in anyway to make any connection whatsoever. How is the fact that you ask a question loaded with the idea that ‘you are not a native’ brings any positive on your person as a curious and welcoming being?
So here’s the simple matter of context. You want to figure someone’s accent? Talk to them about other things. Quickly enough their place of origins will pop up in the conversation without you having to ask anything. If you want to just do small talk, then be more creative. Hell, if you prefer the closed question, revert back to our childhood favourite of ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ and reminisce on how small talk was easier when we were children.
An easy way to start conversation is to ask ‘So..what brings you here?’. It is a known selling technique to make people talk about themselves. Here at Goldsmiths, ask ‘What are you studying?’ ‘How are you finding this university?’ ‘What’s your long term goal?. Be mindful that strangers might not want to share their life stories with you. They might be nomads or moved all around the world their whole life. They might be bicultural or multicultural. How is one suppose to answer the question when they don’t know themselves. Keep this in mind and challenge the way we do small talk. This is university and there are enough people to practice on. I challenge you to pause every time this question pops into your mind…, breathe…, think and ask something else.
Words, Caroline Angenieux