We Americans, especially those of us in urban places like the Chicagoland area, often welcome the chance to meet international people and hope to expand our knowledge of the world. When we notice that someone seems like they're from another place, we ask, "Where are you from?" We think it will sound engaging and lead to an interesting exchange. Maybe we'll learn something new. Unfortunately, it's not always the best question to start with. It can cause discomfort, and I'd even say it's best not to ask it at all.
Maybe you wonder How can that be? We mean "Where are you from" in the nicest of ways! Yes, we do mean it in the nicest of ways, but I'll now talk about the feedback I've received from many of my international clients and friends who moved the U.S. as adults. They tell me that being asked "Where are you from" rarely feels like a friendly question. It usually feels like the American has just noticed that the immigrant doesn't belong here and the American wants to figure out what's out of place. Often, an ex-pat just wants to blend into the party or the networking event or the office, and they don't want to draw attention. They're looking to make friends or professional connections and they want to be accepted the same as everyone else. In this context, the question "Where are you from?" can feel jarring. I've heard this consistently from people from across the globe, even white, European professionals.
The exception is when it's part of the natural flow of the conversation. If everyone's chatting about where everyone is from, then it feels right for an international person to also answer. Or if an ex-pat has just said something like, "I just moved to Chicago last month," then asking where they came from can be perfectly acceptable.
It's not that Americans should never ask "Where are you from?" The problem is the context in which we ask it. If the conversation takes an abrupt shift to ask it or if the question is used as an opening line or ice-breaker, it can feel awkward. When it comes out of nowhere like that, it's often followed by the American asking questions about the person's home country or saying things like "I love that food" or "I've been meaning go there. Where would you suggest I visit?" At that point, the exchange often turns into a lesson on the person's home country, with the international being nudged into the teaching role. Sometimes they're fine with that, but often they're not. Although they'll be too polite to ever let on, they often don't want to be an instructor. They'll hide it, but they'd rather talk about something that doesn't make them the center of attention.
When you meet someone from another country and you want to make them feel comfortable, save the "Where are you from?" question until it feels like it naturally fits into the flow of the conversation. Much better is to not ask it at all, but wait until the immigrant offers that information on their own. If you talk long enough, or become their friend, it will probably come up later. If you can keep your curiosity to yourself, you can find out more about the individual as a person, not as a representative from another country. There are plenty of other things to talk about with anyone you've just met. If an international professional mentions that they're from Thailand and you've always had a million questions about Thailand, make a note to do your own research and focus on getting to know the human being in front of you. That will feel more welcoming to the person than a bunch of questions that you can find the answers to on the internet.
These aren't some new politically correct rules I made up just to be annoying. I say all of this as an American culture coach who interacts with and works with international professionals every week. This is based on feedback from immigrants trying to build their lives in the U.S. And a friend who has lived abroad confirms my advice. He's a white American and when he's abroad and gets asked "Where are you from?" it feels like the person wants to figure out what set of stereotypical behaviors they can expect from him.
Please keep in mind that American people of color don't like getting that question either. It feels like the questioner has identified us as looking like we aren't from the U.S. and they want to know what box or label to use for us. In general, the question simply feels rude, so please just don't ask it unless the conversation truly makes it appropriate to the discussion you're having at that moment.
On a recent podcast NPR's Code Switch panel discussed how bad "Where are you from?" feels. Listen here (the relevant part starts at 9 minutes and 45 seconds).