Before moving to France, the only time I’d ever hear the “Where are you from” question directed at me would be on vacation. I was surrounded by people from out of the area, usually other Americans. It was lighthearted small talk that didn’t count for much.
But after moving to France, the same question comes up regularly and it feels different. People notice my accent and then the inevitable question follows. It can feel loaded and definitely isn’t always friendly or lighthearted. On our worst days, maybe we bristle at the question and feel defensive because it’s just another reminder that we’re different and don’t belong.
Is it too personal? Should people stop asking?
We’re going to get into all that, but first let me explain why I’m even writing this post. I’m bringing this topic up because 1) I know many of you can relate and 2) I want to offer a different perspective, one maybe you haven’t considered, about a seemingly innocuous question.
It’s a perspective that I know I certainly hadn’t considered until I was on the receiving end of the “Where are you from question” as a foreigner living in France.
Alrighty, let’s get into it with first discussing how this question even comes up. Usually there’s some type of interaction such as with a cashier, a delivery person, someone in the park, or a random stranger who overhears a person speak. They might notice something different about us. It’s a harmless curiosity thing and the person is looking to make a connection with a stranger.
In my case, my foreign accent in French is what prompts the question.
Many times here in France, when I answer that I’m from the US, it’s a positive thing. People have regaled me with stories from their travels to NYC and LA. They want to relate and we’ve connected. It makes me happy to share a piece of where I’m from and engage with people who genuinely want to know. Sometimes I even ask them to guess where I’m from and I’m tickled when they guess Belgium or Germany.
I can safely say that in most areas of the world, the vast majority of people are just trying to be friendly and are curious. It’s nothing malicious at all and can lead to fun conversations. I’ve had many.
But… and yes, there’s always a but… sometimes, it can go beyond that when the intentions feel different, especially for people of color. When a simple question from a stranger turns into several questions that escalate to, “Where are you really from? What about your parents and grandparents?” Now we’re clearly in microaggression territory.
An Asian friend of mine — born and raised in the US — explained how insulting this question can feel. She’ll reply by saying she’s from California and how it’s often not enough to satisfy people’s curiosity and their probing questions. She’s even been complimented on her English, her native language. : :: facepalm moment :: :
I can only speak to my lived experience here on my blog, as a white woman living in France, but it’s so important to understand others’ experiences and examine our own behavior and privilege.
I know many of you can relate to the negative shift in tone and body language. It’s the difference between genuinely wanting to make a connection and being nosy or even offensive. That line is quite thin.
Even though most people are coming from a good place, asking someone where they are from because you perceive them as different is othering. It is a reminder to us that we’re different.
After you’ve gotten the question daily for weeks, it can wear on you and mess with your head. If you’re not in a good headspace and are having trouble adjusting to life abroad, it can make you feel even worse.
During my first few years in France, my own feelings and insecurities at the time played into the impact the question had on me, even if the intent was from a good place.
In the early years abroad when we aren’t sure of ourselves and our choices (not to mention not having a handle on the language or being confident in our accent as a consequence), the “where are you from” question hits differently. I hated that question my first couple of years here and I’m very careful when using it myself. It’s normal to feel singled out or even upset.
On particularly bad days, the “where are you from” question absolutely felt othering. I’d let my insecurities about my level of French and dealing with culture shock and everything that comes with starting a new life abroad take over. It was isolating and made me feel incredibly lonely.
When you hear it all the time, you stop wanting to go out and interact. You don’t want to open your mouth in French because it’s just a matter of time before someone reminds you once again that you’re not like them. Sure, we should be stronger and keep our chin up. But it’s not always so simple to tell your mind to snap out of it.
This brings me to impact versus intent. We can have the best of intentions but that won’t prevent our words or actions from being received in a way that’s negative or even hurtful. How?
Well, a Harvard Business Review article summed up the issue perfectly:
“For those of us who already feel ‘different’ in a given space, being asked where we’re from carries implicit assumptions about our race, caste, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Often, it translates into: You don’t seem to (already) belong here.
It validates existing beliefs about social identities and can be quite patronizing. For instance, following-up the question with, ‘Oh, of course’ or ‘Yes, you do look like you’re from [country]’ can force people into neat categories of race, gender, or nationality, without acknowledging the nuances of that person’s identity.”
I’ll give you one example of a situation when the othering felt really antagonistic. Years ago, I was in the park with my dog (Dagny sadly passed away last year) and ran into an older man I was friendly with who happened to be with his 9 or 10-year-old grandson. I had never met the boy before.
I said hi to the man and had a quick chitchat about our dogs. The kid then gives me an icy look, no warmth, smile or friendly curiosity. He looks at me and smirks, “You have an accent” in a tone that was so wrong. There was no question there; it was more of a statement. Let me point out he used the familiar version of “you” which is “tu.” He was old enough to know better and that adds to the dig.
I was proud of myself that I didn’t miss a beat with my reply, “Yes, I know. I’m American and English is my mother tongue. French is my second language. Do you speak any other languages?”
He ignores the question and repeats the same statement with an even bolder tone, as if it’s some kind of character flaw that he’s unearthed. I asked him if he had a question for me. Nope.
At this point, the grandfather stepped in. I was hoping it would be in a helpful teaching lesson kind of moment but he blew it. He was uncomfortable, as he should have been, and said something like, “Well, we have to get home for lunch, have a good day!”
And that was that. He didn’t take the opportunity to educate his grandson (who was old enough to know better) on how everyone is different and the beauty of other cultures. He could have explained why people have accents. But he didn’t go any of those routes. At least not in front of me.
That interaction really bothered me. As you can see I remember it word for word even now years later. Yes, he was just a kid and kids say stupid things. They don’t know any better. That’s normal and I get it. But as adults, we have an obligation to teach them what’s right and wrong. Seeing how his grandpa didn’t even step in told me a lot that day. And that was not an isolated incident.
Anyway, back then I was more affected by things. I wish I could sit here and say I’m the type of person that doesn’t ever let anything faze her and everything rolls right off my back. Or that I’m the unshakeable type. But that’s not me. I am affected by life although I’ve gotten better in that department. I don’t have emotions of steel. I feel. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Now to bring up another important point, am I saying that an innocent and well-meaning “where are you from” is hurtful or wrong to say? No. Not necessarily. But depending on the person and context and where they are mentally at that moment, it can come across as unintentionally invasive. And you might not even be aware of it.
Or in my case, it just made me sad on my worst days and reminded me I was different because it triggered my sense of belonging. I think it’s important to be mindful of that consequence.
Should we just get over it and not have any feelings? I don’t think that’s the right response. Our feelings are real and it’s worth exploring why we feel this way.
Inevitably, whenever this topic comes up, people will respond by saying things like they mean well and are just curious and being friendly. And I repeat, I think that’s the case the majority of the time.
But remember what I said about impact versus intent. Just because you think it’s an innocent question and you’re curious doesn’t mean the person you’re talking to wants to engage. You intend to have a friendly conversation but the impact is that it brings up negative feelings.
It’s not that the question is inherently wrong or inappropriate. But again, I think it’s important to be mindful of how a question can be received. Maybe there’s a better way to make small talk or approach a stranger.
Also, as always, there’s nuance. Tone and context count for so much. Approaching a stranger in line at the supermarket after hearing them speak with a pointed, “Where are you from?” out of nowhere comes off differently than a new neighbor making friendly small talk when you’re both foreigners and new to an area. For more on small talk with the French, read this.
Above all, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and the majority of people are totally nice with good intentions and just wanting to connect. I can’t repeat that enough.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that there are rude people who don’t have the best intentions in mind. They definitely exist too and I just want to validate that for anyone out there who is being told they’re making a big deal out of nothing or are being too sensitive.
I’ve been asked this question by rude, hateful people as well and it’s definitely a thing. I know you have too. Not everyone is friendly and kind.
Having a bad experience doesn’t mean I did anything to deserve it. It also doesn’t mean I misread the situation or didn’t understand the language. That’s a pretty insulting thing to say to someone after they tell you “I experienced Situation A” and your response is “You didn’t really experience Situation A. You just didn’t understand French well enough to know they were being friendly and curious.” That’s called gaslighting.
If you can relate, let me be the one to tell you that your feelings are valid. I think what it comes down to is the very real experience of how something can feel on the receiving end whether or not someone’s intentions are good. And how it’s all part of building confidence and working through a new life experience, not to mention all the emotions that come with it. And to learn how to move on and know when something isn’t worth your energy.
But you know what, then there’s a positive shift. After a while of working through it and living your life, you get to a point where you own it. You’re a foreigner. You’re different. You speak with an accent. You are who you are and you’re doing just fine, wherever you are.
These days, I don’t ask random people where they’re from. There are better questions to ask. But when the question is directed my way, I answer it with a confident smile. I know who I am and I’ll always be different. That’s most certainly a good thing.
What’s your experience been with the question? I’d love to hear your point of view below in the comments!