Whether it is okay to ask people where their family is from is a bit controversial. On the one hand, are the people who feel it’s okay, great even, that someone is interested in their ancestral background and culture, but equally large, perhaps even the largest group is that which finds the question suspicious, intrusive and racist even especially if after answering you and you ask them where they are from.
There are two occasions on which one can politely ask where someone’s family is from. At cultural events – where people explicitly are okay to share that information – or when you want to offer something e.g. providing food or drinks.
Remember, you are going to get the answer to the question you ask. What exactly do you want to know where they are from or their ethnicity?
Where are you from?
Most people are going to tell you where they grew up and spend the majority of their life. Others will tell you about the city they were born in.
If you don’t get the answer you expect, don’t start beating it out of the person with the all too often exasperating line of questioning:
But like, where are your folks from? – Same answer.
But like, where do your parents live? – Still the same answer.
You know what I mean. Where are you really from? – …
That’s a very rude and exhausting line of questioning. Save your twenty questions buddy, better yet, never ask them to anyone at all. What are you – the frigging bureau of statistics?
The person responding knows where they are from better than you. Just because you carry some stereotypes of what people of a certain place look and talk like doesn’t mean the person doesn’t fit there.
Plus, you always get what you ask. If you ask where a person is from, they are going to tell you where they grew up. But if you want to know about their ethnicity, find a polite way to do so.
Other rude questions to avoid
What are you?
According to views posted on question-answer websites online, putting your question in this format is very dehumanizing, and so is asking, ‘Are you mixed?’ This is a person you are talking to, not some cocktail brand for Pete’s ‘sake!
Don’t be offended if the person replies that they are hungry or human or any other clever reply.
Yes or no questions
So, you’ve told your friend you are interested in cultural exchanges and ethnicities. Still, instead of asking interesting questions, you pose a yes or no question, e.g., ‘Are you Italian?’ that is a very rude thing to do.
Avoid yes or no questions by thinking about how you’d feel if asked the same. If you’d not be happy answering the type of question, the other person won’t be happy too.
Stop with the ‘Are you Russian?’ kind of questions and make things interesting to talk about by the what, when, where, and how kind of questions.
Don’t exclaim how they are the first Jew, Asian or Arab you’ve met. Even the dictionary defines exotic as ‘not fully naturalized,’ especially in this bewitched age of populism and bizarre politics. You don’t want the person to feel like they don’t belong.
Plus, with globalization, the world is like a ‘small village’. There are people of different ethnicities everywhere, and nothing about their upbringing is exotic at all. Please respect that.
How to ask about ethnicity politely?
Especially with the rise in populism, nationalism, and racism, you can never be right, carrying on about just like in the old days, without a conscious understanding of historical issues a group of the population has been through. The key to getting anything controversial right is to go about it politely.
It is okay to be curious about a person’s ethnicity in the right context, time, and intention.
In what situation are you asking the question? The key is to avoid making the person suspicious even if they are your colleague, you’ve gone out for drinks one time or two, etc. it’s never right to just pop the question out of the blue. Context matters:
At a cultural occasion
If it’s at a social occasion, then the person won’t be suspicious of you at all because if they are attending a cultural event, they are interested in sharing their culture and learning about other people’s cultures.
‘Who are your people?’ would be a good way to break the ice and start a conversation with someone you just came across.
‘What is your ethnicity?’ Is also suitable during this context because you are talking about people and cultural heritage, after all.
If you want to offer them something
Perhaps you’ve invited them to dinner and are not sure what to prepare. On this occasion, asking the person’s ethnicity is not going to seem suspicious. It could be a great way to know each other better, exchange some culinary knowledge because that is what food does; it is a universal language that unites people – as long as the other person doesn’t refuse some food.
‘Is there any diet you want in particular?’ would be a good place to start, and then after they get comfortable with you, you can ask about their ethnicity. See! Very accommodating.
This is also applicable in other contexts involving cultural experiences like clothes, choice of entertainment, etc.
But if it’s not a socio-cultural context, please don’t. For example, you should not ask people where they are from while at the workplace.
Given all the discrimination that goes on at the workplace, it is never okay to ask your colleague where they are from. Even if you feel deep down that you are of the same ethnicity, please don’t.
If you have just met the person, asking them where they are from too soon is going to feel suspicious. Only ask a person where they are from if they are a friend you are trying to know better, and their ethnicity is related to the conversation.
Asking people where they are from out of the blue is a suspicious thing to do, even if deep down, you only want to know them, they won’t find it that way. Learn other ways to start conversations instead of making things awkward. There are billions of topics to talk about other than someone’s ancestral background.
But why are you interested in someone else’s family background? Many people are just nosy and only want to know a person’s background to report to the rest of their team so they can be seen as the know-it-all kind of person, they are not interested in learning anything at all. If your intention is not as follows, please stay away from prying personal information.
Data collection and identity verification
If you are not a sociologist or government official gathering data, you have no business whatsoever trying to dig a person’s ethnicity out of their mind. And even if you are collecting data, please understand that it is the respondent’s choice to answer or leave the question blank.
Interested in cultural exchanges
‘My family is from [ ] and [ ]. Where is your family from?‘ If you are interested in culture, then please let the person know. If this is someone you know and are interested in sharing their cultural information, they will respond well. But if they are not comfortable yet, they are politely going to let you know it’s too soon.
‘Oh, you’ve got an interesting accent, where is it from?’ That is another tactical way to inquire about a person’s origins. If you appreciate their language and culture, you are going to learn a few of their native words. But if you don’t go about it in a friendly manner, it’s going to look like you are only playing nice to profile them.
There you go! It’s okay to be curious about a person’s ethnicity, but only if you have the right intention and the context and timing are okay you can bring it up. Otherwise, it is best if you let your desire burn out on its own and avoid the awkward situation of rolling eyes, raised eyebrows, or the not-so-polite f**k off.
If in doubt, especially, better not to ask at all. It is best if the person volunteers the information. Another thing to avoid is ‘let me guess where you are from’ or personal wealth conversations. Don’t be that person; this is a person, not an object for your guessing games.
If someone is willing to share their private information with you, be cool about it. This is not the time to make it about yourself; it’s not always about you. Have an open mind, and don’t jump to negative stereotypes. Also, please do not go about sharing the information.
In a lot of situations, especially at work, most people posing the question only want to know the information so they can report to the rest of the team and act like they know everything. That is an inappropriate thing to do, a betrayal of the highest kind even.
Sophie Hammond is a journalist, psychologist, and freelance speechwriter for people in politics and business. She lives on the edge of the Rocky Mountains with her dog and a lifetime supply of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop.