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Wednesday December 29

Why "Where do you come from?" should never be asked

Uh oh, I sense trouble. I have just been asked where I come from.

It might seem like a friendly inquiry but the question "Where do you come from?" is a loaded one. It is often a precursor to an assumption. The questioner is trying to find out something about you in order to pigeon-hole you by your nationality which I think is unfair.

Why should someone be graded according to what passport he carries? If I am a British national, does that mean I know everything about Manchester United? Or if I am from Brazil does that mean I can samba?

I'm not saying that where I come from has no bearing on who I am. But it shouldn't matter because everyone is an individual irrespective of his nationality.

In any case, it turned out that I was right about the questioner's intention.

It was a really cold night in Cherating because of the heavy rain and I had just remarked that I had to put on three layers of t-shirts to keep warm. Suddenly the woman I was talking to switched the topic and asked "Where do you come from?" Malaysia, I said. "Ah, then you're not used to cold weather."

You see what I mean about pigeon-holing?

She had just assumed that I had never experienced a cold winter (I had spent three in fact, two in the UK and one in Australia) simply because I am Malaysian.

To be sure, "Where do you come from?" is not always wrong to ask. I might use it as an opportunity to find some common ground with a traveller. I have travelled to most parts of western Europe and Scandinavia and I can share my experiences. Or I could choose to use it as a leading question to enquire about some facet of the country he originates from.

Probably the better way to broach the subject is to make a guess and provide a reason. At least it shows interest in the person and thoughtfulness while not being so offensive.

Unfortunately, as was the case today, "Where do you come from?" is a heavily abused question.

Don't ever ask it, if you're going to just make an unfair assumption.


Most questions like that are for the most part asked mostly because of curiosity rather than ignorance. Or a little bit of both.

Another presumptuous question are, “What do you do?”, as in where do you work. Asking such a question presumes that your work defines who you are.

Posted by: Jan Ove on Dec 29, 04 | 9:59 pm


“What do you do?” is often used at social occasions to establish whether the questioner will find the answerer interesting enough to talk to. Very obnoxious behaviour.

Posted by: Tim on Dec 31, 04 | 7:07 pm
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