“Where do you come from” is a phrase that gives me goose pimples. I have answered this question more than a hundred times and expect to encounter the same query at any moment. Do they mean where I was born, where I have studied, worked and lived, where I have immigrated, or where I feel I belong?
It’s summertime in Europe, the holiday season. “Where do you come from” is one of the most uttered questions, from tourism staff who need your answer for statistical purposes to curious strangers because of your look or accent.
(I was trying to learn English and I was very worried about my accent. I’m sure I’ll always have it but I remember Tom Hanks said to me, “Don’t lose the accent. If you do, you’re lost.” Antonio Banderas (sic) (https://www.ef.co.uk/english-resources/english-quotes/language/).
Physical attributes (i.e. your look) and accents are used as categorisation factors of ethnicity. The latter is based on skin colour, hair texture, facial features, and other physical characteristics. The Iowa University Digital Press’s article on Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in US Society (https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/dressappearancediversity/chapter/race-and-ethnicity/) discusses this subject, which – although it has an American perspective – resonates globally.
Not long ago, I heard a fellow bus passenger saying, “I look Indian, but I’m not; I’m South African”.
Research has been done on physical characteristics concerning “racism”. In comparison, accents have received less research interest. Several studies and anecdotes have shown how people with a nonstandard or “non-native” accent are perceived as less competent or of lower socio-economic status.
An accent is different from a dialect. An accent is a sound we produce when we speak; thus, we all have an accent, which is our identity and a clue to group membership, whereas a dialect includes grammar, spelling, and vocabulary differences.
How about if your look doesn’t match your accent; is it all right to ask, “Where do you come from?” Grammatically, this question is correct. It’s also socially and politically correct if it is asked by tourism staff to improve their services. However, there are situations in which this question can be understood to imply that the person you are asking is a foreigner and doesn’t belong in the country. For instance, children of immigrants in Australia and Canada and Asian-Americans (born and raised in the US and speak only English) might take umbrage when keep getting asked, “Where do you come from?” as this assumes that they aren’t citizens of their countries and are from somewhere else.
Hence, think twice before asking someone (Where do you come from?) to avoid insulting them. Anyway, the person often brings it up without you having to ask when it is relevant to the conversation. I haven’t heard of someone getting offended when asked, “What’s your nationality”. People often take pride in answering this; I do. If we aren’t sure what and how to ask, then don’t.
“To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Tony Robbins (American author, philanthropist, and business strategist). (realise – UK)