Where do you come from?

“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)

Reading is brain-picking; writing is formalised thinking

Two weeks ago, I gave a talk on “The interplay between reading and writing in our global village” at the EU Inter-institutional Libraries’ event. We live in a global village (i.e. our world is a community connected by the Internet/computers, trade, entertainment, etc), so we share ways our social realities are formed and interpreted. The formation and interpretation happen through the stories we tell each other, stories we read and write.


Reading is a social activity. You might be alone, tucked under a cosy blanket next to a bedside lamp, but you look deeper into the author’s mind and subconsciously connect with other readers.


Writing connects us to ourselves, and it’s formalised thinking. As William Faulkner had said: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” (1897-1962, American writer and Nobel laureate).


We read what we like to write and write what we have read or want to read.

 When we read or write, we:
 exercise our brain,
 improve our focus,
 improve our memory,
 improve our ability to empathise,
 improve our communication skills,
 improve our mental health,
 gain knowledge and ideas, and 
 get entertained (reduce stress). 
 In short, we become better individuals and live longer. 

One of the event organisers is a co-author of “Pour en finir avec la passion: l’abus en littérature” (To End the Passion: Abuse in Literature), which is about the evolution of cultural and literary conceptions of passion – love – in French society and questions why love remains inseparable from suffering.


One of the participants commented on the novel “Future Perfect”, which he had recently read, posing, “Has her past been erased by a mistaken computer click or simply shelved for no reason?” The main character’s resilience leads to encounters in Asia, America, and Europe that bring back memories of love and devotion half a century earlier. It has a global theme.

Are you a volunteer?

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”- Elizabeth Andrew

Some companies have volunteer programs, e.g. staff keep their salary while spending a day or two in an NGO or charity. Large or small organisations can benefit from supporting or encouraging their employees to involve in humanitarian actions, as this aligned with globally-heralded Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment and Social Governance (ESG) policies, which seek to set goals for and report on the company’s positive impact on our society.

Volunteering is an act of selflessness that benefits the volunteers and the people and communities they serve. It provides an opportunity for individuals to contribute to addressing social challenges and inequalities while gaining personal fulfilment.

Non-employer-sponsored volunteers give their time, skills, and resources to others without expecting anything in return. They embrace volunteering as a way of giving back to society and improving our world.

Volunteering can be done in various ways and settings, such as community centres, hospitals, orphanages, schools, charities, and non-profit clubs and organisations that help those in need.

On 15 April 2023, I joined a group walk at Beerenweg, Moselle, France. Five of the 12 adults (four walkers were children) are regular volunteers. Three participate in environmental projects, and two are after-school tutors.   I admire them. When I’m a retiree, I’ll do more than just an annual pro-bono lecture at our local high school (Last month, it was about Australia).


“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” – Winston Churchill

Our Words Matter

On 23 March 2023, I was invited to speak at the European Parliament Directorate-General for Personnel’s hybrid event to observe the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The theme was “Anti-Racism –Why words matter”.

Some of the things I said were:

Classifying individuals as English speakers and non-English speakers is inappropriate when based only on the language of the country they come from. They should be described as people with a “First Language Spoken Other Than English” and “First Language Spoken English”. If you want to refer to their spoken English proficiency, describe them as “Speaks English Very Well, Fluent, or Proficient, “Speaks English Well or Conversational”, “Basiс”, or “No English Language Skill”.

“Our, Their, Us, and Them” are pronouns that should be used wisely, as they can be polarising. They affect feelings, thoughts, and actions. Whereas, social cohesion reduces fear and prejudice.

Race is ascribed to individuals based on physical traits; it’s not their choice. Race is not the same as ethnicity, which the individual chooses, encompassing everything from language to nationality, culture and traditions, religion, and values.

Race has no coherent, fixed definition, and its myth hasn’t served humanity well.

We use “blacklist” for something negative or prohibited. Doesn’t this reinforce notions that black is undesirable while white is desirable? How about using “barredlist”, “denylist”, “blockedlist”, or “disallowedlist” instead?

Are there prejudicial and offensive words and phrases in your language?

  • “Gyp” or “Gip” is a short version of gypsy/gipsy- Slang for swindlers and cheaters. Dupe, rip off, take advantage, or trick
  • “Chop Chop!” sounds like you’re making fun of a Chinese speaking Pidgin English. Do it quickly
  • “Guru” – A spiritual guide or leader. In the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, “guru” commands respect and using it casually calls into question its original value.
  • Voodoo economics is used to describe supply-side economics (i.e. something based on unreal and impractical concepts). Voodoo is a religion practised in Haiti and parts of the Caribbean.
  • An immigrant is a human being; a human being cannot be illegal. Why not use “Individual/family/people with undocumented status”; or focus on the action, i.e. illegal entry?
  • “Alien” and “foreigner” suggest that the person does not belong to a particular place or group, i.e. a stranger or outsider. “Foreign-born people” tells you they were born in a country where they don’t currently reside.

Issues on ethnic slurs or racism in the workplace:

  • Is there psychological safety in the workplace?
  • No individual target; no one complains about it. (Someone may perceive this as such and become unproductive due to offended sensibilities).
  • An isolated incident may be repeated and can become a norm.
  • It’s only a joke/just for fun. Humour and jokes can poster or improve group cohesiveness. Laughing and smiling relieve anger, boredom, fatigue, frustration, and tension. However, when the workplace is inundated with such practices and management implicitly or explicitly condones them, making at least one employee uncomfortable, it has to stop. The bottom line is respecting the words and feelings of everyone.

Words matter! Language is the foundation of how we understand and treat each other. Words can make the difference between respecting and dehumanising each other.

Online Gatekeeping


Gatekeeping is a process of selecting and then filtering items that can be consumed within time or space. A gatekeeper is a person who controls access to something; in Facebook groups, this can be an administrator or moderator.

I’m writing this because I posted a message on our FB book club two weeks ago about a culture and immigration festival that included book exhibitions, reading novels’ first pages, etc. After the event, I contacted the administrator enquiring why it wasn’t approved. She apologised and explained that it’s pending (not disallowed) because she’s busy managing other activities and suggested emailing her directly when I have a post.

Gatekeeping has pluses and minuses. Unrelevant and offensive messages are filtered out. On the other hand, it’s toxic when it bars people from participating in a group or community or discussion based on narrow criteria or questionable reasons.


Why and how do administrators and moderators have this gatekeeping power?


Administrators appoint or remove a moderator, manage group settings (such as changing the group name or settings), approve or deny membership and participants’ requests, approve or reject posts, delete comments on posts, ban people from the group, and pin or unpin a post (i.e. positioning – e.g. move to the top of the page.)


Moderators approve or deny membership and participants’ requests, approve or deny posts, remove comments, and ban people from the group.


Do administrators and moderators own the group when they have started or created it?

How can we ensure administrators and moderators don’t use the group for their sole gain?


“The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” – Arabian Proverb


My pending, obsolete post is history. However, the success of the festival – organised by the Comité de Liaison des Associations d’Étrangers ( CLAE) and one of Luxembourg’s most important annual events – lingers on. There were about 30,000 visitors to its 400 stands.

AI and Me

Last week, while fine-tuning my manuscript for publication, doubts clouded my mind. There has been a flood of articles and buzz about artificial intelligence (AI) ChatGPT, including its use for writing and content development. Is there a need for a “Clear and Concise Writing” book? Did I waste my time drafting this? Shall I spend more time getting it published?


The use of AI has advantages and flaws. It can save time and money, reduce errors and increase accuracy, hide one’s lack of competence, and enthuse laziness.


AI “ChatGPT does not have the ability to search the internet for information and rather, uses the information it learned from training data to generate a response, which leaves room for error”. – Ortiz, 2022 (https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-chatgpt-and-why-does-it-matter-heres-what-you-need-to-know/).


“As a language model, ChatGPT is not a traditional source that would typically be included in a bibliography. Instead, you can acknowledge the use of the model in the text and a note or a disclaimer. For example, you can add a statement like “This document was generated with the help of ChatGPT, a large language model developed by OpenAI. It’s important to note that ChatGPT is a tool, it does not conduct original research, it only provides the information it was trained on, and it’s not an author”. – ChatGPT by OpenAI accessed on 20/01/2023.


Out of curiosity, I logged in on 22/01/23. This is what it gave me: “Write an acrostic poem about the status of ChatGPT.
C: ChatGPT is currently down
H: Huge demand has caused the site to crash
A: All users will have to wait
T: Time is needed for the servers to catch up
G: Go grab a coffee and check back soon
P: Patience is key in this situation
T: Trust that the team is working hard to fix it up”.


English physicist Stephen William Hawking (1942-2018), famous for his theories on relativity and quantum mechanics, had said: “The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have, have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” (Cellan-Jones, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540. Seen on 23/01/23).

Two days ago, I received an email from one of my students that included these encouraging words: “I’ve been thinking about the question you raised earlier about whether you should publish the book or not. I hope you will, and human beings will always do. You (human authors in general) write books, and AI generates them. I don’t care how good an AI-generated book may/will be one day. I like knowing that there’s someone feeling something while writing the book that makes me feel something when reading it”.


I have subtitled my book “Self-confidence and not software -dependence”.

Three lessons learnt before 2022 ended

Cheer for 2023! Wishing you a better year

We have just been through the season of giving and receiving. Like most of you, I gave and received. For a change, I ordered groceries – as a present to one family member – from a company whose website promises a one-day delivery. To date, these groceries have not been delivered. Until now, they have not responded to my half a dozen emails. After three phone calls, a man answered the phone and said they wouldn’t deliver and could only refund me if I gave them a UK bank account, which I refused.

Lesson 1. Stick to a proven or reputable company. (Seek redress. I have contacted Customer Service Coventry & Visa Worldline and am waiting for their responses).

We’ve been receiving parcels from Australia for many years. For the first time last December, we had to pay 20 euros as Value Added Tax (VAT) on a gift that cost 100 euros. I was surprised, so I visited https://www.douane.gouv.fr/fiche/recevoir-un-colis-envoye-par-un-particulier. This is what I found out:

In the case of non-commercial mailings between individuals, VAT and customs duties may be requested upon receipt of the package. These shipments must be occasional, concern goods reserved for the personal or family use of the recipients only and sent without payment of any kind. To benefit from customs duties and taxes exemption, the goods’ intrinsic value (excluding transport and insurance costs) must not exceed a certain threshold. These value requirements also apply to gifts: No customs duties from/to the EU (VAT has already been paid in the EU country of origin); Import from a non-EU country to an EU country or to an overseas department (example: Canada to France) ≤ 45 euros – no customs duties and VAT (> 45 euros – customs duties and VAT are due). Exchanges between the EU to their overseas territories “DOM” ≤ 205 euros – no taxation and customs duties (> 205 euros -overseas taxes and VAT are due).

Lesson 2. I should not have told my Aussie family not to send us presents by post anymore, taking their joy from giving. We’re grateful for their kindness.

On December 15, I left our end-of-year party early to be home at 10 pm. After 15 minutes of waiting for the tram, my gut feeling told me it wasn’t coming. I decided to walk and jog for 20 minutes (in high-heeled boots!) to catch my bus home at 9:14 pm. I reached the bus stop, sweating at six °C, and got on in time. I would have arrived home after midnight, instead of 10:30 pm, if I had stayed longer at the tram station.

Lesson 3. Always react promptly to the unexpected and changes.

“If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.”– Amy Ruth Tan (American author of the novel “The Joy Luck Club”, which was adapted into a film of the same name).

Quiet quitting and quiet firing aren’t the solutions

“I call it a day; see you tomorrow”.
“It’s only 5:30, Paul. Aren’t you waiting for a phone call from Ms Willers”?
“She said at five; it’s 5:30.”
In a soft voice, Rosie asked, “Are you a quiet quitter, Paul”?


Quiet quitting is one of the 2022 buzz phrases that have varied meanings. It can refer to doing what you are only paid for (i.e. what is stated in your job description) and not “going and beyond” in favour of work-life balance. It can include losing motivation due to work dissatisfaction. It can be a minimum performance as there’s no ambition for career advancement. It can be a strategy to get retrenched and be eligible for unemployment benefits. (In France, those who resign can only receive unemployment payments if the official employment committee approves their substantive career change plan).


Quiet quitting has attracted supporters from the proponents of better work-life balance, principally citing the prevention of burnout and mental illness. However, it can have adverse effects. It can cause disengagement and loss of pride in what you do. It can create a negative work atmosphere; imagine having colleagues who work less for the same salary as yours. Then, there’ll be a domino effect – others will practise quiet quitting too. Consequently, there’ll be less productivity, less clientele, less job, more competition, more pressure, and so on. There are occupations, such as in the medical field, when quiet quitting doesn’t work at all.


You can emotionally invest at work without sacrificing your personal life by maintaining healthy boundaries between them. There’s no need for quiet quitting. There must be open communication between company management and employees. Listening to the personnel’s views and opinions, regardless of their position in the organisation, is inclusion and respect, leading to a feeling of belongingness, loyalty, and productivity.


The opposite of quiet quitting is quiet firing. Quiet firing is when a management fashions work conditions that cause an employee to resign. These include non-invitation to staff meetings and functions, deprivation of promotion and salary increase, overloading with urgent work, and non-allocation of tasks. This is a non-confrontational approach to force employees to leave the company without disbursing severance pay. Like quiet quitting, it has its downsides; it builds a toxic work environment.


Our triumph should not be someone’s defeat or misery. However difficult the situation is, the best result is always obtained with the least conflict. Thus, we should go for a “win-win” rather than a “winner takes it all” mentality.


By the way, as promised in my previous blog, here are the things I have already prepared as Christmas presents — books, a hand-written and framed short story, and a photo album. Food hampers and fruit baskets are also on my list.

Ethics on gift giving at work

The holiday season of giving and receiving is coming, and you may wonder whether you should give presents to your supervisors and colleagues. Is there a general rule of thumb regarding workplace gift-giving? I have heard that it should be a top-down flow, i.e. from bosses to floor personnel, rather than the other way around. Giving presents to superiors depends on the circumstance. For example, staff can collect money to purchase a present for a manager who is leaving or getting married. This gift and the accompanying message should be professional in style. Is cash an acceptable gift to superiors? Of course, not, but a voucher can be justifiable. There should definitely be no gift-giving during the appraisal period or the annual performance review.

Employees can exchange gifts with each other. However, giving to receive is a no-no. If you feel like you’re losing something by giving, you are not genuinely giving; you’re sacrificing, which can lead to disappointments or regrets later. Not everyone has the means to buy presents for colleagues or contribute to a gift collection for a boss, particularly at this time of economic crisis and insecurity. The good news is that non-material presents often last longer, and these can be a compliment, attention, time, or patience that builds relationships or maintains peace.

When living in Australia, my co-worker’s daughter-in-law distributed boxes of curried rice to all her colleagues, friends, and family as Christmas presents. I don’t have a signature dish, so I won’t do what she did, but I will go the extra mile to come up with something creative and valuable (I’ll tell you what in my next post). 

My students have told me they are not allowed to receive presents worth more than 50 euros from external collaborators in their organisation. For gifts that cost less than 50 euros, they must share these with their colleagues.

How about doing random acts of kindness at work and elsewhere? For instance, saying hello to a co-worker you haven’t spoken with for ages. How about sending emails, text messages, and cards with cheerful greetings and messages? A few months ago, my ex-students invited me to lunch. One of them said that the birthday card I gave her more than 10 years ago is still in her drawer, and she smiles every time she sees it.

My memorable gifts in 2020 were the five-star book reviews on Amazon that have had a positive snowball effect on me. I don’t know and have the contact details of these generous readers, so I haven’t thanked them. I hope this message reaches them (better late than never): I appreciate what you have done and wish to return your kindness one day. “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Winston S. Churchill.

“It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.” – Mother Teresa

Pronunciation matters and not accents

Tongues wagged when Cuban-born and Spanish-raised actress, Ana de Armas, was cast to play Marilyn Monroe in the Netflix movie “Blonde”. According to the media, director Andrew Dominik (a New Zealand-born Australian) admitted hesitating to give her the role because of her accent and had only recently learnt English as a second language.

Is accent important in an individual’s career?

A US-based startup Sanas has developed software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to mimic a person’s accent on the phone and modify this when responding through a phone or computer microphone. Apparently, this new technology reduces abuse from native English speakers of call centre staff who do not have their accents. Its proponents believe it leads to better clarity and understanding and improves customer satisfaction.

Accents are a vital part of our history and identity; they give clues about who we are and the cultural community or national group we belong to. Everyone has an accent; these different accents showcase the richness of our world and its cultures.

English is an international language, and there are more non-native than native speakers who use it regularly. The issue is to communicate with others, i.e. understand and be understood, not accents.

An accent is not the same as pronunciation. You can get a pronunciation ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but there’s no right or wrong accent.

My former student used to pronounce analysis “analaiz” (the correct pronunciation is “ə-na-lə-səs”). One of her sentences was: “This analaiz domontrit the importance of flexibility at work”. French native speakers do not pronounce the ending letter “s” of words in their language. The letter “e” sounds “o” (e.g. peu, which means little in English, is pronounced as “po”). They pronounce the English letter “e” as “e” only when it has a grave accent (è), as in mère (mother) and père (father).

If you mispronounce, you can be misunderstood. However, a person can speak English flawlessly with whatever accent. Even among native speakers, there are many accents. Last year, our supervisor asked me if I wanted to take over a class; this was our conversation —

S: We have a client who is not easy to please. She wants to improve her English and have a British accent. Do you have a British accent?” (As if he had not heard me speak before).

R: Which one? Scottish, Irish, Welsh, London English, Liverpool English, BBC English?

S: I don’t know. She didn’t specify. Any of these will do.

R: Ninguno de estos.

S: Perhaps you can still take her. You’ve said that you like teaching challenging students.

R: Thanks, but I’m afraid it’s NO. I go for learners with a half-full glass mentality and a good sense of humour, in addition to being motivated and proud of their cultural and linguistic heritage.

When your pronunciation is correct, you can communicate effectively with others, whatever your accent. In business and financial environments, airports, touristic places and universities, people speak English as a second or third language, a lingua franca. Thus, the goal of having a native speaker’s accent is irrelevant.

To understand our fellow humans and communicate with them successfully, we have to come into contact with different accents so that we can cope with the real people in the real world.