So, you start talking to this person you’ve just met and try to come up with some topic for conversation. Oh yeah, what’s that curious accent all about? So you drop the question. “Where are you from?” is a great way of getting a person to start a mutually enriching cultural exchange, right? Wrong. Let me tell you why.
Granted, exchange students, immigrants, and other people who may, for whatever reason, have come to your country don’t expect to be taken for locals. They are, most likely, well aware of their accent, different appearance or whatever else may distinguish them from the natives. Perhaps, they even cherish your interest in their culture and the chance to share it with you. Still, “Where are you from?” could make your international buddy feel not engaged, but alienated.
Personally, I can’t help cringing at the inevitable question. While I do recognize and appreciate the person’s friendliness and interest, I can’t help thinking, “Is that the first thing people notice about me?” It is not without hesitation that I take this, genuinely well-meant, opportunity to start a cultural exchange. While I’m aware of my “foreignness,” I’d like to think there’s more to me than coming from a different country, however intriguing that aspect may look.
Not to mention the fact that, more often than not, the “cultural exchange” stops at “Oh, that’s cool” because my buddy doesn’t really know what to say. Or, even better, they give me the well-meant, but indefinitely vague question “So what’s it like?”
I’m not trying to advise anyone against asking where an apparently non-local person is from. But perhaps it shouldn’t be the first question that comes out of your mouth. Try something less personal instead.