Word of Mouth

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DEEP TALK SERIES

Monday, 26 November 2018

Where are you from?

Who would have thought that a seemingly simple question could raise different reactions? It is owing to the diversity of these reactions why we gathered to talk about this question, ‘where are you from?’ that exists in each of our lives, and to create more understanding and empathy in our conversations and create space for the natural human complexity that exists without judgment. 

The evening’s questions and discussion aimed to put a light on the many experiences of the question.  Hearing from the perspective of the person being asked (the receiver), from the questioner, and then exploring why is it that we ask this question, and is it even necessary.

Love it or hate it, the question ‘where are you from?’ will continue to be asked all over the world. 

What is your reaction when someone asks you “where are you from”? 

For more details here is the original invitation.

Photo courtesy of  Kevin Klein

Photo courtesy of Kevin Klein


SUMMARY (full description below)

  • On one side, this question is disliked. It feels frustrating and gives the impression of being squeezed in a box. It creates the opportunity to judge a person based on their past. It is a question asked from habit, often followed with minimal intent to listen to the answer.

  • It can actually be offensive or have no relation to that person. 

  • If a cultural stereotype is offensive, it is okay to speak up and explain the reason.

  • There are many alternative ways of identifying a person’s background without this typical question (examples below). This can change the experience of the conversation and create more consciousness in our conversations.

  • Be aware of who is asking the question and how it is being asked. It is not only about the intention of the questioner but also how the receiver hears and interprets the intention.

  • For some, asking the question may be a necessity in order for them to carry out their work, but perhaps we can all think about whether the question can be avoided, think more about the purpose of why you are asking the question.

  • The timing and context can also play a role in the perception of the question. 

  • Why not use other questions to connect with people such as those surrounding food, drink and music?

  • How is our connection with a person influenced when we know more of where they are from? Knowing can cut off a conversation, or bring up cultural expectations  and stereotypes that may actually be offensive or have no relation to that person. 

  • If a cultural stereotype is offensive, it is okay to speak up and explain the reason.

  • There are many alternative ways of identifying a person’s background without this typical question (examples below). This can change the experience of the conversation and create more consciousness in our conversations.


Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

How fascinating it is to have two people live through the same scenario yet experience it completely differently. For some people, being asked ‘where are you from?’ is disliked. It feels frustrating to be asked, giving the impression of being squeezed into a box, and thus not being considered as an entire person. The person becomes a statistic, a category, to find out whom they are, such as trying to decipher if they are dangerous or perhaps whether they have the same values as you? And it creates the opportunity to judge a person based on their past instead of where they are going and where they are now. 

Moreover, for some it is considered a question that is asked from a reflex and with minimal to zero intent in actually listening to the answer. Thus, becoming a superficial question. 

Yet, there are people who have a rather different feeling to being asked where they come from. The experience being one that feels more endearing. As such they don’t mind being asked it, because it’s out of interest in wanting to understand other humans, such as why they look the way they do. From this perspective, there is a desire to explain to the questioner who they are. It’s interesting that a person cares to ask and seek perhaps a cultural understanding. It is a way to try and connect, and understand the person in front of them. 

Yet, like all questions and conversations, it requires an exchange of two people. And thus, what about the person asking the question? Can the questioner change the experience of how the question is received? 

Photo courtesy of  Kevin Klein

Photo courtesy of Kevin Klein

The intention behind the question is critical in how a person receives it. For example, when a person wants to know where someone really comes from, yet doesn’t necessarily say it but implies it, then this can be perceived as intrusive and a desire to place that person in a box. Is the intention in the question to gain a feeling or give the feeling of being the ‘other’? If so this can become prejudice, creating a sense of superiority and even racist. In such instances, it may be okay to be direct and ask what exactly is the person interested in knowing about you. For example, one could answer “I’m curious, what do you actually want to find out?” And perhaps this polite directness may help us have better conversation experiences. 

As such it remains important to stay aware of who is asking the question and how is the question being asked. There is room between curiosity and negative intent; it’s about finding that place. And in the end, it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

But, taking a step back, what does from actually mean? Is it about cultural upbringing, your DNA, where you have lived? Or could it be interpreted in a deeper way that represents who you believe you are. And perhaps the definition of from depends on both the intention of the questioner and how the receiver wants to answer the question. 

And what if we didn’t ask the question? Is this even possible? For some, avoiding the question may be possible but for others it can provide useful information and perhaps even be necessary. For example, in order to provide a service to a person, there is an empathetic human moment that comes from asking this question, and where the response may prove necessary in order to provide the right service. 

Perhaps the question itself is fine, and it’s really about rephrasing it or it’s about the timing and context it is being asked. For example, if it’s at the beginning of a conversation (i.e. the second question asked) the experience can feel offensive, consequently interpreted as the questioner is trying to pigeon hole the person or even decide whether they have anything to talk about based solely on this question. It also gives an impression of laziness and disinterest in seeking a deep, interesting conversation from a place of curiosity. Why not ask the question later in a conversation, when you’ve decided you’re interested in getting to know more about this person.

And as we eventually look less typical of country and cultural stereotypes and ethnic physical features, the challenges in asking this question and the manner to answer it may eventually force us to seek other ways of finding points of connection. What if we used another everyday globally common experience, one that plays a great role in who we are?

IMG_0322 (1).jpg

Food and drink is considered to be a safe cultural space for connections; a language everyone speaks and one that brings people together. Food reflects how someone grew up, as recipes travel over generations and crosses boundaries, and it can also influence and reflect where a person is presently in their life. Food and drink is a cultural expression that can be taken with you wherever you go and it can take you back to a place that also is a reflection of who you are. The history of food, the raw ingredients and the new interpretations being made, show that cultural heritage can change. 

Another cultural expression that also holds a safe place of connection is music. Music is similar to food, as every place has both a food and music culture that’s relevant. And thus the music you grew up with or listen to currently offers a similar language that brings people together. So why not seek to discover musical interests and preferences?

But, if there are other ways of finding out more about people, why do we even ask specifically the phrase ’where are you from?’ More so, why do we continue to ask it?

One insight on this habit of asking ‘where are you from’ could be drawn from the reflection that our animal instincts influence us to investigate our situation; am I safe with this person, do I need to fear the person, will they understand me? 

Interestingly, this investigating has been experienced in terms of whether a person feels safe to invest in a conversation asking ‘where are you from?’ and ‘how long have you been in Berlin?’ And thus, the receiver’s interpretation of the questioner’s intention is whether they can be bothered to establish if this person is worth their time. 

A very impactful point was brought up. That it is not only about the intention of the questioner in their asking but also how the receiver hears and interprets the intention.  As such, it seemed clear that we should seek to be sensitive about who we are talking to, and this isn’t necessarily about being politically correct, but simply thinking more about the purpose of why one is asking the question and how the phrasing is aligned with the intention. 

Photo by Word of Mouth.

Photo by Word of Mouth.

The why of asking the question seems to also be closely linked to how knowing the answer can affect the way we connect with people. Again, there are many different experiences. For some, knowing the ‘where’ helps identify what topics can be brought up in the conversation that may be valuable and that can be used to understand each other, such as experiences that the person may be able to relate to. And yet, for others, the knowing can cut off conversations or lead people to explore topics, cultural expectations or stereotypes associated to a place, putting a person in a box simply because of what passport they hold. It was also brought up the influence that sound, our accents, has, and how it also influences people being placed in boxes and the feeling of being the ‘other’. 

And perhaps in such instances where cultural stereotypes are considered offensive, that it is okay to speak up and explain the reason these comments are unacceptable. Taking this opportunity to experience a sharing process of teaching and learning; approaching conversations with empathy and to really listen to each other.

The evening was full of alternative ways of identifying a person’s geographic, ethnic, cultural or other curiosities without falling back on the typical question. That can change the experience of both the questioner and the receiver. Below are some, alternative questions and ways of discovering ‘from’ that are equally insightful, and perhaps creating more consciousness in our conversations. And with the holiday season around the corner with non-stop social occasions, why not explore what would happen if you asked these questions instead? 

* What was your cultural upbringing?

* Where are you based?

* If you are having a bad day, what is your go to food/music?

* Where would you call home?

Here is a website that explores this question.

This event was made possible by the location hosts, St. Oberholz and the participation of the panelists and moderator:

Sun Mee Martin, Founder and Creative Director, Nisime
Christopher Glass, Founder and Creative Director, aptm
Jaclyn Zimmerman, Founder, Wined-Up
Isabelle Mason, Content Creator and Moderator


about the panelists and moderator

Sun Mee Martin is a Creative Consultant and Culinary Experience Designer, committed to working in cross-cultural projects at the intersection of Food, Design, Wellbeing, and Green Living. She has worked internationally as a freelance communication designer and brand consultant in the creative industry for NGOs, startups, and corporations. Sun Mee seeks to engage in interdisciplinary projects with content-rich narratives that appeal to and engage diverse audiences in more meaningful ways. Her current project, NUMARU, is a culinary conversation series on transcultural identity formation. 

Christopher Glass started his career journey performing musical theatre. Following his time on stage, he decided to apply his skills elsewhere leading him to build a career within the beauty and later hospitality industry for both well-established and start-up companies. This change in career led to a broad range of international opportunities, such as his job with the Soho House Group as the European Membership Director for Soho House Cities Without Houses. His interest and joy in bringing people together, not only professionally but also personally, gave birth to a recent venture called aptm (a place to meet), Berlin’s shoppable apartment and curated event space.

Jaclyn Zimmerman hailing from an international political background working for national government, her search for a more international career and lifestyle led her to international job opportunities in sales in a variety of industries. It wasn’t until after assisting a local wine shop in delivering wine tastings, she realised how much she enjoyed creating experiences for people, consequently finding herself working in the wine industry. The events Jaclyn creates under her business, Wined-Up, not only showcase her incredible knowledge and insights of the world of wine but are a true reflection of her love for creating valuable and fun events for people with her innate ability to facilitate conversations and connections. 

Isabelle Mason is a content creator and artist, cultivating a career in writing, acting, social media strategy, videography, and branding. As a professionally trained actor and director, she has not only performed on stage, but has also undertaken the role of Artistic Director of a theatre-in-education company, where she co-wrote the award-winning play, The Technology Show, that explores the mental health implications that social media and technology have on modern teenagers.