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Asking about ethnicity?
Old 10-08-2019, 10:12 AM   #1
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Asking about ethnicity?

When we're traveling, even locally, we often encounter other travelers, or just people working in the local area. Sometimes they'll have a unique accent and I'll say "I love your accent, where are you from?". I just did this last weekend when a guy from Sweden was visiting a local winery. He was happy to tell me where he was from and we briefly discussed his travels.

We also had a waitress at one of the restaurants we visited, beautiful lady with dark skin. I couldn't tell if she was from India, Latino, Black, Native American, or maybe somewhere else. I was fascinated and curious how she ended up in that little town, but couldn't think of a tactful way to ask her. I couldn't really say "where are you from" as she probably spent her whole life in the little town we were visiting, just based on her perfect English with no accent.

I'm not a very social person by nature, and am like a fish out of water in these situations. I don't know what is appropriate and what should be left unsaid. Asking "are you black" or "are you Mexican" seems wrong, especially if I guess wrong. I've asked people what their heritage was in the past, but that felt stupid and was people I had already met before. I'm curious by nature, but maybe it's none of my business.

Is there a good way to ask these things, or is it wrong to ask at all?
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:24 AM   #2
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Although the Swede that you recently spoke with did not seem put-off by your inquiry, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who sounds and/or looks differently than you will be as accepting.

Inquiring about ethnicity right off the bat is an obnoxious way to ask about something that isn't really relevant to basic introductions. Think of it this way - what that inquiry does is put the other person in a position of needing to explain to you why they look and/or speak the way they do.

The best way to find out is to allow the person to volunteer that information without having it pried from them - even innocently.
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:30 AM   #3
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I don’t think people are going to just volunteer their heritage out of the blue.

If it is an innocent question, be honest about it. “I like your accent, where is it from”. Not sure how to tactfully ask about skin tone...

You might have some people you know from those locations - you might comment they look like your friend from so and so.

But people are so sensitive sometimes, hard to judge if they will be offended or not
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:32 AM   #4
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Although the Swede that you recently spoke with did not seem put-off by your inquiry, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who sounds and/or looks differently than you will be as accepting.

Inquiring about ethnicity right off the bat is an obnoxious way to ask about something that isn't really relevant to basic introductions. Think of it this way - what that inquiry does is put the other person in a position of needing to explain to you why they look and/or speak the way they do.

The best way to find out is to allow the person to volunteer that information without having it pried from them - even innocently.
+1 Some things are none of your business. Given that historically people have been discriminated against for ethnic and racial reasons, seeking to identify those characteristics opens that person up to potential poor treatment, whether you realize it or not.
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:37 AM   #5
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Your curiosity about peoples' skin tones that are different from what you're accustomed to is not justification to start asking random people about it. Dare I say it could be a very easy way to get your ass kicked or worse.

Wonder in silence, or better yet, ponder why you're so curious about such trivial things.
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:39 AM   #6
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Is there a good way to ask these things, or is it wrong to ask at all?
It's best not to ask. It can easily come across as a suggestion that the subject of the question doesn't belong "around these here parts."

I'm a white-skinned, blonde-haired, non-accented, immigrant to the US. No one is very going to ask me where I'm from. But a darker skinned person, or someone with an accent, who was born in this country probably gets asked with some frequency.
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:46 AM   #7
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Me...I just ask.....and if I happen to know a greeting in someone's native language I use it to their delight.

In the last couple weeks we chatted to an Egyptian lady at the park with her kids....a fairly recent arrival to Canada, (although her English was superb).......when we took our leave she said how nice it was to hear Arabic, (I know a couple/few words).

Also met a Greek lady (out with her Jack Russell terrier)......when she indicated that her English was limited I said Kaliméra which generated a huge smile.

Just TALK to people, they're generally happy to talk about themselves, their background, etc.
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:49 AM   #8
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It's best not to ask. It can easily come across as a suggestion that the subject of the question doesn't belong "around these here parts."

I'm a white-skinned, blonde-haired, non-accented, immigrant to the US. No one is very going to ask me where I'm from. But a darker skinned person, or someone with an accent, who was born in this country probably gets asked with some frequency.
I've been living in Nebraska and Iowa for the past 22 years but I grew up in Philadelphia. Anybody I talk to for more than a few minutes will invariably say something like "You're not from here, are you?"
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Old 10-08-2019, 10:52 AM   #9
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Each situation is different, obviously. But I don't know that asking where someone is from is the equivalent of asking for their 23andme profile.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:01 AM   #10
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How about trying honest flattery? Could mention how you like their accent, then make a guess? If the conversation is friendly, I'd think the person would be open to mentioning their ethnicity.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:09 AM   #11
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Me...I just ask.....and if I happen to know a greeting in someone's native language I use it to their delight.

Just TALK to people, they're generally happy to talk about themselves, their background, etc.
+1.

If I recognize the language, I'll make a small greeting. If it's a unique accent, I might say something like, "That's a lovely accent." That alone often leads to a response. My life has been enriched by these encounters. I just try to apply, politeness, respect, and deference to the situation. I've never experienced an uncomfortable or hostile response.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:12 AM   #12
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I have been living south Louisiana for 23 years, and in New Orleans for 20 years.

By now, nearly everyone here seems to assume that I am from here or somewhere nearby. If not, then it never bothers me to answer polite questions.

At my age I am far from a delicate protected flower of a girl, so a polite question isn't at the top of my list of things in life to be offended by.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:25 AM   #13
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I'm a white-skinned, blonde-haired, non-accented, immigrant to the US. No one is very going to ask me where I'm from. But a darker skinned person, or someone with an accent, who was born in this country probably gets asked with some frequency.
I'm a white boy, born in southern Illinois. The first several years after I moved to Washington state I frequently got asked about my southern accent. I didn't find it offensive at all, it was something that made me unique. I still have a little of that drawl left, but most has been lost over the years.

I'm kind of surprised how many people are saying don't ask at all. That's kind of sad, especially if I'm genuinely interested in knowing more about a person. No, I probably wouldn't ask a white waitress about her background if nothing else stood out. Or a person of any color for that matter. However, if I was in a country or part of the US where dark skin was the norm I wouldn't be offended if someone asked me where I'm from or what my ethnicity is.

People often comment about something that makes their physical appearance unique. I love your hair, I like your tattoo, you're really tall, etc. It's sad that skin color would be treated differently.

I guess I'm naive. Just another reason I avoid social situations.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:26 AM   #14
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By now, nearly everyone here seems to assume that I am from here or somewhere nearby. If not, then it never bothers me to answer polite questions.

At my age I am far from a delicate protected flower of a girl, so a polite question isn't at the top of my list of things in life to be offended by.
I do not personally take offense when others ask me about my place of birth nor does it bother me to answer *most* polite inquiries.

OTH, polite can mean different things to different people and it would be arrogant of me to take my assumptions/beliefs and apply them to everyone else.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:33 AM   #15
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My life has been enriched by these encounters. I just try to apply, politeness, respect, and deference to the situation. I've never experienced an uncomfortable or hostile response.
Ditto. I have a zillion examples......on a Spanish cruise ship one of the buffet waiters appeared to be a dour fellow. Found out he was Tunisian...greeted him in Arabic....from then on I was Habib...he sought us out on our last morning to say Ma'a Salama.

People like to be recognized as persons, and not as 'the help' (or whatever).
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:36 AM   #16
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Wonder in silence, or better yet, ponder why you're so curious about such trivial things.
I live in an area with a very diverse population. Black, white, asian, latino, Russian, etc. Most of the time they're just faces in a crowd, there's nothing that piques my interest. The waitress just caught my attention, I'm not sure why. Regardless, we ate dinner then left, wondering in silence as you say.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:36 AM   #17
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Asking "are you black" or "are you Mexican" seems wrong
You are correct - asking those questions would be wrong.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:37 AM   #18
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People often comment about something that makes their physical appearance unique. I love your hair, I like your tattoo, you're really tall, etc. It's sad that skin color would be treated differently.

I guess I'm naive. Just another reason I avoid social situations.
Yes, it is sad that those of different skin color are and have been treated differently. And it generally hasn't been the sort of treatment that one would consider favorable.

A part of my physical appearance that is often remarked upon by strangers is my bald head. I happen to have a self-deprecating sense of humor and will often be the first to make light of that. Yet I find it interesting that complete strangers think it is okay to point out the obvious to me - in sometimes unflattering terms - as it is to point out to someone else how tall they are, "big" they are, etc.

And I don't see that as naiveté on their part but rather a lack of awareness as to how their remarks might be considered offensive.
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:45 AM   #19
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When we're traveling, even locally, we often encounter other travelers, or just people working in the local area. Sometimes they'll have a unique accent and I'll say "I love your accent, where are you from?". I just did this last weekend when a guy from Sweden was visiting a local winery. He was happy to tell me where he was from and we briefly discussed his travels.

We also had a waitress at one of the restaurants we visited, beautiful lady with dark skin. I couldn't tell if she was from India, Latino, Black, Native American, or maybe somewhere else. I was fascinated and curious how she ended up in that little town, but couldn't think of a tactful way to ask her. I couldn't really say "where are you from" as she probably spent her whole life in the little town we were visiting, just based on her perfect English with no accent.

I'm not a very social person by nature, and am like a fish out of water in these situations. I don't know what is appropriate and what should be left unsaid. Asking "are you black" or "are you Mexican" seems wrong, especially if I guess wrong. I've asked people what their heritage was in the past, but that felt stupid and was people I had already met before. I'm curious by nature, but maybe it's none of my business.

Is there a good way to ask these things, or is it wrong to ask at all?

Like you, I'm often curious about people's backgrounds. If it makes sense in the situation, I often politely ask them (accompanied with a warm smile). My experience has been that they are delighted to respond...which often spawns a conversation about how they happen to be here, for how long, etc. If they are 'recent' arrivals or just visiting, I make a special point of welcoming them and wishing them a good time.

As modern society seems to be disconnecting and splintering due to whatever forces, I still think most people globally are thrilled to be acknowledged/recognized/spoken to in a friendly manner.

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Old 10-08-2019, 11:52 AM   #20
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Like you, I'm often curious about people's backgrounds. If it makes sense in the situation, I often politely ask them (accompanied with a warm smile). My experience has been that they are delighted to respond...which often spawns a conversation about how they happen to be here, for how long, etc. If they are 'recent' arrivals or just visiting, I make a special point of welcoming them and wishing them a good time.

As modern society seems to be disconnecting and splintering due to whatever forces, I still think most people globally are thrilled to be acknowledged/recognized/spoken to in a friendly manner.
While I can understand a pleasant "I love your accent.", how does one politely and with a warm smile ask someone "Are you black?"?
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