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Suppose I'm talking to a person who is an American citizen but obviously has some "Asian roots" (either they immigrated to the US at early age or their parents were immigrants). Is there a polite way to ask about their ethnicity (if that's the right word)? If I just ask "Where are you from?", they will definitely say they are from the States since they grew up here.

I'm neither American nor Asian, and I don't quite understand why such questions are thought of as being rude by default. The scenario I can think of does not have any negative connotation. For example, if I live or lived for a long time in say Korea or have a Korean spouse and if I suspect that someone I'm talking to (in the US) is of Korean descent, then knowing the latter may help find us some topics for discussion in which we are both interested.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jason Bassford, Michael Harvey, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, choster, laugh Jun 17 at 21:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    This might be better on IPS – Redwolf Programs Jun 16 at 15:49
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    I think this should go straight to interpersonal.stackexchange.com. It has nothing to do with the English language - if I speak German and somehow had figured out that this person speaks German as well, the problem asking in German would be exactly the same. – gnasher729 Jun 16 at 19:37
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    @gnasher729 - I don't necessarily agree. Although many people are answering this question from the perspective of whether or not a question like this can even be a polite one, there are still ways that any question might be worded that could make it polite or rude. If the answers focus more on the wording than on the situation, this question could have a home here. – J.R. Jun 16 at 20:39
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    @J.R.: Virtually none of the answers focus on the wording... Because the wording is not the issue here. – V2Blast Jun 17 at 5:21
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    @V2Blast - Virtually none of the answers focus on the wording, but that's because those answering this question are viewing it as a manners issue and not as an English issue. We have had over 250 questions tagged with the politeness tag, and learners are allowed to inquire about a mannerly way to ask a question. If the question asked, "Is it polite to ask about one's ethnicity or background?" I might lean toward migrating, but that's not all that's being asked here. – J.R. Jun 17 at 14:11

11 Answers 11

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I (an Asian American) grew up in a rural part of Florida where I was asked that question pretty much anytime I had an encounter that lasted longer than 3 sentences.

From my experience, just throwing in a "Is it cool if I ask you..." before you ask at least kind of tells me you don't think you're entitled to an answer, and is a solid way of being polite about it. There were plenty of people who would just blurt the question out of nowhere and doing that is just... unsettling.

Another way of being polite about it is having some idea as to why you want to know. Growing up in that rural environment, I knew that 90% of the time I was probably the only Asian person this person ever talked to and I didn't mind that. Follow up questions like "what kind of food do they eat there, did you ever get to go back" were totally understandable. The other 10% was them impulsively asking and leaving the conversation dead, being disappointed (because I didn't know my language, wasn't Japanese, etc.), making a dumb joke, you get the picture.

I do want to add that I consider the ethnicity question a "personal question" and personal questions, by the nature of their intrusiveness, are inherently a little impolite and are not appropriate in certain situations.

Side note: So I'm Korean, and honestly now that I live in New Jersey, I rarely ever get asked that question except by other Koreans lol.

  • Whenever I ask where people "are from", I really wonder if they know a strange language. I find languages very interesting. Listening to a completely nonsensical foreign language, and knowing that it makes perfect sense to those speaking it, is my kind of magic. – KjetilNordin Jun 17 at 9:46
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First think: "Why do I need to know?" Just being curious is not a need to know. It is impolite to ask for personal information just to satisfy your curiosity.

If you don't need to know, then don't ask.

If you decide that for some reason you do actually need this information, then explain your reason and ask directly.

If you ask for some personal information and I don't want to tell you then you put me in a difficult social situation. .You give me two choices:

  • I refuse to tell you. But I don't want to reject you like this. I need to think of a way to politely tell you to "mind you own business".

  • I tell you. But now I am doing something that I don't want, and for no reason but to satisfy your curiosity.

Either way I feel unhappy.

It is rude to put a person in that situation.

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    It's not always impolite to ask for personal information, unless you ask impolitely. The question was not about whether to ask. It was about how to ask. – dwilli Jun 16 at 5:57
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    Yes, this is a frame challenge answer. – James K Jun 16 at 7:55
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    @dwilli "Don't", with plenty of justification, is a perfectly good answer to "How should I do X?" – David Richerby Jun 16 at 16:01
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    @DavidRicherby Okay, but it's an opinion, not a fact. It is not unequivocally 'rude' to ask somebody personal information. It can be a welcome overture to friendship. I would accept 'I prefer that people don't ask me that question.' or 'Some people might consider it rude...'. But the way this answer is phrased it sounds ike it's the only option, which it's not. – dwilli Jun 16 at 17:03
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    Why is curiosity not a justifiable reason to ask? Can I not ask what they do for work, where they are from, or what type of music they like out of curiosity? – Behacad Jun 17 at 0:02
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To the very good answers you've already received, I'll add that you're right to say that trying to elicit information about an Asian American's background by asking "where are you from?" isn't a good idea.

However, the problem isn't just that the person is likely to respond by (correctly) telling you that s/he is from the States (or a particular US state), as you've noted; it's also that many Asian Americans have been asked "where are you from?" over and over and over throughout their lives by people who really mean "where were your ancestors from?" No matter how benignly it is intended, to the person being asked, the question often feels both prying and duplicitous – and that's because it is. In fact, if you actually want to know where in the United States an Asian American is from, it's probably best to say something like "what part of the country did you grow up in?", so that you won't be misunderstood.

Finally, a question you might want to think about: When you meet Americans of European ancestry, how often do you find it necessary to ask them what country their ancestors came from? (You've framed your question in a way that strongly suggests this is a topic of particular interest when you're talking to an Asian American.)

A humorous take on the phenomenon I've described above:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWynJkN5HbQ

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    Asian Americans often get that kind of "You know what I mean – where are you really from?" follow-up question, too, and are likely to draw exactly the same conclusion from it. – Nanigashi Jun 15 at 23:42
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    I'm of European ancestry and I ask other people all the time where their families came from, especially those who look European. It's a very common topic in the U.S.A. and not at all offensive. I know where all of my friends families came from. – dwilli Jun 16 at 5:45
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    @dwilli, I didn't mean to suggest that Europeans are never asked about their ancestry, or that having an interest in an acquaintance's ethnic heritage is always inappropriate. My point was that Asian Americans are much likelier to be asked this kind of thing, especially by people they have only just met, and that this focus on ancestry can come off as awfully reductive and diminishing. And when it takes the form "Where are you from?", it is in fact patently offensive, because the underlying assumption is that in some essential way a person with Asian features can't "really" be American. – Nanigashi Jun 16 at 6:12
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – dwilli Jun 16 at 6:58
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    "When you meet Americans of European ancestry, how often do you find it necessary to ask them what country their ancestors came from?" That's actually a very typical question! Not that it invalidates your larger point. Just, objectively speaking, Americans of all races very frequently ask each other about their ancestry. – Nat Jun 16 at 9:05
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Don't ask; tell

You think that you know this person well enough that you should know each other's ancestries. That's your opinion. The other person may have a different opinion. Since you are the one who believes that this information should be shared, share yours. Your information is entirely under your control. You can choose to share or not share. That's entirely up to you.

If the other person agrees that you know each other well enough to know each other's ancestries, the other person will probably reciprocate. If the other person disagrees, you may have mildly overshared but you haven't put the other person on the spot with an intrusive question.

In a comment, you said

I'm neither American nor Asian, and I don't quite understand why such questions are thought of as being rude by default. The scenario I can think of does not have any negative connotation. For example, if I live or lived for a long time in say Korea or have a Korean spouse and if I suspect that someone I'm talking to (in the US) is of Korean descent, then knowing the latter may help find us some topics for discussion in which we are both interested.

Right. So again, I suggest that you tell your datum to the other person. Then the other person can let you know if there is commonality there.

For example, you might say, "My spouse, being from South Korea, is really picky about Kimchi. We went to a Korean restaurant and I ended up eating the whole thing because it wasn't authentic enough." The other person might then respond, "My great-grandparents came from Japan, but I don't even like Japanese food myself. I prefer Italian."

Of course, you should pick an approach that fits your actual situation. This is just one possible approach based on the very small knowledge that I have of Korean culture. The key point is sharing what makes you think that you'd have something in common with someone who was Korean. Try to fit it in naturally with the flow of conversation rather than forcing it. This may involve sharing other parts of your personal history as well, so that the Korean portion fits into the narrative rather than sticking out as the only thing that you want to share.

Most people will reciprocate with similar information when you share yours. But they won't feel put on the spot to do so. It is just natural to share information when someone else shares.

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As a European, the cultural context is slightly different, but not a lot. It's still likely to come over as diminutive to ask someone "where are you from", as if "I'm from the UK" isn't somehow valid enough.

A way to ask might be, "where did your family come from". But I wouldn't ask that, if I wasn't sure it would be okay. So I might disclose some of mine, or preface with "Is it okay to ask something, I'm curious". Generally that works. But I don't often feel any need to ask it, and in some ways thats the better answer.

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    As a European, if you have an accent in English, people will ask that question. My husband gets asked all the time and he is from Spain. – Lambie Jun 16 at 17:26
  • In the UK it's as likely to be accent that marks you out as a foreigner rather than visual appearance (especially in distinguishing recent immigrants from those whose parents came here 50 years ago). I find that a lot of immigrants are very happy when you show an interest in their family background, but of course you have to approach it in the right way: you have to give them the opportunity to tell you rather than demanding that they tell you. But I think the most important thing is how you respond to their answer: you have to show a genuine interest in their country and culture. – Michael Kay Jun 17 at 8:24
  • @Lambie I live in Spain and get asked where I'm from pretty much every time I say more than a few words in Spanish :-D – Aaron F Jun 17 at 9:13
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In addition to everyone's answer, something else that helps is just in your everyday life working to be a more cultured person. Then, most times you don't have to ask.

I say this with sincerity and from personal experience as a person of color who endeavors to do the same. The more exposure one has to other cultures, the easier it is to distinguish between them.

  • I doubt most of us (Americans) can tell the difference at first glance between Asians. I can distinguish Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese when they speak. But beyond that, I'm lost and visually am pretty clueless. – Lambie Jun 16 at 17:28
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    I guess I'm thinking there's no real reason to need know the difference between Asians 'at first glance.' I could be wrong though. – EmKhay Jun 17 at 0:31
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I'd KISS (keep it short and simple):

Hey, just asking...were you born and brought up here?

~ No, in Florida (means American)
~ No, in India (not American)
~ Yes, here only (local where the question is asked)!

You can cover-up by saying...

Ah, I thought you are local (for 1/2)
Ah, I thought so (for 3)

1

Questions of race and ethnicity are very touchy subjects for a lot of people in the United States. Your primary problem in asking this sort of question politely is not going to be a language barrier per-se-- you would have about the same trouble doing so if you grew up learning English somewhere else-- it's going to be a cultural barrier.

There are a huge number of different regional variations on what forms of that question will cause you to be perceived as a racist, what forms of that question will cause you to be perceived as socially-awkward and/or overeager, what forms of the question will get you the information you want, etc. Furthermore, a number of factors beyond the phrasing of the question-- your apparent gender, ethnicity, accent, and social class, for example-- will almost certainly also factor into whether or not a given respondent is offended by your question. Lastly, while some regions have stronger norms around this than others, in general there's enough fluctuation amongst whether or not this question is acceptable within subcultures to ensure that, even should you study how a particular region talks around issues of race and ethnicity and even should the linguistic information you acquired from said studies still be current, you still have a better-than-one-in-ten chance of offending somebody when you ask this.

In summary, while there is usually a polite way, for any given person, to acquire this information, there is no consistent polite way to do so across the entirety of the United States, and, even regionally, there is usually no way to do so with significant confidence that you won't offend the person you are inquiring of/about without getting to know the person first.

If you want more specific information, you probably will need to try elsewhere, unless you can ask about a specific region and in a context where the problem is again a linguistic one.

  • A lot depends on context though. If you're in a Japanese restaurant and you have a waiter who looks Japanese, and if you've already exchanged a bit of small talk so you're on friendly terms, then asking whether they grew up in Japan is unlikely to cause offence. – Michael Kay Jun 17 at 8:34
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Every family in the U.S., except for Native American families, came from someplace else at some point in its history, so we're all in the same boat. Many people are proud of their family heritage, whether it's European or otherwise. When I want to engage somebody on this topic I ask them where their family heritage is, or where their family was from before it came to the U.S., if they don't understand what I mean.

One exception might be African Americans. Unless they came recently, parts of their families probably came as slaves, so they might not know what country or culture their family came from. It might not be an interesting topic in that case, or it might, understandably, be an emotional topic. Other people might know where their families came from but not care enough to want to talk about it.

If I want to know where that person is from in the U.S. I ask, 'Where did you grow up?'.

  • Quite a lot of (mostly white) Americans, when asked about their ancestry, will say they are "American". – Kevin Jun 16 at 16:15
  • @Kevin that seems to me to be a short-sighted answer to the question, but maybe it's an option for Asian Americans who want to press the point that they feel 'American'. – dwilli Jun 16 at 16:52
  • The people who list their ethnicity as "American" are mostly a fairly distinctive group. – arp Jun 17 at 15:50
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Summary: there is no way to ask this particular question and not risk being seen as impolite. If you want to put a polite facade on your nosey question, you can lead with something like "if you don't mind my asking" or "I'm sorry if this comes across as rude, but.. "

As many other people have said, race and ethnicity is an extraordinarily touchy subject in the US. Inquiring about someone's ethnic origin is absolutely not a casual topic on a par with asking them what they think of the weather or a local sports team, as even if you are not a racist, pretty much everyone in America who does not appear to be white has had too many encounters with those who are.

Yes, a lot of Asian faces belong to immigrants or to the children of immigrants, who may have significant knowledge of their family's culture of origin. They may also belong to US-born citizens who lost their homes and were sent to internment camps during World War 2 solely because of their race, or to people whose ancestors lived in the US for decades but were legally barred from owning property or applying for citizenship. Or they may belong to someone whose family has been in America long enough that they have lost all but perhaps a rudimentary knowledge of their ancestors' culture. Or just to someone who is tired of being seen as an ambassador for their family's culture.

A few less offensive ways to frame the question:

  1. How many generations has your family been in the US? (This can be answered in a way that encourages or discourages further conversation.)
  2. I'm curious, what languages do you speak other than English?
  3. If you don't mind my asking, where is your accent from? I can't place it. (This approach works better with non-Asian accents, as the strongest marker for someone whose first language is tonal, as many Asian languages are, may be a flat speaking style that might have exposed them to ridicule in the past. And again something to use with caution, as many people work hard to get rid of their accents.)
  4. I'm sorry if this is a stereotype, but do you know of any places around here to buy good rice?

In general, if the best way you can think of to ask a question is

This may be a rude question, but (...)

then perhaps it's a question you shouldn't be asking at all.

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Don't ask. If you know someone well enough to do so, you will already know the answer. Considering there have been people of Asian/Chinese origin in the USA for more than 200 years, the person's roots in the US could be older than many Euro-ethnic Americans. There is no "polite" way to ask this question. You will always be saying "You look like a [slur]. What kind of [slur], exactly, are you?"

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    Though I agree with most of what you have written, I'm not sure the question always comes off as "What kind of [slur], exactly, are you?" I think sometimes it's more like "What box can I put you in?" – which isn't quite as bad, though still bad enough. – Nanigashi Jun 15 at 22:04
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    Depending on whom you happen to be talking to, the question might be welcome and provide fodder for conversation in such a situation, provided you follow James K's advice and ask directly, while also explaining your reason for asking. But there's also a good chance that even if the person is of Korean descent, she won't have any particular interest in talking about Korea with you, just because she'd rather talk about her job, baseball, politics, music, books, etc. And she might wonder why you seem to assume that her being of Korean descent is the most interesting or important thing about her. – Nanigashi Jun 16 at 5:18
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    I disagree. The question can be asked politely and can be an easy, accessible way for people to get to know each other. If you're thinking in terms of slurs, then the question might be interpreted as a slur. But if you're genuinely interested in the person and what cultural background they might have, then it need not be offensive at all. – dwilli Jun 16 at 6:00
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    @Nanigashi Asking someone about their background doesn't mean you think it's "the most interesting or important thing" about them. – user76284 Jun 17 at 6:46

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