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Moving Beyond “Where are you from?” to Create a Conversation

Even though I know this question is boring, I’m guilty of asking it over and over again:

“Where are you from?”

If you have even the slightest accent or even a behavior that suggests that you’re not a local, people are likely to ask you where you’re from.

Whether you are living or traveling in another country or region, you’ll probably encounter someone who wants to know a little more about you.

Rather than quickly responding with the facts, I encourage you to move beyond “Where are you from?” to steer the conversation in a more interesting direction.


This Simple Question Can Be Complicated to Answer

Despite its brevity, “Where are you from?” can be a loaded question.

Your answer can really influence the way that the conversation continues. You have to evaluate why the person is actually asking you where you are from.

Most of the time, people hear your accent and can’t resist their curiosity.

(This even happens within your own country. If I travel to the South, people often register that I’m not from there and ask me where I’m from!)

If you’ve managed to reduce your accent so that your country of origin isn’t obvious, people will be extra intrigued about your story.

When you feel proud of your heritage and your home country, you are likely happy to share where you’re from.

That said, you want to consider your answer to this question based on your “read” on the situation.

You may or may not want to respond based on your intuition or feelings about the reasons why the person is asking.

In a casual conversation, you may not mind having to explain where you’re from.

If you sense that the other person may be anti-immigrant or aggressive, you may not want to share personal details or you may choose to avoid the conversation entirely.

But if you believe that the other person is genuinely interested in getting to know you, then you may want to volunteer information on where you’re from to start a conversation.


Why It Can Be Challenging to Explain Where You’re From

True story: I often get flustered when people ask me where I’m from because I don’t have an easy answer to that question!

I’m originally from the state of New Hampshire, which is in the region of New England. Most people are more familiar with Boston, so I usually say that I’m from Boston.

I’ve spent most of my adult life living in Boston, but I’ve also lived in New York City, San Diego, California, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lima, Peru and northern Chile! 😆

Since I’ve lived in so many different places, when someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I feel a bit tense because I can’t, or don’t even want to, explain my whole story in 30 seconds.

If you are originally from another country but are currently living on a different continent, you probably relate to me!

Although I personally have moved for professional reasons, others are forced to leave their native countries during a time of war, dictatorship, terrorism, or economic troubles.

This is a major reason why the question “Where are you from?” can be so complicated to answer.


Your Country of Origin May Not Be Your Home

Moreover, it is incredibly common for people to be born in one country and raised in another.

They may feel more connected to their adopted country than they do to their country of origin.

When you ask someone the question “Where are you from?” and you sense hesitation or reluctance, it’s probably because it’s not an easy answer.

If you lived in many different locations during your childhood, you can use the expression “I moved around a lot” in response to this question.

Because there are so many immigrants to the United States and other countries, many young people spend their formative years (their teenage or young adult years) living in a country other than where they were born.

Over the years, they may lose their accents and feel completely American.

It can be frustrating to be asked “Where are you from?” because it suggests that you’re not part of the culture, even though you absolutely are.

If you’ve ever found it challenging to explain where you’re from, or you want to learn how to answer the question in a different way, my suggestions should help you.

In the rest of this article, we’ll move beyond the question “Where are you from?” so that you can reveal the parts of your life that you actually want other people to know.


Where are you from originally?

In my experience, when you’re an expat and someone asks you where you are from, it’s a good idea to immediately tell them that you currently live in their country.

When I was living in South America, I would explain, “Well, I’m originally from Boston in the United States, but I live here now.”

To sound natural in English, you want to start using the word “originally” when you refer to your city or country of origin.

Because this is such a global world and people move a lot even within their home countries, it is much more common to ask, “Where are you from originally?”

In major cities in the United States like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, this is especially common; many people have moved to these cities for work or school but aren’t originally from there.

When you answer the question with “I’m originally from (X country), but I currently live in (Y city),” you get the conversation going in another direction.

The other person will probably ask you about your experience living in that city, rather than focusing on your life story.

Depending on the situation, you may want to emphasize that the United States is your current home and that you feel connected to this country and culture.

Your response will depend on your interest in talking to the other person, your desire to share personal details, the direction of the conversation, or the way you feel about the interaction.

You might even use this response if you’ve moved within your country. For example, when I lived in San Diego, I used to say, “I’m originally from Boston, but now I live in San Diego.”

Because not every interaction requires you to share in great detail, you probably want to keep your response as simple as possible.

If you’re interested in engaging in a deeper conversation, you can add additional detail.


Creating a Stronger Answer to “Where are you from?”

Many non-native speakers respond to this question with a short, factual answer like “I’m from Brazil.”

To sound more fluent, I encourage you to give more details about your city, country, or region.

For example, if you’re from a small country, you may want to share more details to help the person visualize your country on a map or connect your hometown to what they already know about the region.

Sadly, many people aren’t that familiar with world geography, so it can help to share additional details.

Even if you’re from a bigger, more well-known country like Brazil or the United States, you want to share more information about the state, province, or region that may be familiar to the other person.

Providing details helps the other person locate your country or city in their memory, and has the added benefit of helping them remember you because your answer was more interesting and engaging.

Here are some examples:

  • I’m from Bahia in the north of Brazil, which is known for amazing music like axé, tropicália, and samba.
  • I’m from the city of Cambridge in Massachusetts, which is near Boston and is known for being the home of Harvard University.
  • I’m from northern Chile, which is famous for its deserts and star-gazing.
  • I’m from central Italy, which is known for its wine and beautiful landscapes.

In most cases, you want to name a major city or landmark that will help the other person picture where you’re from.

When you give these additional identifying details, the other person is more prepared to respond and keep the conversation going. (Most people don’t want to admit that they have no idea where a place is!)

Since I’m originally from a small town that no one has heard of, I almost never mention where I grew up.

And since many people outside of the US aren’t that familiar with all fifty states (hey, I get it: we have a lot of smaller ones!), I prefer to say I’m from Boston than my home state.

If you don’t want to say you’re from a city when you’re not, you can help the person locate the general area:

  • I’m from the Boston area.
  • I grew up in the Boston area.
  • I’m from Cambridge, a city near Boston.
  • I’m from a small town about an hour outside Boston.
  • I’m from the Boston region.
  • I’m from New England (an identifiable region of the United States).

Beyond geography, you can give cultural references, such as saying you’re from the area where the United States fought for its independence from England!

If you’re from a place where a well-known movie, TV show, book, or event took place, you may want to mention that instead.

Once you’ve volunteered information about your city, the other person may respond with questions if they’re not familiar with it.

To create a stronger answer to “Where are you from?”, ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s important about your city?
  • What might another person already know about it?
  • Is there aa cultural reference that the other person would recognize?

If I’m talking about Boston, I could mention the Boston Red Sox (the local baseball team) or the Freedom Trail (a popular tourist destination).

People in San Diego can say something like, “San Diego is about 30 minutes from the border with Mexico” or “San Diego is known for surfing” or “San Diego has beautiful sunsets since it’s on the California coast.”

As you can see, revealing these additional clarifying details helps you move beyond the question “Where are you from?” to get into a more interesting conversation.


Understanding the Hidden Question Within “Where are you from?”

As a non-native speaker, you may not realize that “Where are you from?” is not always about your country or city of origin.

People may ask “Where are you from?” in order to learn something about your ethnic background.

This is surprisingly common in the United States.

While the US is a very diverse country with native-born Americans from many different ethnicities, many people still assume that someone who looks different from them must be from another country.

When people perceive that your accent sounds different then theirs, or your skin tone is a different hue, or they might want to know more about you and your background.

They ask “Where are you from?” because this is a safer, less invasive question than “What’s your ethnic background?”

However, I want you to understand that this question can be offensive!

When you ask someone who is Asian, Southeast Asian, black, Latino/a, or even Native American, “Where are you from?”, this may suggest that they’re not truly from the United States, even though they were born here!

Americans come in all shapes, sizes, and skin colors, and may even speak with an accent depending on what part of the country they’re raised in.

With so many generations of immigrants behind us, there is a good chance you will meet an American who is not stereotypically white, Caucasian, or of European descent.

At times, people rudely ask, “But where are you REALLY from?” when the answer truly is “the United States.”

As a non-native speaker, I encourage you to develop this cultural understanding of the United States so that you avoid accidentally offending someone and being seen as rude or even ignorant.

When you push for more details, you’re actually asking for their parents’ story, their grandparents’ story, or even their great-grandparents’ story. For many reasons, it may not be the appropriate situation for the other person to share more details.

For more perspective on why the question can be offensive, read these articles:


What to Ask if You Want to Know the Other Person’s Heritage

If you have gotten to know the other person through a lengthy conversation (or if you’re already acquaintances or friends), you might want to learn about his or her heritage or ancestry.

In that case, I encourage you to volunteer some information about your family first. This shows sensitivity to the other person’s comfort with the question and reveals the reason for your curiosity.

If you’re curious about the other person’s background, share about your background.

For example, you can say, “I’m from Brazil, but my grandparents were from Germany” or “I’m from Argentina, but my family is originally from Italy. They moved here a couple of generations ago.”

When you introduce the topic with your own story, you invite a deeper, more interesting conversation about cultural heritage, the current trends in global migration, and how nationalities will continue to change in the future.

Personally, I find it fascinating to trace the way that people’s families move around the world!


Using This Question to Keep the Conversation Going

When someone asks a simple (and potentially boring) question like “Where are you from?”, you have the opportunity to answer in a way that keeps the conversation going.

With your response, leave the conversation open by sharing enough information to encourage the other person to ask you more questions.

In many cases, when you share that you are living or traveling in another country, the person will ask you one of these common small talk questions:

  • How do you like this city?
  • How do you like living here?
  • What do you think about this city?
  • How has [this city] been treating you?

Or they may ask something like, “How does Boston compare to Sao Paulo?”

They are often interested in more specifics because they want to try and understand a place they’ve never been through your response.

If you want to connect with the other person, you can share what you’ve experienced here and what you now understand about the local culture.

As always, you want to consider how you feel about this interaction.

If you want to have a deeper conversation, you can continue to ask more questions and answer with more details.

If you want to find out the other person’s knowledge of your country or culture, you can turn the conversation around:

  • Have you been to [my city]?
  • Have you ever been to South America / Southeast Asia / northern Europe?
  • Have you been to Africa / the Middle East?

To increase the likelihood that the person is familiar with your part of the world, you probably want to ask them if they’ve ever been to the general region.

Trading stories about your experiences enables you to discuss the similarities and differences between your home countries and can often increase cross-cultural understanding.


When You’re Living or Traveling in a Particular City

Another way to keep the conversation going is to ask the other person questions about the city you’re living or traveling in.

This enables you to focus more on what you have in common than your differences.

When you talk about the city you’re currently located in, you already have a shared experience that can spark a more interesting conversation.

From there, one of you may ask, “What brings you here?” or “What brings you to this city/region?”

You can even narrow your focus and ask for more specifics:

  • What neighborhood do you live in?
  • What part of town do you live in?
  • Where are you currently living?

By discussing your current residence, you’re able to shift attention away from you and your life story.

You may simply want to keep your personal life private. You may not be interested in talking about your story, especially if it’s complicated or you find yourself retelling the same story over and over again.

(Keep in mind that you never have to answer uncomfortable questions, but it’s helpful to prepare for them if they’re asked!)


Your Turn

If you want to be seen as a good conversationalist, remember that it’s not about your perfect accent, vocabulary, or grammar. When you continue to refer back to what you have in common, your shared interests can keep the conversation going.

Consider what you would ask in order to get the other person talking too; make the question “Where are you from?” more interactive.

The more information that you can volunteer in response to this question, the more the conversation is going to evolve.

Get started with the statement, “I’m originally from [home country], but I currently live in [current city or country].”

When you answer the question very literally, you’re not usually sharing the whole story.

I want you to remember that you and your story are interesting, and sharing more details will help you connect in conversation.

Remember, you have to judge what you want the other person to know about you based on your interaction with them.

Ask yourself, “What do I want them to know about me? What would I like them to continue to learn about me? How would I like this conversation to go?”

Now it’s your turn! Let’s practice answering “Where are you from?” in a more engaging way. Leave a comment with more details about your hometown or current city to help me recognize where you’re from.

If you currently live in a different country, share where you’re from, where you currently live, and what I should know about your adopted city.

For more neutral conversation topics, please be sure to download my free guide to more interesting small talk.

If you’d like to more confidently navigate conversations in English, consider my mini-courses on conversation skills and communication strategies. Learn more about my Conversation Anatomy workshops here.
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2 thoughts on “Moving Beyond “Where are you from?” to Create a Conversation

  1. Hey Kim. This is great. I still get variants of this question in France and I do get a bit fed up of it. It happened again this weekend and as my partner said – nobody asks me that, implying that they already know where he’s from!
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your tips – more proof that they can even help native speakers!

    • Thanks for your comment, Cara! Yes, it’s so frustrating to always have to explain where you’re from. Although I can understand their curiosity, I prefer to turn it into a conversation whenever possible. It’s so funny how we humans like to identify whether you’re “one of us” or not. 😉

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