Guest post: I am a scientist. Ask me what I do, not where I am from “originally”.

Note from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gergana Daskalova, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

I recently attended the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, one of the biggest scientific conferences in the calendar year of an ecologist. Over the course of just one day, I got asked where I am from 18 times. I counted because in just four years of attending conferences, meeting with seminar speakers and engaging in similar activities, I have been asked where I am from way too many times. When the pattern repeated itself on day one of the BES conference, I thought I could do the actual count on day two of the conference. I, like many other of my fellow conference goers, get these questions at a very high frequency probably because our looks or accents give away that “we are not from here”. Though it may seem like an innocent question –  where are you from? – it leaves me feeling like my fellow ecologists are more interested in why I stand out than why I belong.

To counter the question in a productive way and to get the focus back on my science, over the last year, I have made a point of replying that I am from the academic institution where I am doing my PhD. People always follow up with “No, I meant where are you from originally?” The problem is not that I want to hide where I am from, the problem is that in a professional scientific environment, where I am from shouldn’t matter. When people make general chat at conferences with a group of PhD students, most of them get asked what they do. When the conversation makes its way to me, I get asked where I am from. Followed by comments about my country of origin. Cool! Exciting! I’ve never been to that country. Why did you come here? What a poor country. Was it hard living there? The list goes on. Only just over half of the 18 people that asked me where I am from originally then went on to ask me about my work.

PhD Comic comparing what "Where are you from" means in the "real world" vs. academia

Though “Where are you from?” can be targeted towards your academic path, some of us very rarely encounter the “academic” meaning of the question.

I love the country where I grew up and that will always be a gigantic part of who I am. But I do not want the first and maybe only impression scientists have of me to be about my “country of origin”. I want people to remember my scientific findings, thoughts and ideas. Even though I have gotten pretty good at twisting the conversation back to my research, it is frustrating how insistent people are on finding out where I am from originally. I love talking to people I haven’t met before at conferences, but it can get exhausting to continuously be made to feel by the turn of the conversation that I stand out giving me an overall impression that I don’t belong. I already knew that among over 1000 people at that conference, I am very likely the only one from my country. And many more people from many other places are in similar situations at the British Ecology Society Meeting and other conferences.

At my first ever conference, I went to a lunch with the keynote speaker and I happened to sit right next to them. I asked them why earlier in the day they asked four people in our conversation what they do, and then when the conversation turned to me, they asked me where I was from. The keynote speaker said it was because they could tell I was not from “here”, so they thought I would feel more welcomed if they had acknowledged that I am from somewhere else. Since that first conference, I have asked more people why the first thing they ask me when they meet me is where I am from, and the answers vary. It’s instinctual. I didn’t think about it much, I just thought it was nice to ask. I was curious. I didn’t know what to say and this is the first thing that came to mind. I thought that would be a more interesting conversation.

 No amount of English fluency and grammar perfection will hide my accent. I don’t want to change how I look or sound. Having people draw attention to why another person is different will never make that person feel more comfortable. Us early career scientists are constantly reminded to work on our elevator pitches, and unsurprisingly, they rarely start with where we are from originally. “Start with your research question!”, my PhD supervisor always tells me. Of course, learning about people’s life stories is a big part of getting to know people, and there are times for those conversations too, it’s just that when you only have minutes to chat with a scientist at a conference – ask us about what we do.

Earlier in 2018, Terry McGlynn urged people to stop saying “native English speakers” in reviews. But, inclusivity in science goes beyond just language fluency. It doesn’t matter where we are from, what we sound like, how fluent or not our English might be – what matters is the science that we do. The next time you hear an accent unlike yours at a conference or similar event, I urge you to pause and think for a minute. What is the first thing you want to ask your fellow scientist? Are you really more curious to find out where they are from, or what they study? By asking about the research that someone has to present at a conference, you can learn about cool new findings, find a potential future collaborator, and ultimately, reaffirm that you do indeed think of your colleagues, regardless of what they sound or look like, as scientists.

44 thoughts on “Guest post: I am a scientist. Ask me what I do, not where I am from “originally”.

  1. I understand the feeling entirely, and can easily see how such questions would raise the issues mentioned by Professor Daskalova … and very often, legitimately so!

    However, for ecologists and evolutionary biologists, knowing where you are from can also unlock what sets of organisms, communities, ecosystems, and landscapes you are familiar with – and that, to me, is of more than trivial interest, and hardly demeaning.

    • Eh. I can’t imagine why. I am from the US, and I know biologists who are also from the US who work everywhere from the Himalayas to Central America to the Arctic Circle to sub-Saharan Africa to their own backyards. Why on earth would a biologist from somewhere else be more likely to specialize in a system from their home country? We don’t expect that from Western European or North American biologists.

      • I, going by memory at least, have not been previously asked about my country’s flora, fauna or habitats after sharing where I am from, and though it is one of my goals, my botanical skills, for example, are way better when it comes to species I’ve encountered while doing fieldwork abroad.

        I’d be keen to learn about species and ecosystems that are less known to me, but for that, I’d ask people about their study systems (or just general area of work, as not everyone focuses on a specific system).

  2. If I were you I would not mind at all with this question. I find it sweet that people think your surname is “exotic” and want to know more about your country of origin. It is also a good starting point for almost every kind of conversation…including scientific ones….
    Being a non-native English speaker myself, I have found that it is better to have fun with this than being too austere about how listeners perceive it…..

    • I think it’s great that in the comments here we can see a variety of experiences, and it’s these different experiences that deserve highlight I think, and hopefully they prompt people to think about the reasons behind them being different.

      Not everyone’s reactions to where I am from are sweet. Sometimes this is a question that takes a few seconds and afterwards we’ve moved onto something else – “Where are you from?”, “Cool.” and that’s it, but other times people’s reactions go beyond that, sometimes stepping into politics, money-related issues, etc. And in a conference setting, before you know it the coffee break is over.

  3. Although I appreciate your sensitivity Gergana I think that you need to bear in mind that scientists are not robots, we don’t just think about science all the time. We are people just like everyone else and we have a natural curiosity about others: where are you from, what have you experienced, what are your interests? It’s just human instinct, a way of connecting with someone that you’ve just met.

    I’m always asked where I’m from when I go to conferences outside of the UK, and even within the UK people ask about my origins because I still retain a slight northern English accent. It’s never offended me, it’s an opportunity to get to know people.

    • I don’t want to speak for Gergana, but her post makes it clear that the problem is with this being the first (and often only) thing people ask about, leading to her missing out on chances to talk about her science. She indicates that it’s fine to ask about this in certain situations (she writes, “Of course, learning about people’s life stories is a big part of getting to know people, and there are times for those conversations too, it’s just that when you only have minutes to chat with a scientist at a conference – ask us about what we do.”) So, she’s not saying scientists should be robots, just that we should consider the (unintentional) message we send about who belongs and who seems like an outsider when we lead with a question about where someone is from.

      I also think that it makes sense that people with an accent that is one of the dominant ones heard at meetings (certain British, American, or Canadian accents, for example) would react differently than someone with an accent that isn’t one of the dominant ones heard at meetings. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked where I’m from at a meeting. It’s possible I’m forgetting, but it certainly hasn’t been a common experience, probably because I have a generic Northern US accent.

      • Hmmmm, I’m still not convinced. I appreciate that time to talk at conferences is limited, but exchanging the question “Where are you from?” and its answer “I’m from X” takes seconds. Whereas answering with “Why are you asking me that question?” will take up a lot more time and is more likely to lead the conversation away from science than towards it.

      • The follow-up response is especially problematic. When she answers “I’m from institution X?” and they follow up with the question “Where are you originally from”. That is terrible on two levels. Gergana has thoroughly and more eloquently expressed the main reason than I could, so I won’t repeat her explanation. But there is another reason. When a person has provided an answer to a question, the asker should engage with the answer (e.g. oh you’re from University X, is that near some cool field sites? Or they are strong in field Y have you thought about collaborations between X & Y). It’s just plain old good conversational etiquette to listen and go with the flow of what the other person says rather than focussing solely on your own thoughts. When they give the institution, they have done so for a reason, pick up on the social cues folks. Don’t ignore the other person’s response.

  4. I am originally from The Netherlands did a BS and MS in the Netherlands, moved to the US in 1989 did a PhD, postdocs and my entire academic career so far in the US. Last year I relocated to China for a faculty position.

    I rarely recall getting that question in the US, but here in China I get this question daily, both from Chinese and foreigners and everyone cares about my Dutch past, even though I have lived most of my adult life in the USA, I am a US citizen, my spouse and daughter only speak English, and I do consider myself an American, for better or worse considering Trump.

    So, I agree with the OP point it is annoying. I am still annoyed at the number of grant and manuscript reviewers over the years that keep saying that my English grammar sucks. I agree my grammar still sucks, but as a non native what can you do and I learned to live with that. But, as far as I see it, people in different countries are just curious for what seems different to them and I read no malice in these questions. I do urge manuscript and grant reviewers to be more open minded, keep in mind that for the majority in the world English is a second language, and since English is the default science language, we need to except less than perfect grammar. And heck, even the British and the Americans can’t agree on the preferred grammar.

    I do disagree with Thomas Givnish. I might still have a Dutch accent, but I know way more about US grassland ecology and species that any European or Chinese ones. I encourage anyone not to assume too much when you hear an accent.

  5. I understand your feeling, but disagree with your view. I’ve also lived many years abroad and know how it feels to be a young, racially mixed, foreign student from a developing country living in the rich world. Yes, many times people wanted to know where I came from, probably because of my looks or accent. Yes, many times people showed misconceptions about my country and language, especially in the form of imprecise statements aimed at showing empathy (I prefer questions!). It never bothered me. I’m also curious about looks, clothes, languages, food, religions, and many other facets of culture. Questions about your origins are an excellent conversation starter. As in Academia many people are introverts, polite ice-breakers are always welcome, even if they have nothing to do with science. Curiosity about people who look different or talk different is only natural and should never be judged negatively. It’s quite different from prejudice, when people assume things about you without bothering to contrast hypothesis and evidence. Even worse are people who assume that different is always bad and have no curiosity about other cultures, avoiding contact. Try looking at this matter from a different angle. We’d better avoid making the list of political incorrect behaviours endless.

    • Thank you for this comment. It really is the case that some of us have social anxiety, but really do want to get to know people (not really an introvert). Asking other people about themselves might be a first step to getting to know someone. I understand that’s a problem if the person’s science get ignored, but I think it’s useful to consider that both people in the conversation are hopefully doing the best they can.

      • Yes, sure. Unless the other person is clearly rude (mock your poster, mock your accent etc.), we should always assume the best and be tolerant. Cultural differences are also expressed in the way someone starts a conversation. So, when a colleague asks first where you come from, and only then gets to the academic stuff, it’s not necessarily bad manners. It might be just the social protocol of their culture or simply social awkwardness. Let’s judge less and empathize more.

  6. Another thought on this. I’ve just mentioned this post to my wife Karin, who is Danish, and she thinks that it’s actually a common British trait to, as she puts it, “dance around the bushes” when talking to people we don’t know, rather than getting straight to the point. Being British I can’t possibly comment… 🙂

  7. Thank you for writing this post, Gergana. It is disappointing and really irks me that so many commenters are essentially saying that you are wrong or shouldn’t have the views and feelings that you do in response to getting this question. (Thankfully no one yet has come out and asked, “so where *are* you from?” which I was half expecting as I started reading the comments.) I just wanted to say that your request and the points you make are completely valid (not that you need anyone’s validation for them).

  8. I’m actually surprised to see so many comments disagreeing with the post, or suggesting that people asking these questions aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think there is any malice or prejudice necessarily in asking such questions, but as Meghan said above, “her post makes it clear that the problem is with this being the first (and often only) thing people ask about, leading to her missing out on chances to talk about her science.” Even without any intent to harm, there is an opportunity cost in emphasising these things, and not emphasising what everyone else is discussing or being asked. I think the post is clear that if 4 out of 5 people are asked, “What do you do?” and one is asked, “Where are you from?” there is a clear disadvantage. Sure, questions like this may only take a few seconds to answer, but 18 times in one day is exhausting! Additionally, the emotional effort to restructure a conversation (especially as a PhD student being questioned by a senior academic) is huge, and not something to dismiss with, “there is no harm in such questions.”

    We can all do a better job of really listening to Gergana and others in situations like hers, without dismissing these experiences because we have trouble empathising, or have had different experiences.

    • “Sure, questions like this may only take a few seconds to answer, but 18 times in one day is exhausting!”

      I think this point generalizes. I’m thinking back to Meghan’s old post on what (not) to say to pregnant colleagues, in which she wrote:

      “Another thing to keep in mind that, assuming you are not pregnant (or, I suppose, an ob/gyn, midwife, or other birth professional), talking about pregnancy is an unusual part of your day. For your visibly pregnant colleague, it’s something that comes up over and over, whether they want it to or not.”

      I’m going to try to keep this in mind in future when in conversation with someone who has some obvious attribute that marks them out as different than me, or different than most people I happen to encounter on a day-to-day basis.

      • I think this is the crux of the problem. No one person is wrong but when the person being asked is asked the same question or hears the same comment time and time again it becomes frustrating, boring, irritating, annoying and then

  9. I don’t think that anyone is saying that Gergana is “wrong or shouldn’t have the views and feelings” that she does. Her views and feels are perfectly valid. What we’re saying is that, having been in the same position at conferences, our experiences are different.

    This is not a situation where we can legitimately say that it’s wrong to open a conversation by asking someone where they are from. Here’s a hypothetical scenario: some very early career researchers feel anxious about discussing their research in public with people they don’t know. So for a stranger to open a conversation with them that begins: “So, what do you do?” could make them feel very uncomfortable. So what are we to do? One cannot account for every possibility in social/professional encounters; there are too many possible outcomes.

    • I agree with you, Jeff.

      It’s not a matter of right or wrong, black or white. It’s a complex issue and many different views are possible. Some people here in the comments behave as if disagreeing with the view expressed in this post were a personal attack to the author. Disagreeing is healthy, as is a high diversity of views. Isn’t the whole point of posting to foster discussion?

      Actually, “the right way” to start a conversation varies between cultures, so why should social behavior at academic meetings be standardized? In some cultures (my own included) it’s impolite to start a conversation by going straight to the point, even in an academic context. It might be considered a careerist behavior. So, is my culture “wrong”?

  10. LOL. I had a flip-side experience as an elder computer scientist. At an international conference, graduate students wanted to know whether I was anybody known and became disinterested that I am not and have no academic affiliation. And I am very sympathetic to the point of this post and the awkwardness that is involved in connecting with folks in a field of interest. I also found some senior researchers interested in conversations related to my work and theirs.
    I suspect that there are many established academics that are also welcoming and interested, and not submerged in status and formality, although I can find myself rather reticent in building acquaintance. It takes something to seek those out and I don’t claim the risk of embarrassment ever disappears.

  11. I would like to also express my dismay at the folks saying that Gergana is expecting too much out of other people, or that the people who repeatedly ask this question aren’t doing something wrong. They probably don’t mean to, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to expect better out of ourselves after we hear that it is a problem.

    When I was initially reading, I was a little confused by the emphasis on academics asking “where are you from?” because I, as a white American, usually get that question in the context of academics wanting to know the institutions and people I’ve worked with. Realizing as I was reading that people were asking about her country of origin and often clarifying that after her answers gave me pause: what a comparatively professionally useless question! The former meaning of “where are you from” makes sense in a professional context as people are trying to integrate others into their social networks and find points of shared connection. It’s something people usually use in order to kick off discussion of shared points or bounce off questions about how their research fits into a wider social context.

    By contrast, asking the question with the second meaning opens up conversational venues that isolate the scientist being questioned from broader social context, focusing on differences. The second meaning assumes that the scientist from a new country doesn’t have the wealth of connections and networks that a scientist from a familiar country is assumed to have–whether or not that is correct. It also walls scientists with accents away from being able to access the former meaning of the question, because after a while of associating the phrase “where are you from?” with the second meaning, folks start launching into the second-meaning-response even if the questioner meant it the first way. Being corrected mid-conversation will do that to you.

    The emphasis on “where are you from” for scientists from other places being about their country of origin rather than their network of experience winds up barring them from a common form of social networking and emphasis on their work. It’s not okay, even with the best intentions.

    • This times 10! This was my initial reaction too. I was like, I’ve never thought about whether it was problematic to ask what institution one is currently at, at a conference. I could see how that might actually be inappropriate if we are using it to form opinions about their science. That would be an interesting topic to discuss. But I was really shocked that folks would follow up with “no, where are you originally from”. And even more shocked that folks think that’s a good follow up.

      I’ve been asked where I’m from at American conferences all of the time (as an American), but when I respond with my institution, I never get the “where are you originally from?” follow up. I think most people actually mean institution when they ask me.

  12. I find the question “where are you from?” quite a stressful one because I don’t really know. I was born in a country that I have never lived in since, I grew up in another country, my parents come from two different countries again, one of which I have returned to and established myself – but where I don’t have the local accent. I have multiple passports and multiple cultural identities – I don’t always know which one is strongest. Sometimes I find it easier to just pick one of my nationalities and pretend to be from exclusively that place. It is hard to convince people that I am actually “from” the place that I live because my accent isn’t the local one, even though that is the place where half of my family live and where I have been a citizen my entire life. Though, I don’t get asked at conferences that frequently where I am from because my accent and appearance doesn’t stand out at most international ecological conferences, when I do get asked there is often an awkward hesitation as I try to decide how much of my back story to launch into. If this is the only question and resulting conversation that I am going to have with a fellow conference participant, I would much rather the focus be on the reason why I am attending that conference – the research that I do!

  13. Thank you all for sharing your views and experiences. I will summarise my thoughts, having read the comments, below.

    – Different experiences.
    I think it’s great that people have shared a variety of experiences and it’s important to consider why our experiences are different. I was hoping that my blog post would give people an opportunity to better understand the impact of a simple question on the turn in conversation in a professional context, as seen from my personal experience. From the comments here and on Twitter, we can see that I am not the only one sharing similar experiences at scientific conferences, so I am glad that we are all discussing this topic and our different experiences and thoughts around it.

    – Answering where you are from takes seconds.
    For me, it takes seconds to respond with a country’s name, but as we’ve seen from the comments, that’s not everyone’s experience either. The initial question is easy to answer, but it can change the direction of the whole conversation, and if this is the only chance to chat with a person, it can lead the conversation away from science. Sometimes there are comments, not always positive ones, and follow up questions like “So why did you come here?”. Same reason as everyone else, to learn about new research and share my own contributions. Conferences concentrate these experiences. I can see how for some people, this question takes up seconds and is not a big deal, but that is not everyone’s experience.

    – Starting conversations & different cultures
    I love sharing stories about my culture! I even have a whole blog where I write about life in my country. There is a time and place for those conversations, too, but my country’s culture is not necessarily the first topic of conversation that I want to be having at a scientific meeting that I am attending to share my research findings.

    For the last ten years, my blog (written in my native language) has collected lots of stories, some of which I’ve also shared with people in English in person. People that interact with me often know that I like sharing stories about my country, I cook a lot of traditional food and we have many superstitions that have surprised people after having been around me more. So I see nothing wrong about talking about where you are from, I do it often and I also like learning about other people’s life journeys should they want to share them. What I have found frustrating is when in a scientific setting, people sometimes get fixated on where I am from, the exchange is not a few seconds of “Where are you from?, “Cool.” but instead takes on socio-economic and political turns, etc. And then conferences concentrate those experiences.

    I don’t think people ask “Where are you from?” to make the other person feel bad. My motivation for writing this blog post was that I wasn’t sure that people had thought about how that question might make some people feel, and I wanted to share my perspective. The same question will bring up different feelings among people, but also those asking the question might react differently based on the answer to the question “Where are you from?”.

    P.S. I do not ask every person that asks me where I am from exactly why they asked me that question, that’d be awkward! But I do think that sometimes it is important to share our own perspectives on how a particular line of conversation in a professional setting can make us feel, particularly when we experience that feeling time and time again. I love my culture and that will always be a big part of who I am, but as a scientist, I want to be defined by my science, not by where I am from originally. I wanted to stimulate thought into how a simple question might make other people feel, and it’s great to see so much discussion!

    • People are frequently rude. While there’s not much you can do about that, you don’t have to tolerate it. You can take the high road by being polite then ending the conversation.

      One strategy you could use is to answer the first question about your origins directly, briefly and politely then turn immediately to someone else nearby and start a conversation about science or, if no one else is at hand, excuse yourself politely and move along.

    • Thanks for putting yourself out there, and especially reminding us all to be thoughtful of these things! As an American in the UK, I am sometimes asked about where I am from etc, but I really don’t have the same experiences that you’ve had with these things, nor had I really considered how such things might make you and others in similar situations feel. Often sharing these things is necessary to engender empathy, and hopefully change the cultural norms towards being more mindful of others.

  14. What struck me in reading all this was how well the manners my mother taught me these many decades ago have paid off.

    See the person as a person who belongs at the event you are at. Share the thing you have in common in a situation (e.g., the science). Don’t make personal comments. Do unto others as you have others do unto you.

    I will add that the BES did strike me as particularly insular compared to other conferences. For instance, there was the requirement to decorate my booth for Christmas and dress in Christmas gear–with not a flicker of recognition about the message that sends to people who aren’t Christian, including some young students who were wearing hijab and niqab. It so happens I am Christian, but it made me really uncomfortable. I didn’t want to get too in their face as a one-time exhibitor–so I did put up some animal themed Christmas stockings but added a menorah and Hanukkah gelt and candles in the Kwanzaa colors and printed out the coexist sign.

  15. Thanks for your post Gergana. I’ve not thought about this conversation starter being problematic in this context before but it totally makes sense & will make me think twice in future. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Thank you for your post. As an Asian American, I can totally relate to your post. Growing up in an area/era with few people of Asian descent, I was continually asked “Where are you from? No, where are you *really* from?” (Well, my parents are from country X, but I’ve never been there myself and couldn’t tell you much about it.) I assume no malice on the part of the questioner, but nonetheless the result is to subtly reinforce that I am not one of you, that I am the other.

    I’ve heard people argue that “When I was in foreign country Y, people asked me where I was from, and it didn’t bother me.” But that just proves the point. You are being asked the question because it is apparent that you are a foreigner. And that is what someone is often tacitly assuming when they ask me the same question, even though I am in my native country.

    • But that just proves the point. You are being asked the question because it is apparent that you are a foreigner

      I’m not sure how that “proves the point”, since in Gergana’s case she is a foreigner (in the UK), and people are correctly identifying that based on her accent (and possibly her name, though that’s a more dubious basis); she can tell them about the country she’s really from, etc. Whereas in your case people were making erroneous (and racist) assumptions based on your appearance.

  17. I like when people ask me where I’m from. Often, this first question leads to a nice conversation about science and life. I always ask people where they are from.

  18. I am of ethnic Indian origin, born and raised in the UK. I used to live in York. At one such conference, I answered 1. “name of Village”, 2. York, 3. XX organization, 4. XX University, 5 and then returned the question – “I am going to need a timeline to answer that question”. Sometimes I answer with an evolutionary answer, sometimes I give a very silly answer beginning with “when a man and woman love each other very much…..”.

  19. Here’s a 2-min youtube that y’all might have seen, it’s got 10 million views after all, but it gets at what some people experience quite a bit. I think the upshot is when you ask someone where they come from, especially on the implied basis of an accent or their appearance, it implies that the person is an outsider — even if that’s not the intention. Which is explained better by Steve a few comments upthread.

  20. I appreciate that it can be irritating to get the same question all the time when you want to be recognized for something else.

    But here’s another way to look at it: At a meeting of scientists, if you’re a scientist, that’s boring. Everyone’s a scientist, and many if not all of them are doing exciting research. So even exciting research is boring. 🙂 The fact that you’re different is opening doors for you. If your name was Karen Jones (or if you were a guy, Steve Smith) and you spoke Western North American English, no one would talk to you at all. You wouldn’t be an insider or an outsider, you’d be no one.

    And I think the fact that people are willing to talk to you about why you’re different is positive. It’s great. People don’t have a negative association with what makes you different. There are, for example, certain cultures that have clothing that many Westerners would be afraid to acknowledge or talk about, which would leave the person wearing it definitely out in the cold.

    I feel like this discussion is about trying to separate the front side of the coin from the back side. Being different, like almost everything, has benefits and drawbacks. They go together. You might feel like an outsider because someone asks you where you’re from. But that same person might turn around and include you in a dinner invitation later because they’re curious about you and want you to feel welcome. But you might not realize that they included you *because* your different – that is, you could be getting benefits from being different that you’re not associating with being different.

    Good luck!

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  22. I’m a bit late for this, but great post! I would like to add something about being an immigrant (as (partially) opposed to being a student/researcher in a foreign country). For someone who spent almost his entire life not where he was born, it’s really annoying to always get asked the same question over and over again. I understand that people are curious; but this question can really make immigrants unconfortable. It can make one feel that one’s nationality is all that matters, and his or her interests, studies, etc etc etc are comparatively unimportant. But it is quite likely that the immigrant identifies his or herself with his/her current country, not with the place of birth. The question “where are you from”, even when asked with the best of intentions, can make the person feel unwelcome and not belonging to that place.

    And in a conference, or actually any other setting, you can’t know how the person will feel with this question. Some people are fine with this; some people like it; but some people can and probably will feel bad. So I’d recommend avoiding this question, unless you are willing to take the risk of making someone unconfortable. If you’re really curious, well, engage in a nice conversation, and the subject might just come up. 🙂

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