Is it offensive to ask someone where they're from?

passport documents
International passport documents. Photo credit: Getty

Is it ever okay to ask someone where they're from? Or is it simply offensive?

That was the topic put to listeners on RadioLIVE morning talk this morning, when host Mark Sainsbury recalled a weekend conversation with people who find the question offensive.

"Behind that question is the presumption that you do not belong," Sainsbury said. "I suggest that more often than not, it's not a question often put to white people in this country."

Sociology professor Paul Spoonley defended our curiosity about people's origins, but said there are exceptions to the rule.

"For example, if Mark Sainsbury applied for a job with me, and I asked where you came from and it wasn't relevant to the job, then no, that is not appropriate.

"Sometimes, it's like 'you're not from here, where are you from' and that too is not appropriate."

Somali Kiwi Association founder Ibrahim Ali agrees a little curiosity is not a bad thing, but the questions often cut much deeper. 

"Sometimes, they genuinely want to know you, but sometimes I feel like I have been here long enough to be considered a Kiwi - why do you see me as a foreigner or a stranger?

"I don't see a problem if they ask me, but when I tell them I am from Africa or Somalia, they will start stereotyping you, according to where you are from.

"They say you're from a corrupt country where there are terrorists and they put you in that kind of place. We tell them that maybe some of the people in Somalia are like that, but some are normal people like us here, looking after families, and struggling to find a place to live or a job."

Prof Spoonley admitted he often asked taxi drivers about their ethnic origins and they often took offence.

"I do the survey of where they're from, how they got here and why they're here," he said. "Their response is like 'I've been here 20 years, when do I stop being an immigrant and when do I start being a New Zealander just like you'."

He said that sensitivity probably originated from the "overstayers" crackdown of the 1970s, where police and immigration officials carried out dawn raids to round up illegal Pacific Island immigrants.  

"I like to ask where people are from and I tend to preface it by saying 'I'm really interested in people's identity'. I don't just straight in with 'where are you from, you don't look like you're from here'.

"It's one of those difficult things in social situations, where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, but it's the way in which you voice it.

"There's a tone thing there."