Talking back to the rude

Published in Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 2010, p. 18, in the "Heckler" column. The submitted title was "The wrong accent".

Brian Martin

"Where are you from?" I am asked this regularly. It's because I have an accent. Well, everyone has an accent; mine isn't pure Australian but has a component of American.

What's wrong with being asked where you're from? Primarily, for me, it's boring. After 40 years of the same question, I'd rather talk about something else.

So I answer "I'm from Wollongong." That's true. I've lived in Wollongong since 1986, longer than I've lived anywhere else and longer than all my years in the US.

This seldom satisfies my questioners. "But I detect a bit of an accent. Are you from Canada?" Many Australians imagine that Canadians become upset by being thought to be from the US. Anyway, at this point I say I'm from the US.

Often that's not enough. "What part of the US?" I can obfuscate and say from several places (true) or be more precise and say Oklahoma. I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma for 11 years but have never even visited the state in the past 40 years, so it hardly seems like home. All my relatives left there decades ago.

After too many years of being annoyed by this line of questioning - always well meant, of course - I realised something. For some reason it is socially acceptable to question someone about their origins based on their accent, whereas commenting on other inferences about someone you've just met is off limits.

Imagine being introduced to someone and having the nerve to ask "How old are you?" and then, when the person demurs or deflects the question by replying "Old enough," persisting by saying "But I noticed wrinkles around your eyes that make me think you're over 40."

Imagine meeting someone and asking "How much do you weigh?" and, when the person tries to avoid answering, persisting by saying "But you look over 80 kilos."

Imagine meeting someone and asking "How much money do you make?" and, when the person declines to answer, persisting by commenting on the quality of their clothes.

These are unlikely scenarios. It's usually not considered polite to ask strangers about their age, weight, income, religion or hair colour, even though you can make a good guess about these attributes simply by observing them.

Why then is a stranger's accent fair game? Why is it okay to ask about their origin but not about their weight or age?

I don't know why, and anyway my main interest is in how to change the conversation without being offensive. So far, my best response is "Where are you from?" That shifts the focus from me to my conversation partner - far more interesting to me!

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