General Question

iphigeneia's avatar

Is it rude to ask people about their ethnicity?

Asked by iphigeneia (6207 points ) February 27th, 2010

At work today, I had just given a customer her order when she asked me, “What’s your background?”

I don’t mind talking about my heritage, but I was caught off guard a little because I’ve never been asked that sort of question by a stranger before. I know people become curious because of the way I look, but isn’t ethnicity a little bit too personal a subject to discuss with a stranger?

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37 Answers

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I don’t usually ask.It doesn’t bother me when I get asked or if people guess.

Arisztid's avatar

I get asked that quite a bit, including by patients at work.

I am not bothered by it if it is polite.

I rarely ask someone that and only if we are discussing ethnicity already.

Mikelbf2000's avatar

No, it’s not rude. You are who you are. It’s not like they are asking what your income is.

iphigeneia's avatar

@Mikelbf2000 What about asking people their age?

Mikelbf2000's avatar

@iphigeneia Being offended from being asked your age is understandable. Some people are very insecure about their age. There is no reason to be insecure about your race.

shrubbery's avatar

I work as a receptionist at a Day Surgery, and as such I have to fill in information from new patients into the system. The questionnaire given to new patients asks for information such as name, sex, gender, phone number, address, relative to contact and health cover details, which are all obviously fair enough. But it also asks for things such as marital status, religion and race, which, every time I look them, think they are inappropriate and highly unnecessary.

FutureMemory's avatar

@Mikelbf2000 There is no reason to be insecure about your race.

Depends on where you are and whether or not you’re outnumbered.

aprilsimnel's avatar

The only time I think it’s rude is when the questioner is trying to figure out what box to put you in. Once, at a high school forensics competition when I was 15, I felt something funny in the way a white kid asked me what I was. I replied with something other than what I am, and saw the visible wave of relief from him, and he said, “Yeah, I didn’t think you were black at all.” It made me sad. Because I am part black. He was going to treat me differently had he suspected I was. I just walked away. I didn’t feel like giving him a teaching moment.

At this point in my life, I can tell the difference between those sorts and the merely curious.

It feels squicky because no one wants to be treated as a curiosity, or as an exotic, but as a person.

DarkScribe's avatar

It is normal curiosity in most cases. Some people are not reticent when it comes to asking about something that has aroused curiosity, many more would like to but are too timid, polite etc. I am often asked about my nationality, usually I am picked as British or South African rather than Australian, but as I did spend my early childhood in England I suppose that is not too surprising.

jca's avatar

i don’t think it’s rude. people ask me all the time and they usually guess wrong (they usually guess i’m Irish

lovemypits86's avatar

i don’t think it’s rude altough sometimes i feel acword asking

gasman's avatar

I seem to be in the minority here in thinking that it’s a rude question. I have an unusual surname & patients or their families often inquire what the name means, which I find mildly irritating. Nonetheless I politely & truthfully answer them (my ancestors were Russian Jews who immigrated in 1904) but always wonder, how is that their business? It’s obvious from my speech that I’m American. I’d be less offended if they asked where I grew up or where I was educated. I don’t think ancestry or ethnicity is an appropriate topic among strangers who otherwise share a common culture.

Maybe it’s because I work in an area predominated by xenophobic political conservatives, many of them Christian fundamentalists. Jewish paranoia? Maybe.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

If some asks straight of the the blue, like @iphigeneia described, it is rude. In normal social conversation, I wouldn’t consider it offensive. I don’t get asked that very much, since I’m pretty obviously of northern European ancestry.

davidbetterman's avatar

No. By the way, are your parents Black or Mexican?

frigate1985's avatar

Yes not many ppl mind…

PS : dont ever ever call an Asian Chinese or that person may be offended especially Korea, Japan, China. Those three are not so lovey dovey lol if you ever want to ask the ethnicity of an asian you should just ask “Which country are you from.”

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I don’t think this is a personal subject.

lfino's avatar

I wouldn’t think it would be rude if someone asked me, because I happen to be very proud of having a Danish heritage. I have reached the point where I rarely ask questions of any personal nature because it’s hard to gauge how anyone feels about certain subjects anymore. Growing up in a small town/rural part of the Midwest, everybody talked to everybody, even strangers, and you learned all kinds of things about people. I loved it. Lots of things you never even asked them about. I’m one of those people that could talk to someone on the phone for 30 minutes and someone says, “who was that?” and I say “I don’t know. It was the wrong number.” I’m still in the Midwest, but have been lived in a city for 20+ years now, and the way I talk to anybody and everybody has been regarded to some people here as “different”. It’s made me want to reach out to people less because I never know how anyone will react about anything anymore. I feel like I’m going in the wrong direction, but it’s just how society has evolved.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

When I was a child and then in my 20’s, I was very sensitive about my look and I thought it was very rude. Now that I’m older, I’m rarely offended and understand curiosity doesn’t always mask anything personally criticizing.

Chongalicious's avatar

I’m a mutt, so people ask me all the time. I don’t mind that at all. What I do mind is the people who assume you’re from a certain country, and when you tell them they’re wrong they argue with you! Did you give birth to me?? No? Didn’t think so.

Trillian's avatar

I’m interested in linguistics and word origins. I ask all the time, and would be very surprised if someone were offended by it.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I get asked from time to time and I don’t mind at all. People have always been polite, starting their question with “if you don’t mind me asking…”. I consider it a compliment that people are intrigued by the way I look.

DrMC's avatar

Intuition is helpful – If you think it will upset someone – don’t

Here’s a bizarre twist..

Try the golden rule.

Ask your target what they think ; )

Cruiser's avatar

It can be if you are rude in the way you inquire. It is natural to be curious about these kind of things and most people are proud to share info about their heritage.

CharlieGirl's avatar

It doesn’t bother me,that’s for sure.:)

mollypop51797's avatar

I don’t think it’s rude because it doesn’t bother me, but I guess you were taken aback because people don’t usually ask things like these. Then again, I haven’t been asked this too many times. I guess it also depends on how politely they ask you :)

Symbeline's avatar

Not particularly, depending on how it’s asked I guess.

I find that, actually, when people are asked what their background is, they often get very enthusiastic and are happy to talk about it.

I’ll admit though, random strangers asking such things during work hours is a little odd, but I guess there’s things that are a lot more rude than that. Maybe they were just tryna be friendly.

Pazza's avatar

Only if their English…....

bea2345's avatar

Through my husband, my daughter has ancestors from Guinea, Jamaica, Sierra Leone. She has relatives in Ghana (through her father), Nigeria (from my great grandfather). These are the ones I know about, because Africans are inveterate travelers. Ethnicity and family history is always an interesting subject especially if the objective is simply information; not just a means of pigeonholing somebody. As an aside: One of my mother’s school friends met Tom M’Boya at Oxford and fell in love with him. She was devastated when he was murdered.

thriftymaid's avatar

I don’t know why anyone would think it rude. I wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and ask, but if it’s someone you know or are involved in conversation with, sure, go ahead.

YARNLADY's avatar

I don’t think it’s rude, just out of the ordinary. I was really surprised when a complete stranger at a grocery store asked me what tribe I belong to, but I didn’t mind.

slick44's avatar

Not rude. you should be proud of who you are and where you came from.

Nullo's avatar

There is a certain order to a conversation; being excessively blunt in any case is rude. Inquiring about a person’s heritage under the appropriate circumstances is not.

prude's avatar

I don’t find it rude until you start attacking my heritage.
I have distinctive features that are often mistaken for something else.
if I am met w/the stupidity of someone calling me a “chink”(or something to that effect) or a “wetback”(which also happens from time to time) I shut down and just point out how stupid they are for making an assumption like that and I am not even that. usually they say they want to know, but why would I respond to anything from them after that?

The_Idler's avatar

Being something of a Heinz 57 myself, I am interested in others’ origins also.

It is something I ask of most people, not long after meeting them.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

@Symbeline Sometimes clumsy attempts at being friendly can seem rather bizarre. I was forced to learn as a teenager to keep my mouth shut and be thought of as unfriendly than try to be friendly and be thought weird.

philosopher's avatar

I think it’s OK if it is asked in a pleasant way.
I worked in NYC for many years and with people from all over the world. Most of us became friends.
I am an American. I enjoyed learning about other people’s customs.
NYC is a melting book.
You should not be offended by curiosity. Asking where your from shows interest not judgment. If this person were in your country as a tourist. Would people ask them where they were from?

rithi's avatar

yes. it’s rude.

one can be friendly to a stranger by simply being kind to them, without trying to satisfy his/her own curiosity. why is that a point of curiosity anyway? different “race” and/or “ethnicity” do not necessarily equate to different “culture”...

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