Origin Unknown – Frank McNally on the pitfalls of asking people where they are ‘from’

The urge to find out where people are from, exactly, has long been a cornerstone of Irish conversation

Our curiosity is not always benign, it’s true. This is the country that coined the term “blow-in”, after all. But in most cases, it’s a friendly habit. Photograph: Getty Images

The ham-fisted conversational tactics of a certain British royal retainer this week have revived debate about whether, in a multicultural society, asking people where they’re “from” is inherently racist.

Of course the sin of Lady Sarah Hussey was to ask the guest where she was “really from”, and to persist in asking after the first answers (“Hackney” and “UK”) were deemed inadequate. That suggests a tin ear, at best.

But minus the event’s colonial overtones, the issues underlying it are increasingly at play in this country too.

And it would be a big shame, I think, if sensitivities over our newly diverse population forced us to abandon the general line of inquiry that the Lady no-longer-in-waiting so mishandled. Because the urge to find out where people are from, exactly, has long been a cornerstone of Irish conversation.


Our curiosity is not always benign, it’s true. This is the country that coined the term “blow-in”, after all. But in most cases, it’s a friendly habit. And for people who pride themselves on an ear for accents, it’s almost a sport.

I plead guilty on that score. My first thought on hearing any Irish person speak is to wonder if, say, it’s a Limerick or Tipperary intonation I’m picking up. Or wait – is that a bit of Clare? And so on.

Róisín Ingle: I’ve stopped asking people where they’re fromOpens in new window ]

Successfully pin-pointing a person’s origins, the more localised the better, is a cause for silent triumph. It must a similar thrill to what bird watchers get. I always award myself extra points for identifying a lesser-spotted Leitrim accent – the corncrake of Irish phonetics – or for guessing that someone is from the Cavan panhandle rather than the interior.

This works with English visitors too, if on a less refined scale. And most of us can pick out five or six different American accents (plus in my case one Canadian, the key to which is that the speaker sounds like somebody from Northern Ireland who’s spent time in the US).

For much of mainland Europe, I can at least guess the country of origin, if not any regional variations. With accents from farther afield, Africa and Asia included, alas, I’m almost clueless. But I still try.

And in my experience, most people appreciate such interest in their countries of origin, like the homesick Pakistani taxi driver recently who, for possible future interest, was only too happy to advise me on the best place to experience an India-Pakistan cricket test (Lahore).

Many of the “new”, or newer, Irish now speak with local accents too, so the identify-the-county sport can extend equally to them. But with those who haven’t quite mastered Irish speech patterns, discretion is sometimes advised.

In a Dublin hospital last week, I fell into conversation with a very friendly nurse whose accent was almost completely Irish but who also retained inflections from somewhere else.

I was intrigued by the old-fashioned broadness of her vowels, something once standard in these parts but that mysteriously disappeared in the 1980s, especially from female speech, after the construction of the Dart.

But the new sensitivities at first stopped me from inquiring where she was “from”. Then her identity tag gave me a way around the problem. “Is that a Romanian name?” I asked.

It was and so was she, proudly. Told of my planned trip to Cluj next year, she was soon extolling the beauties of Transylvania and the Carpathian mountains, which I was to be sure to see if possible.

For me, the occasional risk of offending people by identifying them as being from somewhere other than “here” is a lesser sin than a complete lack of interest in their geographical or cultural backgrounds. That just seems lazy and is increasingly common these days too.

The curiosity can extend legitimately to where their ancestors lived. In a conversation with the British royal family, I might even be tempted to ask where they’re “really from” (Germany – I checked already). But I like to think I’d find a more tactful way of raising it.

As for Lady Hussey, as cack-handed as her questioning style was, I feel some sympathy with her plight, post-defenestration. Among the places she is from, after all, are the 1930s.

No doubt excusing her on those grounds is ageism on my part. There are many whip-smart octogenarians alive, I know, whose cultural sensitivity software does not need updating. But as well as being 83, she has spent much of her life in royal circles and has been less exposed to normality than most people.

Her indiscretions have not always been racially charged either. Back in the early 1990s, according to the London Times, she once asked an American visitor, not where he was from, but what he did for a living. “I’m President of the United States” was the reply of a surprised George Bush snr.