This is a question that I have asked many times, indeed I have been asked it many times as well. I am from North Shields as it happens.
It is often a good way of opening a conversation and I usually use the word hail rather than come. It sounds more local for some reason though I’m sure it isn’t. I am conscious, however, that this is a question one should be careful about. This week’s news story about Susan Hussey makes my point.
I wasn’t there, why would I be? I suspect that the story has been used for whichever political purposes suit but it seems to me that it was not the question that was the problem but rather the repeated nature of the inquiry. The implication being that Hussy did not believe the answer and wanted to prove that the person being asked was not from this country. I’m not sure why that mattered anyway.
I use this question as I am interested in how people arrive at their station in life. I am also interested in languages and dialects and am amazed at the variety of regional and national accents that I come across in my work. Only last week I commented on someone’s accent, which to me sounded Welsh. I accepted his explanation and we went on to talk about how there was some similarity between Wales and the North East of England. At no time did I feel that he was uncomfortable with my question.
At an earlier event, however, I approached a young man for a chat. He was on his own, as was I and I always like to network at such events. He was black and I asked the question. There was a momentary hesitation before he started to answer. I felt his discomfort and quickly stopped him, saying that what I wanted to know was which business he was from. As it turned out he is a student and we exchanged details. I think we parted without ill feeling though I made a note to myself to be more careful in future.
What is meant and what is taken can be very different. The same question in different circumstances can have totally different nuances. Where are you from is a question that can touch a raw nerve. However tempted I am, I think I will take it out of my armoury.