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Country of Origin Labels

6 May, 2011

In the traveler and expat circles we tend to have friends and contacts all over the place. In these situations people often get labeled with their country of origin. “The Spanish girls or the guy from Canada or a bunch of Australians.”  Does our “country of origin” define us in some way or is it just a convenient label?


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It seems in the travel world especially, one of the first questions that gets asked when meeting someone new is “where are you from?” We look for commonalities and country of origin is one of them. The conversation usually goes beyond with things like “my brother was sort of near there one time”, “I met a guy in Prague from there” or the oddly funny joke of asking someone from an enormous city if they know someone. Nope, even in a town of 200,000 I have nearly no chance in knowing anyone you have met. Although it ends up hilarious when it by random chance does happen. The last name phenomenon probably falls into this too. A friend of mine here used to get introduced as Becky from Canada. She joked that yes “from Canada” is her last name and just a coincidence.

Useful Basis

When the first question is “where are you from?”, then usually the first impression is of that answer, so it is natural to use that heavily. Like most labels, using country of origin gives us a basis for further description. The cultural assumptions that come with such labels can be useful in such a mixed group. They can often give clues to languages and cultural ideas. It is assumed that when you call someone “an Australian” that they speak English and likely with a specific type of accent. These labels also give basis for comparison. I have a few friends who I describe as “German, but they speak fluent English”.

Especially in hostel situations while long term traveling, names often get blended together and forgotten completely or mixed across too many people and too many pints at the local. At least that is my experience. I can often remember country’s of origin rather than names. The Canadian girl in Prague who told us stories about Paris. Sorry, name isn’t coming to mind. Sure I knew it then, but now in telling it now the actual name doesn’t matter to the story. So also the story I tell of riding the night train to Madrid and hanging out with a Russian, his American girlfriend, a guy from Peru and a Colombian. It almost reaches the level of joke status where all of these nationalities walk into a bar.

Stereotyping

The other side of labeling is stereotyping. Americans are loud, brash over-tippers who can only speak English. Canadians get asked to say “about”. Germans like beer and Italians are always late.by knowing where someone grew up you can have a basis of who they might be. The tendencies and such. It can be useful, but it is important to take them as who they actually are and not just their country. Travelers often travel to change themselves. The more someone has traveled the less they seem to fit the standard picture of their country of origin.

I am an American with pretty heavy German traits. I speak other languages, abhor war and am pretty quiet most of the time. Every so often on trams I will talk to someone and they are surprised that I speak such good German, almost to the point of asking if I have relatives here, as if it is unbelievable for an American to learn another language and want to live in a different place without connections. I have lived and traveled here long enough that I have taken a fair number of German traits for my own. I am learning planning and how to wait at the red light. I don’t expect I will ever be fully one or the other again, but a mix.

Using country as a label or a tooltip (for those non-technicals, a tooltip is the little bit of text when you hover over a button or a link. I really think people should have these.) is useful in helping identify with people, but should not be taken as a full description of them.

Mistakes in Guessing

Especially in the English speaking world there are commonly mistakes in guessing where someone is from based on accent. A few of them can be funny or tragic..

  • Asking a Canadian where in the US they are from.
  • Guessing Australian if they are Kiwis.
  • I once asked a Welshman where in England he was from. I am so lucky we had known each other for a while first.

These can be either funny first conversations or the crash of a friendship. I have certainly made the mistake a few times myself. Despite having Kiwi friends, I still can’t tell the difference between New Zealand and Australian from accent alone. I am comforted by the idea that most of them can’t tell the American accents apart either. I guess this is a point where language and culture are pretty tightly wound.

It’s a long story…

There actually a quite of few people that I know that I chuckle when someone new asks them that common first question of “Where are you from?”, because I know the whole story and it can be a long one. The explanation of where one grew up, who one’s parents were and the added idea of what passport(s) one holds all comes together to make a story that can’t be reduced to a single label. Though often we do anyway, usually based on language and accent. The story of “where are you from?” sometimes becomes a full night just as “where have you been?” or “where are you going?” can be.

Do you tend to think of travel friends by nationality

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19 Responses to Country of Origin Labels

  1. Laurel says:

    This post made me laugh and yes I hate being mistaken for being American (nothing against Americans, but I am Canadian). Stuttgart has a U.S. military base so most of the other expats are American, but even my American friends get excited when on the rare occasion they meet another Canadian and let me know right away, assuming that we’ll have something in common just because we’re two Canadians living in Germany.

    • Andrew says:

      Indeed. The examples I mentioned seem to be the nationalities that are a bit prickly about being mistaken. Canadians are part of that. I usually try to avoid other Americans (especially in large groups) when traveling or even living here. I sat in a cafe the other day and was a bit disturbed that the guys next to me were speaking English.
      BtW do you know my friend from Canada?

  2. Sabina says:

    I do consciously categorize people by their nationality. The world is so huge and diverse, people from different countries really are very different. I think this is a natural way to think about ourselves and others and usually doesn’t involve any negtaive stereotyping. I harbor a lot of American characteristics but have also gotten rid of many others. People are definitely define by their country of origin. It’s only natural.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the thoughts and comment. I seem to think of myself as “An American in Germany”, so I guess I do define myself somewhat by them too. Though I often think of myself as not having so many American traits anymore as well.

  3. GoingKraut says:

    I think the cultural stereotypes can be fun. As longs as you don’t rely on them too much. Analyzing the cultural differences is one of my favorite things living abroad, however, there is always an exception to the rule.

  4. Annie says:

    Love this post! I think it’s something that every single traveler deals with. I ask people where their from because I’m fascinated with the world. I pride myself on my attempts to guess where people are from based on their accents (it’s a game that the boyfriend and I play) but I try my best to NOT say “Are you from….” but rather ask where people are from in hope not to guess wrong and offend someone!

    We have a similar story to Runaway Brit above. I’m American, he’s Italian but we met in Australia. When we told some Americans whom we met in Madrid about our story they couldn’t seem to believe it! It actually doesn’t seem that strange to me but maybe that’s because it’s my story.

    I can relate to you Andrew on what you said about people being surprised you speak the language. I don’t even speak or understand Italian nearly as well as I should and I constantly get told how well I speak. I equate this to the fact that Florence is packed full of American students who live here for 6 months or more and can’t even string a sentence together and say “Grazi-Ay” instead of “Grazie”. But then again maybe I’m just stereotyping! ;)

    • Andrew says:

      Language and “where you are from?” seem to be pretty tightly bound. Both the “guess the accent” game and the idea that Americans are well known for not speaking anything other than English both play into that.
      I keep thinking I should just stop guessing, but I can’t resist. Even when I get it wrong. I have yet to have anyone truly upset. Some ways the American stereotype of no knowledge of geography can help?
      I like your story, looking forward to hearing more in June.

  5. Runaway Brit says:

    This is a really interesting post. You address the question that I most hate to answer. I am from Britain, but haven’t lived there for almost five years. Of course if they have any knowledge of England they will then ask whereabouts in England I’m from. I am from Coventry, but haven’t lived there for 17 years (over half my life), it no longer seems like my home. My parents moved to Wales when I was 15. This is where I go when I go back to the UK and I refer to it as Home, but Wales isn’t in England and I don’t have a Welsh accent. I spent many years in both Cheltenham and Northampton and would count them both as ‘home’. I now have a Swedish partner so if we are asked the question when together people seem surprised that he is Swedish and me British. They then ask how we met. We met in Cambodia when I was living in Vietnam…

    See what I mean? The question is a nightmare to answer!!! Despite my dislike of answering the question myself I have to admit that I have used the labels myself, “my housemate, she’s Dutch” and that kind of thing. I’m not sure why, it does seem more convenient.

    I completely agree with your idea that “the more someone has traveled the less they seem to fit the standard picture of their country of origin.” and I have met many travellers that do not fit into the idea of a ‘usual’ Italian, Spaniard or American etc… I am thankful for this because I hope that I do not fit into the stereotype of a Brit: an overweight and badly dressed football-hooligan.

    • Andrew says:

      I think there is a difference between the kind of simple labels we use of “she’s dutch” and the full story “where are you from?” answers. One seems to be just a quick mention to differentiate one roommate from another, while the other cuts more toward identity. The identity story means getting it “right” so telling all the twists and turns. I actually kind of like these things as they can begin some really great conversations.

  6. Jeremy B says:

    Living here in California, I have dealt with this for years. Once people get to know me, they ask if I have lived here my whole life or what part of California I am from. People are surprised when I tell them I am from South Carolina, born and raised. Immediately the response is “wow, you don’t even have an accent!” Without me telling them, they would have no idea.

    Even within the US, we have stereotypes. I am from the South but I don’t hunt or fish, I abhor NASCAR, I don’t have much of an accent, I hate country music, I am anti-Condeferacy and rebel flag (a big deal in SC and ironic considering my ancestry in SC goes back to the 1700s), and I don’t seem to fit in with a lot of people I grew up with at all. I love my family and college football but that’s about as Southern as I get.

    When I’ve traveled in Europe, I can pick out Americans from a mile away. I don’t look American when I travel. It’s just not me. I wear plain clothes, don’t wear shorts, and am not carrying a fannyback, wearing white sneakers, or talking loudly. Yes, we all have stereotypes but I guess I am a good example of one person who just doesn’t fit them.

    Excellent post on this. Absolutely loved the writing!

    • Andrew says:

      Right, this effect happens for most regions too. The “where are you from?” doesn’t have to be a country, but could be far more specific. To those from that country, various regions have their own stereotypes. I get the “but you don’t have an accent” as well when I mention where I am from.
      We shall have to compare our “southern accents” in June.

  7. Andrea says:

    I often dread this question because my answer is so long. I’ve just been saying I’m from Australia and dealing with the funny looks regarding my Ausmerican accent. Poor John: he often gets branded American because his accent isn’t very strong and he’s with me. I rarely ask where travellers are from but it is the first question out of most people’s mouths.

    • Andrew says:

      Well in business networking circles the first question seems to be “what do you do?” So for travelers “where are you from?” and perhaps even better “where have you been recently?” is our form of the standard opening. You need a basis for a conversation of any kind, so the generic questions are good for that. The Where is just what we find more interesting.

  8. interesting post.
    ive thought about this before since i can see it in both a positive and negative light. knowing where someone is from can give you pointers on what they might be into, conversation starters, etc. but i still think its crazy that people assume so much about a person just because of where they are from.
    im an aussie with blonde kind of messy hair which often pretty much instantly makes me a pro-level surfer with an iq of 7 who loves beer, vegemite, can only speak one language (a strange version of english) and i enjoy throwing a shrimp on the bbq. some of these are true.

  9. Sabrina says:

    So true! I am always, always introduced as “This is Sabrina. She’s from Geeeermany.” It doesn’t even matter if it’s a private conversation or a business meeting.

    I don’t really mind it most of the time because it gives people a heads up about me not knowing all the little cultural details in Texas and the US on how to behave in specific sitiations. That’s really quite important since most people can’t tell by my accent that I’m not American. It also prevents some awkward moments, like when a lady who didn’t know where I was from sort of went on and on about how Europeans always wear thongs to the pool, because, quote, “that’s just what they do”. By the way, I don’t own one and neither do I know anybody who does. Aaaanyways, giving people a heads up about that can help. That is, if they know that Germany is in Europe… but that’s a whole another story.

    Sometimes it also bothers me to be “the German”, because while I am proud to be one (Ha! You don’t hear that kind of patriotism often from a German, right?), there’s also much more to me than “just” being German…

    • Andrew says:

      Right. This is so the point of the article. An identity is so complex, and expats and travelers even more so. Being from a place isn’t everything, especially for travelers, but it does give a good way to give a hint which cultural things to expect. :)