Cygnus Centre of Excellence

Where are you from

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How to answer this simple yet complex question

“Where are you from?”. I’ve been asked this question numerous times. Perhaps you have too. Personally, I’ve struggled with the answer because I’m not sure what the right answer is. Is it where I am from literally, as in locality, city, or where my parents’ home is, my community, what language we speak at home or country? Well, it has impacted me enough to develop a working theory.

This could be a simple and straight-forward question on the face of it. It works as a conversation starter at a corporate event, interview, neighbourhood club, school Diwali gala, etc. You get the drift? Most people answer this question, to the best of their knowledge, in a word or two, and quickly follow it up with their version, “What about you?”. Depending on how the person on the other side answers the question, the conversation either goes ahead or dies an awkward death. But is this question innocuous? In my experience, it rarely is and has layers within it.

What does the person first asking the question want to know? Is it appropriate? And when? Here’s my hypothesis:

  1. We belong to the same tribe: The more we travel, and the farther work and education takes us away from home, the more we want to be associated with people who share something common with us. It could be a school, workplace, club or language. There is a need to belong, to look for something familiar. In a professional setting like a hiring interview, one usually strives to look for people who are similar and not too far away from the existing corporate demographic. People like us.
  2. How to be together the way we are: Assuming one doesn’t belong to the same tribe as the person asking the question, it quickly leads to further brain jogging and some (not always) judging based on the answer. The non-judgmental ones want to know more and continue the conversation with a quip, smile or story. But the ones judging have an entirely different reaction including but not limited to, eye-roll, sizing up and the judging but polite ones look for a quick exit.
  3. Timing is key: Depending on when the question is asked it could alter the way the audience is perceived. Too early into the event and it could go either one of two ways described above. So, 50:50. When asked later during the event the chances of a “non-judgy” reaction are high. Say, 70:30. People have usually settled into whatever setting brought them together and are not feeling the pressure to belong or conform.
  4. Against the grain: In a corporate set-up like a hiring interview or a networking event this question goes at loggerheads with the inclusion agenda and seeks to deselect.

This is a working theory and I’d be happy to hear your views on the topic if it resonated with you.

Senior HR professional & Entrepreneur | [email protected]

A senior HR professional and an entrepreneur, Manisha has decades of experience in leadership hiring, talent management, business partnering, total rewards and change management. She has built teams and shaped company cultures to deliver desired business outcomes and advises multiple organisations across the globe. She has worked with companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Aon, Bharti Axa, AEGON Life, Alliance Data Systems, Siemens to name a few.

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