Where are you from?

by George Hatjoullis

If someone leads with this statement in a social situation then walk away. If this is not an option then smile politely and look blank. The uncomfortable silence should normally elicit a further statement that contains more information. If no further information emerges then walk away, as far away as you can. At no time acknowledge the question until you are comfortable that you know exactly what the speaker is doing with it. For the statement is an action.

The statement is not a question, it is a statement and a demand for a response. It says that the speaker regards you as in some way different, has a specific understanding of the word from, and regards difference as important in the context of the social encounter. The speaker has placed you somewhere else and demanded you to position yourself in relation to the speaker. It is a very aggressive statement. It is violent.

You may be tempted. from the context, to assume you know what specific meaning the speaker attributes to the word from. Do not make assumptions but await clarification. You may be tempted to give a response that is meaningful in context. It may be meaningful but it may not be what was meant. If it is not it will leave you vulnerable to further violence. It may sound daft to speak of such a phrase as violent but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of discourse analysis will recognise the situation to which I refer. Let me provide a biographical example.

In a social situation I was asked this question. The context suggested London was a meaningful reply. The response was an aggressive “you’re not from London!”. I have lived in London for all but the first few months of my life and I have no recall of those months. I have never lived anywhere else. It transpires that the speaker demanded that I respond Cyprus even though I have never lived in Cyprus or held Cypriot nationality. He (for it was a he) took violent objection to my stating London (my home). He had a very specific meaning for from. He spoiled my holiday.

This is not the only example I have but it should suffice to illustrate my first three paragraphs. [The man was from the West Country and living and working in Antigua at the time, which is where the unfortunate conversation took place]. This blog should be viewed as an elaboration of my earlier blog entitled Schrödinger’s Immigrant. It is always very clear who and what we are not, but never quite so clear who and what we are. We are all things until someone observes us. Only then do we take on a specific identity. It means that unless we work very hard in our discourse, others will be constantly defining and redefining us.