The Right Question: Cultural Nuance For Migrants (and Others)

A thought has been gnawing at me. A question. Several, actually.

I was recently at a gathering of folks from the travel industry, and struck up a conversation with a woman who has been, for lack of a better term, a serial emigrant for most of her adult life.  Over the course of her career, she has lived in five or six countries, returning to Ireland in between foreign work assignments.

As we talked, the subject of conversation turned to meeting people and getting to know the locals in a new country.  When I stated that the all important, first, “getting to know you” question will be vastly different whether it’s being asked in America, or Ireland, she remarked that in one of her postings, the form and format of this first question is absolutely critical.

In the United States, when you meet someone new, the first question (or one of the first) will be, “What do you do?”  It’s a clear reflection of the American work ethic that the most pressing question Americans have about a stranger is, “What do they do for a living”.  From this, all manner of inferences about class, education, values, politics, and worldview may be inferred. Whether those assumptions are right, wrong, or somewhere in between, is irrelevant. To me, the interesting thing is the consistency of that question.

In Ireland, the first question tends to be “Where are you from?”  Here again, conclusions are drawn.  Though I will say that in a country as small as Ireland, location-based inferences about family, religion, class, and social status tend to be reasonably accurate.  But, here again, I’m fascinated by the consistency of that question.

The woman I met at the party said that, living in Lebanon you don’t outright ask where a person is from.  The answer to that question reveals way too much about a person’s religion.  Nevertheless, the question is still out there.  People want to know.  So, instead of asking one blunt question, conversations have evolved to include a series of small, seemingly facile (weather, hobbies, job, sports interests, etc.) introductory questions that, over time, may eventually get to the same thing, but spare both parties the embarrassment of having “the question that must not be asked” lying there on the table like a stunned carp.

So, before we all head off to our various families for the holidays, or prepare for the onslaught of returning family, I’d love to know what others have experienced along these lines.  Tell us:

  • What’s the first question to be asked in your home country?
  • What about where you live now?
  • How quickly did it take you to pick up the social clues, and realize that there is a difference?
  • Had it never occurred to you that there might be a difference?
  • Are there any stigmas attached to those first questions (back at home, or abroad)?
  • Have those questions had any effect on your perception or experience of the country?

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

  • Of Life & Country – Migrant Expectations
  • Colonialism & Post-Colonial Dependence – Bailouts and Global Welfare
  • Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Emigrant/Immigrant Life, Home & A Sense of Place and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to The Right Question: Cultural Nuance For Migrants (and Others)

  1. Here is the USA, it’s always “What do you do?” ALWAYS. The question can be formed various ways. I’ve heard “So what do you do to keep the wolf away from the door?” as a baroque variant.

    I’ve never experienced this first-hand, but I understand asking the same question in France is a giant faux-pas! No one has been able to tell me why, though.

    • Frances,

      Thanks for reading. And, particularly for taking the time to comment.


      • begbroke says:

        Hi Glenn,
        I’m enjoying reading your Blog very much. We are in Australia and planning on returning to live in Dublin/Wicklow as soon as we can. I come via San Francisco ( yes, my heart still lies there!).
        I’ve had to hit the reply button as I cannot find the area where I can just leave a comment or ask a question.
        Some fantastic information you are providing here and so glad I found your Blog. Cheers.

        • Begbroke,

          Thanks. We look forward to welcoming you “home”. And not just because you like the blog. You’ll love it in Wicklow. Right now it’s sunny and spring green here.


      • Fergie says:

        Hi again Glenn,
        I finally figured out how to change my screen name – it’s Fergie, not ‘begbroke’ (that’s the name of a little place in Oxford where I went to boarding school!)
        Apologies for not getting back to you to thank you for your very warm words of “welcoming me (us) home”. It’s going to take a lot of planning and quite frankly is daunting to say the least.
        Although I’ve moved from Dublin 4 to Toronto, to New York, then back and forth to England for High School), then San Francisco, then Sydney and now Melbourne Australia, this is the most daunting. Although Sydney and Melbourne are considered the 4th and 5th most expensive cities in the world to live, we are finding that real estate in Dublin and even Wicklow are a bit crazy, especially for what they are offering! Yikes!
        The standard seems very low unless you have a spare million. And I agree with you 100% about the “two tap system”. Sure enjoyed your piece on that. And what’s with so many places not having a laundry?!

        I’m so pleased that you are happy in Dublin. Without giving out too much personal info, what part do you live in?

        My husband is from Dublin also but we met in Sydney!
        Australia lacks soul and character and so much more.


        • Hi frgie,

          Yes, real estate is insane in Dublin (way overpriced for mostly low quality work – particularly Celtic Tiger construction).
          We chose the Dundrum area because it’s convenient to transportation and work, and te rats here are more reasonable than other parts of the south side.


    • I don’t think it’s giant faux-pas as such in France.
      I lived there for 5 years, this question does come up sometimes but usually way way down the line of the conversation. Maybe after an hour ij a party, for example. But that’s between local though.
      With foreigners, the question of ‘what are you doing in France?’ sort of go to that direction. Because then you have to answer either you are working as xxx or you are a student, etc.

  2. In Oklahoma, the first question is often “Where do you go to church?” This is more about connections than religion — in a town of 80,000, if you don’t know the person you’re speaking to, you probably know someone who goes to the same church. Still, it shocks the socks off of some people from other parts of the country — and considered impolite and invasive.

    • Ah, the lovely Elaine….

      In Indiana, we often experienced the “Where do you go to church” question, or “Where do your children go to school?”

      Thanks for reading. And, particularly for taking the time to comment.

      Travel well,my friend.


  3. I have given a serious thought on the matter. Here are my answers:
    What’s the first question to be asked in your home country?
    Funny enough, I actually don’t know. I left Hong Kong way too young to have noticed that. And nowadays whenever I go back, they are too distracted by the fact that I live overseas so they don’t ask me ‘normal questions’, they usually spend half an hour talking about my overseas life, etc. So I asked my sister who moved back to Hong Kong a few years back. She said ‘where do you live? Or where do you work?’ will be the question. At first, I thought it might have something to deal with social status – fancy neighbourhood vs dodgy neighbourhood. But no, she said, the question is more about how long they wonder you need to be stuck in traffic…

    What about where you live now?
    In Dublin, people usually ask if I am a student. I have a young face, so they assume that I am a student even though I am way pass school age.

    How quickly did it take you to pick up the social clues, and realize that there is a difference?
    There is definitely a difference. I always notice these things because I am interested in this kind of stuff as well. In France, where I lived for 5 years, the questions always go 1. What’s your name? 2. What’s your ‘origin’? (meaning race…) 3. (When they realise you are not French) What are you doing here? I find it a bit uncomfortable at times people are so obsessed about my race.

    Had it never occurred to you that there might be a difference?
    Sure! There is. Have always noticed that.

    Are there any stigmas attached to those first questions (back at home, or abroad)?
    Don’t think so. But definitely has something to do with cultural difference. Hong Kong people worried about traffic and commuting, French people obsessed with the race question and Irish people wondering why would anyone come to Ireland if not for studying or working. (The fact that Ireland is a lovely country never seem to occur to them! Ha!)

    Have those questions had any effect on your perception or experience of the country?
    A bit. With French people being so obsessed about my bloodline, I found it a bit uncomfortable after a while. As the conversation usually went, after those questions, into all the cultural stereotypes – Asian women being quiet, buddhist, rice-eater, etc, which is so not me. I love France but I didn’t enjoy being label at certain kind of people. Hence, I moved to Ireland now where being foreign doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal than when I was in France.

  4. colm001 says:

    I remember prior to the Good Friday Agreement here in Ireland that if you got into conversation with somebody with a northern accent , the polite opener would be ” so what sport are you onto ? ”
    An answer of Rugby or Soccer would usually indicate a person of the Protestant/Unionist tradition and an answer of GAA Football would almost always signify a Catholic/Nationalist. The answer to that one question would tell you which way to continue the conversation

  5. Mark Partridge says:

    I agree that in the United States, the “usual” opening question is “What do you do?” However, I learned a number of years ago that among people of a certain class, “What do you do?” is considered quite gauche. Years ago at a social event where I knew no one, I asked a gentleman what he did, with the implied ‘for a living’. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, made me feel like I had just committed a social faux pas, and replied something about “managing the family portfolio”.

    Later, I read in an etiquette guide that when dealing with the upper crust, it is more appropriate to inquire something more along the lines of “What interests occupy your time?”

  6. Erika says:

    The first question depends and in my case, thus far can be attributed to race (but as the poster above stated class). Among Black Americans, in my experience, and some other people of color in the US, the first question is, “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” is considered rude, It’s always jarring for me and I respond elusively, if not in a professional setting. It seems fitting for a consumerist; competitive culture that seems to thrive on one-upmanship. That “where are you from” is more engaging. The former tells little; it’s a mask but the question of origin reveals their world. While in Ireland, I always get “Wherebouts are you from?” Which becomes an interesting game Irish knowledge of US geography. I noticed the cultural cues because they were familiar my particular American experience. Ireland often feels like home (aside from the modern inconveniences and weather).

  7. Sean says:

    Glenn, I find this blog interesting. I’m curious about something and was wondering if you’d comment on it. How much anti-American bigotry have you encountered in Ireland?

    • Hi Sean,

      Thanks for reading, and thanks in particular for taking the time comment/ask a question.

      I’ve actually encountered very little anti-American sentiment.

      More than anything what I’ve encountered from the Irish has been complete shock that anyone would leave the U.S. and move to Ireland.

      That said, I did recently to talk to an American who had worked as an accountant for a U.S. defense contractor in Iraq. When he told the Irish where he’d worked, and what he’d been doing, many of them got visibly angry and openly hostile. In fact, he said that there was a posted warning on the U.S. State Department website saying that if you’d worked in Iraq and were in Ireland, you should avoid telling the locals that you’d worked for the U.S. in Iraq as it could be dangerous.
      Possibly an overstated threat, but food for thought nonetheless.

      • Sean says:

        Thanks for the reply Glenn. I’m curious where that warning was posted. I looked at the State Dept site and couldn’t find it.

        • Sean,
          I think it was a while ago. The guy I spoke to has lived here about eight years, and worked in Iraq shortly after 9/11. So, I’m guessing it was probably posted around 2003, when there was actually quite a lot of anti-American backlash around the world once the softened hearts and minds hardened about 18 months after 9/11 and people started seeing what the second Gulf War really entailed.

      • Star says:

        It’s a pleasure to find such ratniialoty in an answer. Welcome to the debate.

  8. Sean says:

    Glenn, it sounds like it may have been posted a while ago but Irish hatred towards American servicemen and women is still quite negative to this day! Thanks for that nugget of information, I’ll remember it next time I hear an Irishman plea for U.S. “immigration reform” so more unemployed Paddies can move here. Best of luck to you.

    • colm001 says:

      You may like to back that allegation up with something more than an exclamation mark.The hundreds of thousands of US servicemen and women that have passed through Shannon airport over the past 10 years have received nothing but courtesy and good manners from the people they have encountered here. You may be confusing the attitudes of Irish people toward American foreign policy in Iraq as opposed to our attitudes towards American servicemen.There is a clear and distinct difference which I though that anyone using the term “paddy” with such gay abandon might be more aware of

      • Hi Colm,

        Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

        I’m not speaking for Seam, and will leave it for him to back up his statements.

        But I have to say that I’ve now heard from a number of American expats that the often negative Irish view of American foreign policy has been made clear to them. I’m also led to understand that the attitude shown toward contractors and other “civilians” is often quite different than the hospitality extended to servicemen.

        While servicemen may often receive a lot of the blame, just as many people are willing to cut them slack because they were “following orders”. In those cases, public opinion may pardon them while condemning their superiors. By contrast, contractors are almost universally seen as exploitative opportunists.

        Again, thanks for weighing in, and making the debate more interesting and informative. I didn’t realize how many servicemen funnel through Shannon.



    • Lace says:

      Well, this is because they’re right about that and the United States propaganda story is in fact wrong. But, Americans are too ignorant, proud and arrogant to listen to it. So, Sean don’t blame the Irish for their reaction completely, and give a retort like the one you said you’d give. These military people though, are so brainwashed to believe they’re masters are holy men and what they’re doing is an honest enterprise. Because, they think corruption ended in the middle ages in their minds and that the 21st century has pure doctrines because it’s “modern” times and U.S. has to be about honest John Wayne shit, nothing else could creep in. The John Wayne mentality has caused a lot of damage because they stamp his face on un righteous shit and Americans can’t resist the image. They don’t want to think about much, that’s part of the reason they “like” the military. You pay for that and so does everybody else.

      • Lace,

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

        I don’t think that’s just American servicemen. The notion that “you follow orders without question” exists in every functional military in the world. Honestly, it’s the only way you survive the horrors of war. Now we can debate the merits of war forever, but the loyalty and dedication of 90% of the servicemen caught in wars they didn’t start is unimpeachable.

        Again, thanks for adding to the discussion.

        • Lace says:

          I know they mean well and are certainly mostly good people and I’m for giving servicemen absolute free healthcare and other services (if they’ve been in combat) post the war for the rest of their lives. I do think, they should be appreciated for what they’ve been through. But, do they muse over what’s really going on over there, when they’re at ease or back home? Do they ever wonder if there isn’t a type of imperialism going on or do they absolutely assume that the whole operation is an honest American defense action? I think they particularly don’t like to do that because they can’t separate someone having a problem with the occupation from someone not liking the soldiers. But they’re separate topics. I don’t believe in the operation but I value and appreciate the people who’ve been there.

          • Hi Lace,

            Good questions.

            I think the extremely high incidence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among US servicemen is a clear indicator that many/most do think about their missions both during and after their deployments.

  9. Sean says:

    So let me see if I understand this correctly. The Paddies hate hate hate U.S. foreign policy but kind of like U.S. servicemen and women but OTOH probably despise contractors. Am I getting this right? Wow the Paddies sure have a way of finely layering their prejudices. Very clinical. How do they keep up with it all? When I was last in Ireland our Paddy tour guide helpfully explained to me how he hated Ronald Reagan, thought he was a “cowboy.” I just rolled my eyes at his simplistic jibberish, figuring it was just the Paddy view of America in general. We’re cowboys, wear 10-gallon hats and settle all disputes with a six shooter. What a bunch of morons the Irish are. Why do we let them in this country at all?

    • Sean,

      Yes. You’ve kind of got that right.

      However, it’s not just many of the Irish (not “Paddies” thank you very much) who feel that way, but much of the world population at large that is horrified by American foreign policy, yet recognizes the difficult situations into which American politicians have placed their servicemen/women.

      And the generalized loathing of corporatist military contractors seems to be universal and simply right living.

  10. Sean says:

    Glenn, I wonder if the Irish hate our foreign aid package (since that is part of foreign policy) which has helped save around 10 million Africans from malaria and AIDS (not my figure, rather from that famous Irishman, Bono). I would add that the Iraq adventure was largely ginned up by a Brit named Alastair Campbell with his “45 minutes from doom” dossier. One might even call him the architect of the Iraq war in general. British troops were also in Iraq. Do the Irish hate British foreign policy? No, their hatred appears 100% directed at America. I really could care less what the failed Paddies think of America, but when they start trying to undermine our immigration laws to accommodate a bunch of brain-dead unemployed kitchen-fitters who offer this country nothing, it does rankle a bit. Can you blame me?

    • Sean,

      Let me get this straight, because the U.S. dishes out piles of cash, they are allowed to do whatever they please, wherever they please?

      And before you go giving the U.S. credit for all the aid it delivers, take a long look at the numbers. I recall reading a few years back (around the time of the Thai/Indonesian tsunami) that the U.S. promises quite a bit of aid, but when you follow up over time and examine the actual amount delivered, the U.S. has one of the lower promised/delivered ratios. In fact, here’s a story relating to the Haitian crisis that shows the U.S. had delivered only 30% of it’s promised aid (marginally better than Venezuela):

      I only blame you for employing the same level of generalization that you accuse the Irish of using.

      Offer the U.S. nothing….Hmmm….really?

    • begbroke says:

      I certainly can blame you Sean. A bit of education would go a long way for you about what the Irish have contributed to America and continue to contribute. I would be interested knowing where you glean your myopic views from. I’ve lived in America most of my life and am well aware of what we have contributed. For instance, relatives of mine are the McShains, originally from Ireland and are hailed as the Irish who built Washington. If you doubt what I’m saying I’m sure that you will do the right thing and read the following:

  11. Sean says:

    No we’re not allowed to do whatever we please. However, we do some good around the world. I think this needs to be acknowledged sometimes. It never is in Britain and Ireland. When the typhoon hit recently in the Philippines who was there almost immediately unloading supplies. Not Irish ships, I can assure you of that. I would also be careful about using the Guardian as your source. A more hostile anti-American hate sheet has never existed in the history of the world.

    As for the Paddies who come here illegally, I really can’t say they offer much other than a sneering, superior attitude unbefitting a country that shat the bed and had to be bailed out by its social betters throughout Europe.

    • Sean,
      I’m really not sure where you get much of your information. but, on the whole, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a country that is more pro-American than Ireland. There are many who have a negative view of American foreign policy and the military, but overall the Irish are extremely pro-American.

      And a more nuanced review of the current Irish situation might lead you to a less incendiary phrase than “social betters”

      And yes, America was there responding quickly because it can. As the only country on the planet with the resources to do that, it would be unconscionable for the U.S. to do anything else.

      And why does the U.S. have those resources – largely because it consumes well beyond what it’s rightly entitled to (by population), and often treats the rest of the world as an afterthought despite the fact that if those other markets dried up U.S. excess would be greatly diminished.

      Also, bear in mind that much of aid distributed by the U.S. comes with some pretty nasty strings attached.
      The U.S, does a lot of good in the world. But it’s also racked up a sizable karmic debt.

      On balance, the U.S. is probably a break even proposition on the good/evil scale.

  12. Thomas says:

    Me thinks Sean has a chip on his shoulder. Big deal you met one tour guide in Ireland who wasn’t a big fan of Regan. When Regan came here in 1984 to trace his Irish side he got a near universal welcome.

    I spent two years in Vancouver Canada, while shopping in a leather jacket store I struck up a conversation with the owner who was Canadian his family name so happened to be Regan, he was at pains to distance himself from the Regan’s legacy in America.

    Some of the tactics used by the American’s and the Soviet’s during the cold war by proxy in Central and South America were dirty, a necessary evil, the bigger price of winning the cold war had to take precedence.

    Neutralising Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was justifiable. Where things get somewhat controversial for some Irish was Iraq. The Linkage of Saddam’s Baath’s party to Al-Qaeda as a justification for war was tenuous at best. I think it vaguely remained some Irish of 19th century British imperialistic tactics. America could have, maybe should have taken him out in the first Persian war in the early 90’s. That said the region is much better off without him.

    I’ve always enjoyed holidaying in America, France too, my central nervous system feel’s relaxed, something to do with being in a ‘Republic’ a commonality Ireland America and France share.

    For somebody with an overtly Gaelic name like Sean to question anything to do with the Irish in America is just plain ridiculous. The Irish have been part of the American story from the start. The first American census in 1790 showed 12% of American’s born in Ireland half from the Provence of Ulster i.e. Scotch-Irish the other half from the other three provinces i.e. Irish. Not forgetting about the 1800’s wave of course. We don’t like been called Paddies anymore more than you like been called Yanks in a derogatory manner.

  13. Anne says:

    Very interesting post, funny enough, when I was reading the first part, I thought to myself ” Ah in Ireland you’re always asked where you come from first”! So you’re completely spot on there…
    In France, I have the feeling we ask that question quite quickly in the conversation, at least in Brittany, where I come from. We are a small region but with a very strong sense of identity (we are Celtic like Ireland) compared to the rest of France, so that could be the reason why.
    In fact I didn’t notice the difference when I came to Ireland, and I realise now that I ask that question almost all the time when I meet someone new…

    • Hi Anne,


      And thanks for reading the blog, and particularly for taking the time to comment. I’m fascinated by the notion that Brittany’s Celtic connection to Ireland could be behind the same first conversational question being asked in each place. I’ll be thinking about that all day.

      • Anne says:

        Hi, this will be a bit hard to explain in writing, but I think one of the reason behind this is because like Ireland, Brittany is composed of a lot of different areas that we call “countries” ( a bit like the counties in Ireland). Historically, there was a lot of rivalry between countries in my region. Each area had a different costume, women used to wear different head pieces etc. Everybody used to speak the Breton language ( which is a bit like Irish) but with nuances depending on the “country” they were from. Nowadays, obviously everybody speaks French and we don’t wear the traditional costume anymore, but there is still a friendly rivalry going on. It seems like it’s a bit like Irish people being proud of the county they are from and the rivalry between them. You can see it when there are Gaelic football matches and people would put their county flag outside their house. So maybe that’s why the first question when meeting someone new is ” Where are you from?”. I remember the first time I introduced my boyfriend to my uncle in my small village in Brittany, that’s the first question he asked him, even before ” how was the journey?” or ” Do you like Brittany” etc…

  14. Kel says:

    I was raised in a very Irish home in the US. I was raised with Irish vague (I’m good at it) as well as the Irish social custom of being asked 3 times if you would like something (for example tea or whatever). The first 2 times you say “no” (but be vague), the 3rd time you are asked you can say “yes”. I learned this from my mom. My mum never told us it was Irish or that it was a well-defined rule, just that when you’re out and about that’s how you do things. I think the best example was at the neighbor’s house when they would offer us dessert. Third time you’re asked you can say “yes”. Sometime after I married my spouse I told her about the 3 times rule. Our first time to Ireland we had it confirmed to us. I was taught it was “good manners”, not out loud but by one of those looks mom’s give whey they are displeased with you.

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