real life

'The one question that is always too rude to ask.'

This week, the Mamamia Out Loud podcast set about debating the intimate questions we can – and can't – ask of each other.

Is it alright to ask somebody their age?

Is it OK to ask a woman if she has children?

Are any questions on the table as long as they're accompanied by the caveat 'You don't have to answer this if it's too personal'?

All of this stemmed from a feature interview with Louis Theroux that was recently published in The Guardian in which he had been quoted as saying that "it's not rude to ask a question. It's rude to expect an answer". Theroux is, of course, a journalist, so it is basically his job to ask probing questions that wouldn't typically be expected in polite conversation. But it's still a bold assertion – particularly when it's applied to our everyday personal encounters.

Everybody has varying boundaries in terms of the questions they're willing to answer and ask. The Out Loud team demonstrated this in real-time, with co-hosts Jessie Stephens declining to ask most questions for fear of offending people and Mia Freedman erring in the opposite direction.

There are clearly questions that to spring to mind as the ones with the most horrific social consequences: asking a woman if she's pregnant (a question which we all mostly accept one must never, ever do) or asking somebody if they've had anti-wrinkle injections. But overall, there also seemed to be a prevailing belief amongst the hosts (and the social media commentary) that any question asked in good faith can be answered in good faith.


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In other words, if you don't intend harm with a question, it's less likely that anybody could possibly take offense. It's a sentiment that I mostly agree with and, to be honest, I rarely find any questions offensive at all (writing a book containing the intimate details of my family life and mental health would have been difficult if I wasn't a completely open book myself). 

I don't think that any questions, however misled, are inherently offensive. But there is one that really needs to be on the record as mostly off-limits, no matter how well-intentioned and that is "Where do you come from?"

As a brown woman, I am simply done with this question and I think it sits among the few that should probably just sit off-limits. As much as we might like to believe that there are no rude questions, this could be it. The one rude question.

And that's because it's not really a question that can be ever be asked in good faith, particularly when it's asked by a Caucasian person, particularly when asked as one of the first questions after meeting somebody, and particularly when they don't really have any genuine interest in learning about your family background anyway. 

Because what people are actually asking you when they ask you where you're from is not "What is your family's country of origin?" it's more "Why do you look different to me and everybody else in this room?"


It's a question I've been asked countless, countless times throughout my life – every person of colour has. By friends, by colleagues, by quite a lot of leering drunk men in pubs. It comes in a lot of different forms: "Where are your parents from?" "Where were you born?" and once, "Why do you look so exotic?" (to which I would reply, I don't think I necessarily look exotic to the 300 million people that live in Indonesia). 

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And what we must all acknowledge is that it's a question that inherently others people. It singles them out as a spectacle because of the colour of their skin or their facial features and tells people they don't belong. It makes people question their right to exist in any particular space and reminds them that there are others who would willingly tell them to "go back to where they came from".

It's a euphemism for the question they really want to ask which, at the end of the day, is honestly just: "Why aren't you white?" One colleague even tells me that it's not always a euphemism – some have outright asked her "Why I am brown". 


It can be incredibly anxiety-inducing to be interrogated like this. It's also such an absurdly ambiguous question that often you'll end up sputtering something like "north Sydney?" to which the asker will inevitably reply "No, where are you really from?" It's always bad and awkward. The question also seemingly ignores the idea that in 2023, Australian society should be comfortable with a multicultural landscape of people who plainly just look different from one another.

And look, yes, there are clearly exceptions to this rule. Say, when a person is interested in whether your family comes from the same family that theirs does. Or it's asked in context. Or possibly when Louis Theroux asks it during an interview. 

But for the most part, we have to accept that this question is a huge pain in the ass for most people of colour, even if you think that you're asking it from a place of absolute innocence or curiosity. Because, at the end of the day, even if you happen to be looking to celebrate or educate yourself about certain cultures or ethnicities, there are much better ways to do it than making people who come from those backgrounds feel very awkward and very, very weird about how they must look to you. 

Elfy Scott is an executive editor at Mamamia.

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