‘Where were you born?’
‘Have you been in this country long?’
And of course the classic, ‘Where are you really from?’
These are just some of the ways strangers have asked me about my accent.
On the surface this might seem an innocent question. But to me, and many other non-native English speakers, it’s a reinforcement that we don’t belong and I’m tired of answering it.
I moved to the UK when I had barely turned 19 in 2008, from Romania, an Eastern European country that Western tabloids love to associate with criminal activity, corruption, and repressive dictatorship.
At first I didn’t take much notice of the microaggressions – perhaps because I was in an international university bubble, or because I was young and self-conscious about being a non-native speaker pursuing an English degree abroad.
But then years passed, previously unfamiliar places took on the comfort of home, and before long I stopped thinking of myself as ‘foreign’.
Until, that is, ‘well-meaning’ strangers insisted on reminding me that I, in fact, didn’t belong.
Not long after Britain decided to split from the European Union in 2016, I started to get invasive questions and comments more frequently from strangers. Cashiers, taxi drivers, old ladies at the bus stop, new neighbours, tradespeople, you name it – everyone thought they had a right to know.
‘Do you intend to stay here or are you planning to move back home at some point?’, many would enquire.
These questions were usually asked with a smile, but also with an emphasis on ‘home’ as in ‘not here,’ ‘home’ as in ‘go back where you came from.’
With every question, I felt less and less at home in the UK and sadly that’s something that has continued to happen to this day.
We’re now seven years post-Brexit vote, and my new normal includes practically weekly questions from strangers about my accent.
Just a couple of months ago, I was on the phone to an insurance broker I had never spoken to before. Though things went smoothly for a while, eventually the stranger on the other side of the line interrupted our professional conversation to ask:
‘Maria, where’s your accent from?’
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‘Is this a required question?’ I joked, hoping it would make her realise how incongruous and intrusive this was, and drop it.
No such luck. She insisted on finding out my accent’s origins – and mine.
It was another reminder that I will always be a foreigner in this country, no matter how much effort I put into making it my home.
Once again, I felt exhausted and frustrated about being coerced into this conversation in a context where I couldn’t easily avoid it. In the moment, to bring the conversation to an end sooner rather than later, I just told the broker what she wanted to know.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have handled things differently, so later I sent her an email, explaining, as kindly and politely as I could, how alienated her question had made me feel, and why I thought it had been unprofessional.
As expected, her reply – one full day later – was defensive and bewildered. She was shocked, she said. She had not intended to be offensive so I ought not to take offense, she wrote.
If you’ve not thought about how quizzing people about the origins of their accents might affect them, I get it. But now let me try to help shed some light on just exactly how alienating this question is.
When you ask somebody about their accent, the first thing you’re doing is picking on a perceived difference and emphasising that difference as something important. Like it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
Second, you’re demonstrating a sense of entitlement to a stranger’s intimate history, which they may not be comfortable sharing.
Maybe they’re a refugee in this country having fled armed violence.
Perhaps they had an otherwise traumatic past.
Or maybe their history is so complicated that it can’t be summarised in a couple of sentences.
It’s none of your business either way, but your question makes it feel like we owe you an explanation, like we need to defend our right to be here.
You’re also very likely making someone feel like they’ve failed to integrate into their adopted community, that their accent complicates even banal communications.
Finally, you are contributing to their sense of daily exhaustion.
While this may be a one-time interaction for you, for them this is an exchange they will likely have, however wrongly, on a regular basis with strangers for the rest of their lives in their adopted country.
It’s tiresome. It’s draining.
Of course, the frequency of the accent question is, in my opinion, telling of a much larger issue.
Lately, the anti-migrant rhetoric in Britain has become endemic and we are constantly bombarded with articles covering all the ways in which politicians seek to dehumanise asylum seekers and refugees – be that placing them in unsafe and traumatising accommodation, or making claims about the imaginary threats they pose to British society.
And I believe there is a trickle down effect.
The anti-migration sentiment has pervaded at every level of society, therefore making it more likely that people feel perfectly comfortable and justified in questioning, commenting on, and judging even the smallest aspects of perceived difference in others.
Over the past 15 years, I have encountered all kinds of microaggressions from random people, usually white Brits. From people speaking to me very slowly to being asked point blank whether there are any of us left in my home country, because we all seem to have moved here.
The result is that I withdraw into my shell, and approach all small talk with strangers with caution and suspicion. Nowadays, I often throw such aggressive questions or comments back at the enquirer. ‘Why do you ask?’, I’ll ask them back.
In reply to, ‘Your English is so good!’, I’ll say: ‘I have a PhD in English and I’ve lived here for over 15 years.’
Picking on somebody’s ‘different’ accent is a symptom of linguistic racism – an overt or covert discrimination against non-native speakers of English in largely monolingual, English-speaking countries.
In 2022, the results of a research project from Queen Mary University of London, Accent Bias Britain, indicated that, in mock job interviews, employers consistently discriminated against applicants who spoke with an accent associated with people of different races and ethnicities, or with a working class background.
Bottom line, asking someone where their accent is from is never acceptable.
When I say this to people, I often get the retort that I should be proud of my accent and my heritage.
I have no reason to be embarrassed either of my nationality, or of my accent, but I also don’t owe anyone an account, however brief, of my personal history.
So, you want to talk about my accent? Let’s talk about why you’re asking that question first.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
Share your views in the comments below.
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