Ethics Quiz: The Uber Driver’s Sign

This is one of those ethics quizzes where I am seeking reactions that might make me question my own. My response to Mr. Vasudevan’s tweet was reflexive: Please do wear that sign around your neck, so everyone is warned that you’re an offense-seeking, paranoid jerk to be avoided at all costs.

Back before the CDC wrecked by business and crippled my livelihood, I was often in taxicabs, and my employing some version of the “Where are you from?” question led to many of the most enlightening and fascinating conversations I have ever had. I never encountered a driver who seemed to resent the question in any way; usually they were pleased by my interest, and they always had amazing stories to tell.

I get asked the question myself in our neighborhood when I am walking Spuds in my Red Sox hat or Boston jacket. I don’t see those markers as different from an accent or a turban. The question shows that the inquirer is interested in me: thanks! When I hear a Greek or Russian accent, I’m interested because those origins relate to my family. If my question that the accent prompts causes discomfort, well, that’s not my problem.

Nevertheless, the Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is it unethical to ask a stranger “Where are you from?”

29 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Uber Driver’s Sign

  1. I don’t feel there is anything wrong with asking someone where they are from. The diversity of our nation is one of the things that makes it great. It seems to me that if the driver has an issues with being asked where he is from, maybe he should go somewhere that the population is more homogeneous so he won’t have to answer the question any more. If he is going to remain here, maybe he needs to grow up.

  2. Of course, it’s not.

    Is there anyone who degrees that can enlighten me? Are there yahoos out there who follow up that question with actual stupid ones or are there just an increasing number second-generation Americans who don’t want others to know where their parents immigrated from?

  3. I used to be a hardcore liberal. I was never a socialist, but I was close to one, so I know how liberals think.

    The reason why the left makes a big deal about this is because it’s considered a microaggression. So, asking someone “where are you from” when they aren’t white or have a “funny accent” allegedly signals that “white” is the real America and anyone who isn’t white couldn’t be a real American. You wouldn’t ask a white person where he is from from, so why do you do it to a person of color? Though, if the person is white and has an Irish accent, this leftist argument has no answer.

    Now, that’s typical leftist logic in my opinion.

    I don’t consider this question offensive. If I moved to another country, people would ask me this. Oklahoma isn’t exactly considered much around the world. If someone stands out from the norm, then it’s normal to wonder. If someone has a southern accent and they move to France, the French would obviously be curious.

    I see it like you do, as a way to open up conversation and learn more about someone. Oh, you were born here, but your family is originally from Poland? That’s cool. Tell me more about that because I am interested in learning more about you. Or, people like you who have family roots somewhere else could also be genuinely interested.

    In my opinion, there are often two ways to look at questions like this. You can be pathologically sensitive and get upset at everything, or, you can assume it’s just a normal question.

    • Spot on. Great comment. Great analysis and explication of the sign.

      (I always try to guess Southern accents when I hear them. A state pops into my head and I’ll ask whether I’m right.)

  4. It can be annoying depending on the person’s intention. My ethnic background, due to being mixed race, isn’t usually easily discernable depending on location. Sometimes being asked “Where are you from?” is a way to actually ask “What are you racially?” And quite frankly, that’s nobody’s business.

    I was working at a bookstore and a male white customer asked “Where are you from?” I answered “The United States.” He then asked “Where are your parents from?”I answered “The United States.” He then immediately gets belligerent and said “You know what I mean…what are you?”

    Keep in mind I was working and not there to discuss aspects of my life, heritage, culture, or identity. When I finally told him I was happy to help him find a book but wasn’t there to discuss my personal background he declared, “You’re uppity!”

    A chiropractor (another white guy) recently asked where I was from. After answering “the Midwest” he then kept asking about my family background. After revealing I am part black, among other races (because that’s what he actually wanted to know) he went on this long diatribe about how bad he feels that his ancestors owned slaves.

    All I wanted was my back cracked. Not a situation where I was privy to listening to someone’s white guilt.

    If the “Where from?” question is based on some semi-bored woke white person wanting to “connect” with me as an “ally,” I have no interest in such an exchange, especially since I’m then one who is answering questions I don’t care about at the moment. It feels demanding and sometimes like these are just narcissists looking for a chance to show to some brown person how “good” and “helpful” they are to racial minorities.

    If the question comes from someone who gets off on showing how knowledgeable they are about certain cultures (which is why they’re asking about mine) it’s also off-putting because, again, the onus is on the person being asked, not the asker.

    The way around these obnoxious situations is to assert boundaries, rather than wearing/posting signs. A simple “I don’t feel like discussing that” and then immediately switching the topic is usually sufficient. The person may think your uppity but who cares.

    There are times the question is a sincere attempt to have a friendly exchange. I also have been the one to ask “Where are you from?” As with many aspects of socializing, it comes down to context, timing, and intent.

    • I’m white, and I both ask and get asked “Where are you from?” all the time. This is typically at church, where just today I asked it of a new (white) person I had not met before. In our context it has nothing to do with race, or even necessarily of country, it’s basically “Tell me about yourself”, and pretty much everyone I’ve asked is happy to oblige.

  5. I’ve seen enough hostile commentary regarding white people asking that question that I’ve learned to avoid it. I’ve also seen the question asked at work recently (by a white American woman to a man most likely from West Africa) and it met with an angry look and silence.

    I remember in the 80’s, during a peak in anti-Iranian sentiment, speaking with the brother of my Iranian boss and being told that he replies that he’s from “Persia” whenever he’s asked. I even got in trouble once asking a woman who turned out to be Irish if she was English — that didn’t go over well.

    So, is the question unethical? No. Is it advisable? No.

  6. Not per se unethical at all. I live in one of those parts of Appalachia where the local dialect is very familiar to a native, and other accents -even southern ones- really stand out. It is often an unfamiliar accent that prompts the question from me. The area is also rural / small town in nature, and I am always curious about what brings people to my little corner of the world, so I might ask, “What brought you to live in our town?” rather than, “Where are you from?” I have never had anyone express offense at being asked; most folks are happy to talk about their hometown, state or region.

  7. No.

    But then I usually phrase the question as “are you from the area?” – regardless of what they look or sound like. That way they can keep it neutral with something like “yes, I live in town” and then I might follow up with a request for good food recommendations, etc. Or they can tell me their life’s story which I always find fascinating.

    If I detect a Boston (where I’m from) accent, however it’s an automatic “where are you from?” Which then leads to which town, neighborhood, beach…

  8. Fabulous edifying commentary on important social etiquette!

    “There are times the question is a sincere attempt to have a friendly exchange. I also have been the one to ask “Where are you from?” As with many aspects of socializing, it comes down to context, timing, and intent.”
    Yes, and the level of sincerity and innocence of the questioner will set the tone of the response.

    The Uber driver’s offensive sign is poorly worded and probably written in anger and resentment.
    Should have been a cathartic first draft and discarded.

    Upon reading the sign I would ask, “are you woke?”
    That is guaranteed to begin a conversation.

  9. A while back in the 77 Square Miles Surrounded By A Sea Of Reality (where Reality is but a mere side-show), and even before The Great Stupid reared its ugly head, some delicate snowFLAKE student tried to get either our local Common SENSELESS Council, or the U.W. (GO BADGERS!) to make asking a person “where they were from” an actionable offense; ahead of her time, she!

    Mercifully, it died on the vine; shoulda seen the writing on the wall…..

  10. No, it is not, but I think it is unethical in school to ask where your family is from and not be able to say the United States. My family has been here for 8 or so generations. It feels like lying to say that our family is from another country, when we’ve been here since the 1700’s if not earlier. I have no known family or relatives in any country other than the United States. Neither does my husband. Why couldn’t my kids say they’re from here? We’ve been here, in this same location since the late 1800’s. I have the homestead of my great grandfather. I’m from here. They’re from here. It may not be interesting but it’s true.

    • In China, even asking for the time is minefield. Answering in Beijing Time or Local Solar Time could get you sent to the gulag.

  11. No.

    My guess is the 1st question most people ask when meeting a stranger in a situation where conversation can break down barriers of unease is going to be “what do you do?”

    Well, that question is answered before you even talk to an uber driver. The 2nd question most people ask are “origin story” questions, which would be “where are you from?”

    Jumping into deeper questions of strangers is actually fraught – “what do you think about abortion?”, “do you think we should send 40 billion dollars to Ukraine?”, “did your parents abuse you as a child?”, “do you like movies about gladiators?”

    If I’m using Uber, it’s probably because I’m in another town where I don’t have my own vehicle. And “where are you from” is a question that runs both ways and makes what could be a dull ride into something quite enjoyable.

  12. On the one hand, I agree that asking people about their background is a nice icebreaker. On the other hand, I also agree that we need to do something about pushy people who expect those who appear different to cater to their curiosity, like the ones Mrs. Q described.

    To address this problem in society, the first thing I recommend is teaching people to use the word “heritage”. (If I’m talking to one of those pushy people, I’m going to teach them in the most condescending way possible while projecting calm, suppressed irritation. “It sounds like you want to ask about my heritage. Can you say ‘heritage’, class?”)

    That way they can ask what they want to know clearly and respectfully, while also being aware that it’s a more personal question than just asking where someone grew up; you’re literally asking about someone’s family history. (Then again, discussing family history itself is probably standard practice in some places.)

    Secondly, I recommend teaching people that if they’re so curious about different cultures and how to recognize them, they should probably read books, magazines, interviews, et cetera; watch movies, documentaries, shows, et cetera; listen to podcasts, et cetera… rather than demanding that a stranger (or even a friend) explain their whole culture. If everyone felt entitled to a history lecture from the nearest representative of a given culture, the one guy from Liechtenstein who moved to Arkansas is going to lose his voice.

    • The question is “Where are you from?” You get to answer that question any way you want. “I’m from Belize”, “I’m from Detroit”, “I’m from California”, “I’m from right here, born and raised in this town” are all perfectly acceptable answers. This is a way to start a discussion. “I’m Persian” would be a bizarre answer to that question and would suggest the person has some unhealthy obsessions about their heritage and maybe they are a little unhinged. The question is “Where are you from”, not “What is your heritage?”. This Uber driver decided to answer the question with the ‘I’m offended’ trope. We should not encourage such behavior by accommodating it. Going along with such attitudes is what has gotten us into this cancel culture woke mess.

  13. I’m pretty sure I would react to that sign by stating, unprovoked, “I was born in southern Virginia but both sides of my family are from central Pennsylvania, and I mostly grew up there. It was only since college that I moved back to Virginia.”

    …just to see how the driver reacts.


  14. I am a foreigner where I live now. When people say “Where are you from?” it is an ice-breaker and I usually name the country and it gives us something to make small-talk over. If I’m in a bad mood I name the suburb I live in now, which also breaks the ice, sometimes even getting a laugh. I’m having too much fun living to object to the question.

  15. I guess this is one of those questions you can only ask white people now. These are the people that increase racism in this country. Who wants to live in a world where you have to deal with the ‘racist’ minefields everyday. What will be racist tomorrow? What will become retroactively racist tomorrow? Look out if there are any old pictures of you flashing the ‘OK’ sign. Will talking about the weather be racist tomorrow? If you only dealt with white people, you wouldn’t have to deal with these things. So, some people will decide that it isn’t worth it or it is too dangerous to interact with anyone who isn’t white.

    Women have discovered this. By demanding such lenient sexual-harassment terms, they made it too dangerous for men to deal with them in many circumstances. It just isn’t worth the risk of a false accusation. Now women are demanding that men mentor them on a one-to-one basis. Not happening anymore. Too risky. How long before whites decide the same thing about minorities, or has that already happened?

    Now, I have gotten this question at least once a week for the last 30 or so years. I have lived in quite a few states, so now have (1) an accent that is hard to pin down to a region and (2) a lot of place-specific details about a large number of places (did you know there used to be a place in Detroit that sold a 3 lb reuben for $5.99?). It has never crossed my mind to take offense at such a question. Sometimes people ask me that question because they just want to know what town I am from. It takes a special type of entitlement to hang a sign like that as an Uber driver, taking a job that forces people to interact with you when you don’t want to interact with people.

  16. Prior to the Wuhan pandemic, I had to travel by plane on a regular basis for mediations. I was either being picked up at an airport/hotel or being dropped off at an airport/hotel. The Uber driver would nearly always ask where I was from which would very often lead to an entertaining conversation. I don’t recall ever asking the Uber driver where they were from, as I assumed that they were local.

  17. It’s…. Weird. I get asked this all the time, and I’m pretty white.

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I’m part-Ukrainian, and I’ve lived in Manitoba’s perogy-belt for most of my life, so it’s not even a matter of looking ethnically different from the locals, I’ve just moved around a lot and always lived in smaller towns, and they know they haven’t seen me before. My last name isn’t common in the area. Whatever. And they’re curious. My other experience was the three years I spent in Fort McMurray, Alberta. No one came from Fort Mac, everyone came from somewhere else. Everyone had a story. And they were so. very. fascinating.

    My experience, anecdotally, is that the question isn’t “You aren’t one of us, sus.” it’s small talk. And that this conversation almost always starts with an oversensitive, raw-nerve reaction from people looking for offense where none is offered.

    • I have had especially good reactions from Africans, who seem to love talking about conditions there, why they are in the US, what they love about the US, and especially race relations here. I’ve learned a lot. It helps when I can say I’ve been to Africa.

      • When I moved to Selkirk, my new local doctor had just arrived from South Africa, and we were having a discussion about diet because I needed to shed some weight. He volunteered, without any prompting: where he came from, how happy he was to be here, how different it was, and how it wasn’t uncommon for people back home to eat roadkill. The idea that he’d be offended by questions is ludicrous.

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