Asking where someone comes from betrays our tribal nature

Where are you from? What I want to know when I ask you that question is what tribe you are from if I cannot tell that from your name. That tells you that the minute I hear your name, my first mental task is to fit you into a certain category of people, a specific pigeon-hole.

My socialisation tells me that such categorisation helps me profile you, which in turn informs how I will regard you, what I should or shouldn’t expect from you and what shouldn’t surprise me about you.

This is an unfortunate tendency that we received from our forefathers.

This question was originally posed as a way to establish which village and specific family one hailed from. It was posed to people of the same region.

The question was used during the era when anyone who was not immediately familiar was definitely a relative of someone known to us.

It was a Nyumba Kumi-type question, usually used by the older folk to ensure that every person roaming around was identifiable. It was a security question and therefore natural definitely not offensive.

In some regions the question was even more specific, “Whose son or daughter are you?” The answer normally came quickly and respectfully from a hitherto stranger eager to be identified as friend, not foe.

Fast-forward to the present. The question has evolved to a tribal identification mechanism for most people. So what is wrong with that?

In the cosmopolitan world today, every third person we meet will be a stranger. The question is not posed to every third person but to people who come into our space.

This is the same instance in which it was asked in the olden days. The difference today is that the places in which this question is asked are meant to be inclusive – a police station, corporate office, government service point and even in places of worship.

In a city where we expect that we will inevitably interact with others from faraway lands, what might the relevance of this question be?

We meet people from various backgrounds in our places of work, business and worship. Why would your tribe be relevant in an office setting, a public service point or church for example?

As a member of staff, a business person or a service provider there is no reason why I would need to know where you come from. Could it be that it informs the attitude with which I serve you, which affects the level of service that you enjoy?

Unless the subject of your background naturally comes up in conversation, the question is in any language rude.

Those who pose it will insist that it is asked out of simple curiosity it is not. We are a very tribal people. There is undeniable power in our diversity.

But the reason we display our intolerance of each other through this rude so-called normal question is not to tap into that power. It is to inform how we are to treat those who are different from us “the outsiders”, “those other people”.

We ask the question so that we can decide whether or not we can be comfortable enough in their presence to be our real selves.

“Where are you from” was nearly a customary question posed to people of the same region. When there were people from outside a locality, it was known and explained beforehand their presence was expected and the question did not arise.

To ask this question is to say to someone that hisher presence is unexpected, strange and even unwelcome. It is to say that someone is different and therefore is required to explain himself.

This cannot be said to be the case in our places of residence, work or worship. We expect to encounter people from distant lands everyday. We cannot cut and paste behaviour from our individual communities and expect to plug and play it in the rich mix that is our society today.

We must seek to form an all-inclusive way of interacting with each other and create an all-encompassing culture that paves way for everybody’s comfort if the power in our diversity is to be realised.

Seraphine is an expert on attitude and human potential. sera@iuponline.com | @SRulugirwa