what's your nationality?

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longxianchen

Senior Member
chinese
Hi
As for the word, nationality, sometimes it refers to a person's country, but sometimes, it means a person's ethnic group.
So, how should ask a person's country or ethnic respectively? Both are "what's your nationality"?
Thanks a lot!!!
 
  • Egmont

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    It depends on the context, but nationality usually means legal citizenship. If you want to know their ethnic group, you could ask about their background. If you want to know where they live, you could ask that.

    Whether this is a polite thing to ask is a cultural question. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not, especially with groups that have had difficult times where you are asking the question. For example, there have been times in recent history where is was not easy to be Greek in Turkey, so you might not want to ask a person if he is Greek when you are in Istanbul unless you know this person well or you are Greek yourself. Asking the same person if he is Greek while the two of you are in Oslo or Melbourne would probably not be a problem.
     

    Alby84

    Senior Member
    American English
    Hmm, this can be a slightly sensitive topic depending on the country I believe. You're right in that there's a difference, however, and that many confuse the two (mainly out of ignorance unfortunately). In the US, for example, everyone is from everywhere unless you're Native American (racially speaking). I'd get to know a person before just asking either question. To answer your question, however:

    What ethnicity are you? What's your ethnicity? = What are you racially? (generally speaking)
    What nationality are you? What's your nationality? = What country are you from? (again, generally speaking)

    Some countries have many ethnicities while others have very few so sometimes these questions coincide. Be careful with using either, though. There's a time and a place for it.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    On official forms in the U.S. you are asked either your "race" or your "ethnicity." Race refers more to your biological identity (ie. Caucasion, African American) and ethnicity is more about the group you identify with culturally (ie. Italian-American). Sometimes the two overlap. Some people use "ethnicity" to mean race because they don't dare say race since it's so politically charged.

    In popular language, it would be rare to say "what is your ethnicity," as it sounds too official--like you're taking a census. If I feel comfortable enough with someone to ask bluntly this question bluntly with no context (which is very rare for the reasons described in the posts above above), I probably would say "What's your ethnic background?"

    While I haven't asked your race or religion, in some cases, that's what I'm hoping to find out! So the answer might be: My father was African American and my mother was a German jew who emigrated after the war.
     

    longxianchen

    Senior Member
    chinese
    Thank you two. And I will use "What ethnicity are you? What's your ethnicity? = What are you racially?"
    By the way, here we often ask such a quesion. It's not a sensitive topic here.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    Thank you two. And I will use "What ethnicity are you? What's your ethnicity? = What are you racially?"
    By the way, here we often ask such a quesion. It's not a sensitive topic here.
    We cross posted here, but in fact, race is different from ethnicity. For example, take me. My race is Caucasian. My ethnicity is Italian American. For others, race and ethnicity might be the same. For example, someone might answer "African American" for both race and ethnicity. Some people may be mixed race but identify strongly with a particular ethnic group.
     

    Alby84

    Senior Member
    American English
    We cross posted here, but in fact, race is different from ethnicity. For example, take me. My race is Caucasian. My ethnicity is Italian American. For others, race and ethnicity might be the same. For example, someone might answer "African American" for both race and ethnicity. Some people may be mixed race but identify strongly with a particular ethnic group.
    I completely agree. I was just referring to how this is usually taken or interpreted by a person if you ask them such a question. In a lot of cases, there simply isn't a fine line as many have already said.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    Alby, I agree with you too. My comment was to longxiachen who seems to think ethnicity and race are the same and I wanted to give him a start on understanding the nuances.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Thank you two. And I will use "What ethnicity are you? What's your ethnicity? = What are you racially?"
    By the way, here we often ask such a quesion. It's not a sensitive topic here.
    And it's not usually a sensitive topic where I'm from (either in the UK or in France). Apart from rare specific situations (like Embonpoint's Greek/Turkish example), I don't hesitate to ask it of someone I've just met (say, in a pub), and others around me do the same. It's a pleasant part of getting to know someone — provided of course that you ask in an interested way, not with a critical or aggressive tone.

    That said, I wouldn't ask "What's your ethnicity?" (for the same reason as Embonpoint: it sounds like something from a survey questionnaire!). Nor would I say "What are you racially?": the form "What are you?" is somewhat dehumanising, as though the aim is just to categorise the person.

    I wouldn't even say "What's your ethnic background?": I suspect that the word ethnic is used quite conversationally in the US, given the enormous ethnic diversity there. But over here I'd say it's used more in administrative, political or academic contexts (ethnic minorities, ethnic diversity, ethnic cleansing, ...) rather than in exchanging pleasantries with someone.

    I often ask "Where are you from?", which sometimes is enough. The person might reply "I'm from China. Have you heard of Zhengzhou?": if he appears to be Chinese, that's a fair indication of his race and ethnicity. Or he may reply "I'm from Paris, but my parents are Chinese." Again, I have the answer.

    If he just replies "I'm from Paris", but something makes me think he's not franco-French (appearance, accent, name, something he said, ...), I'd probably ask, perhaps a bit later in the conversation to avoid it sounding like an interrogation, "What are your origins?", or "What are your family's origins?", or "Where is your family from originally?"

    Ws:)
     

    Grefsen

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    I often ask "Where are you from?", which sometimes is enough. The person might reply "I'm from China. Have you heard of Zhengzhou?": if he appears to be Chinese, that's a fair indication of his race and ethnicity. Or he may reply "I'm from Paris, but my parents are Chinese." Again, I have the answer.
    I also often ask "Where are you from?" or "Where are you from originally?" These are usually fairly safe questions to ask here in Southern California where the majority of the people I meet are either from outside of Southern California or at least the large city I live in now. :)

    I thought I would also add that I met someone here earlier this year who has a very Chinese name and looks Chinese, but she was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents are originally from South China and she is fluent in Cantonese, but since she considers herself to be 100% American, it might have been awkward if I had just assumed she was from China.
     
    Last edited:

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] I thought I would also add that I met someone here earlier this year who has a very Chinese name and looks Chinese, but she was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents are originally from South China and she is fluent in Cantonese, but since she considers herself to be 100% American, it might have been awkward if I had just assumed she was from China.
    But I guess her accent in English is pretty Californian-native, so you probably wouldn't just assume she was from China, would you?

    -----------------

    A slightly different angle on longxianchen's original question: "What's your nationality?"

    In my work I come across a lot of people with dual nationalities. Sometimes that may be an indicator of 'dual' or mixed ethnicity, but sometimes not at all.

    A member of my family has dual nationality (two European countries). If you ask him "What's your nationality?", he'll usually say one or the other, depending on the context and the situation. But that won't give you much clue about his 'ethnicity' or cultural background.

    Ws:)
     

    Codyfied

    Senior Member
    For some reason I would think the most common phrase would be "What is your heritage?" That gets a pretty good conversation going about ethnicity and bloodline.

    But does that come from my being in the USA and having Native American tribes in the area? I mean, I think "heritage" seems to always have been the go-to phrase to talk about if your lineage has an Indian (Native American) bloodline. From there, it's just an easy word to use to mean, "Where are your descendants from?" or "What is your family line/ bloodline?" which can start up a conversation about a mix of ethnicity or a proud chat about being 1/4th Cherokee around here.

    For those who don't speak fluent English, I ask something close to "Where were your relatives from before?" or "Your family? Where were they before?" or "in the past" If I ask "Where are you from?" or "Where is your family from?" I get some recent city, so I use "before" and that seems to give a clue that I mean in the distant past. That leaves it open to conversation without implying that I'm questioning their "obvious" ethnicity. It might not get your answer on the first try, but it helps to open up the idea.
     

    Grefsen

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    But I guess her accent in English is pretty Californian-native, so you probably wouldn't just assume she was from China, would you?
    I believe her parents only spoke Cantonese to her when she was young so since English is technically her second language, it wasn't that easy to tell where she was from. Also after having lived in both Northern and Southern California I'm not really sure anymore what a California-native accent is supposed to sound like, dude. ;)
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American

    I wouldn't even say "What's your ethnic background?": I suspect that the word ethnic is used quite conversationally in the US, given the enormous ethnic diversity there. But over here I'd say it's used more in administrative, political or academic contexts (ethnic minorities, ethnic diversity, ethnic cleansing, ...) rather than in exchanging pleasantries with someone.


    From a U.S. perspective, I would say my experience is very similar to yours. In the U.S. also, the word "ethnic" overall has a bureaucratic, political macro feel to it so it's not the first choice in everyday conversation.

    I'm saying merely that if I must ask this question directly, I would say "what is your ethnic background."

    But in practice, I'm much more likely to use a more general open-ended question which opens the door for the person to respond with information about ethnicity or race. Where are you from? or Where is your family from originally? as you suggest is pretty much what I would do.
     
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