“WHERE are you from?” or “where do you come from?” is a question we often ask of others, and of course we get asked as well.

It’s usually a friendly inquiry when we meet someone, to get to know them a bit better. We’ve all been asked it and have all asked that question I’m sure.

Often the answer is not simple however. Does it refer to where you were conceived, where you were born, where you grew up, who your parents are, what your name or accent is or where you stay now?

Different people will have different answers to these questions, and of course it is up to each of us to decide how to answer it; how to define our own identity. Only you know the things important to you in making you feel who you are, and where “you come from”.

But if I was to attempt to define someone else’s identity based on the criteria that fits me, then the question “where do you come from?” could have a different connotation.

It could change from a friendly question aimed at getting to know a person, to one which potentially labels or excludes that person as “other”.

“You’re not born here so you don’t come from here”, “with that accent you’re not from here”, “with that surname you can’t come from here”, “you look different, so how could you be from here?” And so on.

Maybe in these times of increased mobility, we should reframe the questions we use and instead enquire “where do you feel you belong?”

I add the term “feel” because I believe that your identity is about your own sense of connection, not a label used by someone else, or something written on a piece of paper which didn’t have your signature on.

And that identity can be multifarious. For some the born and bred definition fits their feeling of belonging.

Others have no memory of, or sense of belonging from their place of birth, but grew up in another place which made them who they are.

Others feel they belong in different places, different countries even, in different ways, but all are equally part of their identity.

Nobody else can tell you where, or with whom, you feel you belong.

But of course people can attempt to destroy that feeling of belonging by using a label that aims to exclude.

“You don’t belong here because you weren’t born here, you don’t belong in this community because you’re different” is such a devastatingly hurtful comment simply because, as humans, we all need a sense of belonging.

I truly believe we are living in a time when the societal dry rot of intolerance and lack of acceptance is rising.

It may be true that some of our communities are more diverse than they were in generations before; but diversity itself is a good thing so it’s not the cause.

Besides, different forms of diversity have always been present in our communities, and sadly intolerance is nothing new.

But intolerance is a human cultivation, and while it always lingers it can be encouraged to grow, watered and fed by those who see advantage in the infestation of hatred it creates.

When we are encouraged to believe that certain people “don’t belong” for whatever reason, then it helps remove our empathy and human connection to that person, and our sense of collective responsibility. “Don’t care about it, they are not one of us, they don’t belong” is the message. A mother starving to death next to her crying hungry baby is just one result of this.

That image haunts me, as does the grief of parents and families who lost loved ones in the Manchester bombing.

Hatred and intolerance can manifest itself in so many different ways; violent atrocity or total lack of concern.

All this can make me feel powerless. Then I have a word with myself and remind me that I have lots of power, as we all do, to change things.

I have the power to refuse the definitions that label people as not belonging. I can have a look at myself and recognise the ways I myself judge people and change that attitude.

We can all, by the way we treat and speak to people, acknowledge and accept them for who they define themselves as, just as we should expect the same in return.

Acceptance doesn’t have to mean conformity or even agreement. We can be different in many ways, and disagree on ways of thinking, but unite in our sense of belonging – just like the stones on the shore, all different shapes and sizes, colours, types and places of origin, but all now equally part of the beach.

It kind of sounds so simple and obvious, but history has taught us that intolerance is easily and often used, so we really have to work on resisting all the time, and each one of us can have a role in this and make a difference.