question for readers – america the beautiful edition

treelightI’ve lived in four states – Montana, Colorado, Washington, and Arizona – and one Canadian province – British Columbia.  I’ve lived in big cities and small towns.  But I’ve always lived Out West.  One thing I’ve heard about Back East is that people are not as friendly there as they are here, and that human interaction is just a little less amicable.

A friend of ours was living Back East for a while and people kept asking her if she was from Out West and finally she asked why they all thought that and she was told that it was because she smiled when she talked.  My own sense, working with a number of people from Back East is that this generalization, while not always true, is certainly pretty accurate – at least of North Easterners.  I have had less experience dealing with people from the South.

Indeed, people who I’ve worked with out here from the East Coast have said that it took them a while to “mellow out” and adopt our more lackadaisical approach to…everything.  Of course, this could be more of reflection of the town I live in now, rather than the “West” in general.  Or it may be a broad truth with many exceptions.

So for those of you Back East, does this seem right?  Or am I way off?  Anyone lived both Back East and Out West that can compare?  Or better yet, in the South as well.  There’s no perceptible difference that I can tell between the Northwest and the Southwest in how people act, though I can attest to the fact that Montanans are deeply distrustful of outsiders, and that Utah feels a lot like a foreign country (as does the Navajo Reservation).

Just something I was pondering – wondering if I could ever venture east to settle or if the culture shock would simply be too much….

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20 thoughts on “question for readers – america the beautiful edition

  1. Your differentiation isn’t cutting deep enough into the meat. Urban coastal (both east/west) appear to participate in a singularly pernicious statist derailment, as if they’re seeking atonement through masochistic acts of governance, while rural coasters seem rather normal.
    I was in Salem, Oregon a few years ago and the folks were VERY nice. So nice in fact that it was a little weird; they seemed to look through you, a Stepford Wive’s disconnect. As if their serial killers, such as the Green River killer, would apologize before committing the deed.
    So, if you move it’s the midwest, either north or south, for you, dude. Down to earth, honest, straight forward, help you outta the ditch kinda folks. Also, we have more conservatives than l-l-l-liberals.

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    • A lot of people I know from the NE are from very small towns there, actually, and still operate in this very high-strung manner. I wouldn’t be opposed to the Midwest but I think my wife’s allergies would kill her. We have family in Kentucky which looks lovely. Though I think the Carolinas look beautiful.

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      • I’ve lived in Kentucky for 34 years and although I’ve travelled all over the country, there’s nowhere else I would ever want to be. My wife isn’t originally from here and she says it’s funny how we seem almost apologetic for asking for anything. If I ask a waitress to bring me something I will always add, “When you have time.” If I have to honk at the guy in front of me because the light turned green 10 seconds ago, I just barely tap it and then feel bad about it. Up in Boston you have .3 seconds to jam the accelerator or they lay on the horn with two hands. I would agree with Ryan that we consider manners to be a cultural value.

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  2. I actually think the difference is specifically between the Northeast and everywhere else. The pace of life here (I live in DC, which I’m lumping with the Northeast) is hyper-accelerated and people just don’t think they have time to be nice. By contrast, I grew up in the Midwest (which people here actually think is “Out West”, even though I’ve never lived outside the Eastern Time Zone), where people are quite amiable.

    People from the South are extremely nice people – they insist on it as a cultural value. They also aren’t particularly forgiving (on the inside) of people who are the least bit different from them (I’ve been to a few churches in the South and they are… interesting, to say the least). But I think a lot of people are intolerant of difference in their own way (I’m certainly looked on strangely in DC because I don’t really want to be a lawyer making $500,000 a year – no one understand how that could be), so maybe it’s not so bad.

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  3. I was born in Michigan, moved to New York (Mount Kisco! Fox Lane Rules!) for grades 8-11, then moved out to Colorado for my Senior year and have lived here (excepting college) ever since.

    Moving to New York was a *HUGE* culture shock. I came from a lovely little protestant suburb where we had inside voices and we had outside voices and god help you if you used the outside one inside. In New York, they only have outside voices. At all times. In Michigan, we had people who talked with their hands. New York had people who talked with their arms. For me, the difference wasn’t one of smiles (I found New Yorkers to be exceptionally friendly and open) but one of volume. My god, are you mad? Then why are you raising your voice? You’re not????

    Moving out West was another experience entirely. The volume got turned back down, for one. There’s a lot more elbow room, for another. The whole “personal space” bubble thing in New York is recognized but is recognized as being a lot smaller. Out here, our personal space bubble is bigger.

    A friend moved here from New Jersey a handful of years back and he says that what we call a street, they’d call a boulevard. Everything is so, so much bigger out here. His take on personal interaction is that everyone is so reserved. He has no idea what anyone else is thinking. He does everyone else the courtesy of putting it all out there on the table and they all sit there stone-faced.

    I wonder if it’s not an “East/West” thing as much as a “Protestant/Catholic” thing (or post-protestant/post-catholic(non-protestant) thing).

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  4. This is really funny. I remember going to New York (from the Midwest) as a child and being shocked at how friendly everyone was – anybody and everybody would talk to you. Of course, adults in New York also have no problem telling a five-year-old to fuck off, but that’s another story.

    Toronto, roughly in the same part of the world, on the other hand, is extremely unfriendly. There was a radio commercial years ago that said “We come to Toronto from around the world…To sit on the subway in silence…”

    San Francisco, where I live now, is generally friendly, but nothing like New York.

    Personally, I’ve never really felt that there was any truth to the vaunted midwestern or rural friendliness. I’ve been told to shut up while asking for directions in South Bend, Indiana; given a shrug while asking for directions in McHenry, Illinois; accused of credit card fraud guy in Ogallala, Nebraska because it was cold and my mom sat in the car while I was gassing it up; received no remedy when unnecessarily given the worst room in a hotel in both Minneapolis and Grand Forks, ND; and had waitresses in Fargo, ND refuse to wait on me and my girlfriend because I’m white and she was quite clearly not…

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  5. There’s gradations. I’m in Western PA, and if I get in my car and drive for a couple hours, then everyone around me will speed up/slow down according to which direction I drive. If I had a twin, I’d try to cause a relativistic paradox.

    To be honest, though I’ve been all over the country, I’ve never found any part of it “nicer” or “meaner” than any other–just slower and faster, with more of less the same random distribution of nice and mean people wherever.

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  6. I’ve lived all over the country and I agree it’s speed and volume much more than nice or mean.

    That said cultural differences and breaking through the insider/outsider mess is much more subtle but much more difficult to navigate than the pace or volume differences. In the south I found I always was treated with great grace but always as an outsider. Sort of how you treat your wife’s visiting friend you don’t know personally…always on your best behavior, doing everything to put that person at ease but not really being your belly scratching self. It wasn’t intolerable but it was very different than other parts of the country. I have found metropolitan east coast folks more protective than other parts of the country…they know what it’s like there and don’t believe anyone from somewhere else could possibly be street smart. When my daughter was looking into colleges we drove from State College, PA to Syracuse and the country folks of the L were shocked that we were there as seeming tourists. We were immediately identified as outsiders, not very threatening (we smile when we talk) and definitely curious as in weird curious. The city folks were much the same as West coast city folks, more detached but if engaged very friendly and helpful. West coast folks are more likely to initiate casual contact-smile at you when passing on the street, look you in the eye as without conversation, comment to you sitting on a bus. Newer (relatively) populace maybe? Less entrenched in being wary since the bubbles are bigger?

    I’ve spent less time in the Mid-West but take serious exception that they have the corner on common sense and practicality. Those traits are more a function of population mass…the more sparse the populace, the higher the level of self sufficiency.

    I’ve spent most of my living time in smaller towns so long as there was a major city close by to take advantage of. My kids tell me I have a city mode and home mode,,,,I speed up, swear more, get generally more aggressive in my city mode. I didn’t realize I was doing that but it makes sense. Navigating larger masses of humanity requires a higher level of aggression doesn’t it?

    I will give you that higher volume is largely a NE thing and I would wager largely a NY thing. When I think of it all of my NY friends speak louder. I don’t know where that comes from-perhaps it’s in the water? ;0

    I remember visiting some friends in way over the top laid back LA and being astounded that sitting on a patio at night was not restful at all. The constant noise of folks starting cars, listening to a radio/TV, shutting doors, enjoying conversation was amazing. The lots are tiny and you are literally in your neighbors backs yard with 5-6 houses bordering on your own lot. Way too many people.

    I’ll take my small town/country home with access to the culture of a city. I doubt it would be much different if that small town were in the NE or SW.

    Sorry about the ramble but you stirred good memories. Great topic.

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  7. I pretty much agree with Chiefeng. I lived for 30 some years in NJ and about 13 in Alaska. Part of difference in places is whether or not they are used to having new people move in. Many small towns/rural areas have very low population turnover so everybody knows each other which can often lead to being fearful of strangers. Cities often have high turnover so initial encounters are commonly with people you don’t know so you get used to that.

    Asking the question in terms of friendliness sort of biases the answer. People everywhere have good friends. The question, I think, is about getting to know people and superficial encounters. I have had unfortunate experiences of southerners who are the sweetest things in the world while repeatedly stabbing me in the back. But boy were they charming while doing it.

    All that said I think people are mostly the same with some local differences that are often superficial.

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  8. I’m a Midwesterner (Illinois), who attended grad school in New Orleans, where about a third of my classmates were from the Northeast Corridor. The Nor-Easterners self-reported that they were surprised how nice and laid-back the South was, and as time went on, they felt changed when they talked to friends and family back home. Of course, these were my friends; it wasn’t that they weren’t nice, but they might have been more abrupt, talked faster, been more harried, more striving . . . (I need a thesaurus)

    I personally have found from week long stays that there are some cultural affinities across the Northern part of the country (Washington, Minnesota, Maine), and less so across the Sourthern, but staying with wife’s family in Central Arizona, I did feel some of the laid-back charachter of the rural South. So, I do wonder about the impact of climate on culture or our east-to-west settlement patterns.

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  9. I’m a native North Carolinian, and we certainly tell ourselves that we’re more polite down here than Northeasterners. I haven’t spent enough time up North to say for sure, but one can certainly tell a difference between the folks with deep and shallow roots in the South here (make no mistake, central NC has seen a lot of recent immigration from the rest of the country. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 1 in 3 Winston-Salem residents were born in Ohio). I think it’s worth make a distinction between “nice” and “polite.” I wouldn’t say that we’re any nicer or meaner down here, but the culture does encourage you to be discreet about it if you think somebody is an idiot.

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  10. I grew up and went to undergrad in the South. Since then I have bounced back and forth between a San Diego and Washington D.C. – two towns that couldn’t be more different – with a few short stints in New England. My wife is from the S.F Bay Area, but spent most of her post-college life in New York City. Interestingly, while more laid back, we found SoCal to be less friendly and social groups to be more insular. Of course, our experience may have also been affected by our own introversion. Both of us prefer social life on the East Coast and actually have found interactions more frequent, more friendly (and amicable). New England is a different story. My affinity for NE sports teams notwithstanding, it seems less friendly there. Maybe it’s my aversion to the accent.
    Back to the East Coast preference, it might be that we both live(d) in very walkable parts of NYC and DC that create more opportunities for interaction, even for introverts like us.

    Despite my general ambivalence about where I grew up, I do believe people from the South are generally more polite and friendly. I think it is deeply held value that is a source of cultural pride (even if in some cases it is just a veneer).

    All this having been said, I think I agree with greginak’s final sentence.

    P.S. There was an interesting piece on NPR about cultural stereotypes, but I can’t remember on which program or when it aired. I was trying to keep from running down tourists along the Mall, but I seem to recall that it offered “evidence” to debunk the conceptions we have about cultural difference, whether trans-Atlantic or inter-regional.

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  11. I would second Tim’s comments about Southern California friendliness…which I’ve always found to have a fair degree of superficiality attached to it.

    Though, Julian’s a shockingly nice town in San Diego.

    However the friendliest places I’ve ever lived/visted are Missouri and the Carolinas (E.D., they really are beautiful, aren’t they?) I feel like New Yorkers/New Englanders don’t really deserve the bad rap they get but I think – generally speaking – they place less value on manners than counterparts in the midwest/south.

    That’s my way – I suppose – of saying that I don’t think people from the Boston-DC corridor are actively meaner just that they place less value on certain things that others do.

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