Geography and temperament

A couple days ago I was on the phone with a friend who moved south fairly recently and was lamenting how unfriendly her neighbors were. They’d all gone trick-or-treating as a group, but didn’t invite her child along. Then she complained how no one was getting back to her to set up a playdate and she was starting to feel lonely.  Her kid is a great kid and she’s nice, so I knew this wasn’t because he’s a biter or that she gives off the crazy vibe. I comforted her by saying, “Geez, I thought people in the south were friendly and welcoming.”

I have another friend who lived in the south, and when she moved up to Boston, she was horrified by how unfriendly everyone in her neighborhood was. I imagined the neighbors driving by, flipping her the bird in the morning, or at the very least, driving over her flowers on their way home. But no. The problem was the neighbors didn’t introduce themselves and come over with “welcome to the neighborhood” casseroles when she moved in.

“People around here don’t do that,” I said. “New Englanders are reserved. They’d feel like they were interrupting or being nosy.” I’m such a hard-nosed New Englander that if my new neighbor brought me a casserole, I’d wonder if she were trying to poison me.

It’s funny the associations we make about people based on where they live. New Englanders are cold and unfriendly. If you’re from the south, you’re warm and friendly. From the west coast? A little too friendly with some woo-woo thrown in. Midwesterners, as we all know, are straight-shooting salt-of-the-earth folks. Texas? You’re in a country of your own down there. Except if you’re from Austin. Austin’s a little island of coolness. Americans make assumptions about Canadians (Mad about hockey! Like beer! They’re like Americans, but with cheaper healthcare!) In England, there’s a bit of north vs. south going on, too.

When I was India in 2008, the locals kept assuming I was British, an easy assumption given my fair skin, reddish hair, light-colored eyes, and Yankee* reserve. Plus, how many Americans travel to India on vacation? Not many. I was pleased with the mistake until I got into a conversation with a tour guide, who gave me a rundown on what Indians think of different nationalities.

“Americans,” he said, “are friendly, very kind and friendly people.” (He knew we were American. And tipping him.) “The British …” He shook his head. “British tourists are very demanding and complain about everything.”

My face began to burn here. Had I been traveling around India bitching and moaning about the spicy food? The poverty? The traffic? The heat? Suddenly I very much wanted to be on Team America, even if my teammates behave like untrained Golden Retrievers because after all, Golden Retrievers are kind and friendly. My traveling companion may have comforted me by pointing out Indians have a hard time telling an American accent  apart from a British one, and there’s that troubled Anglo/Indian history one must factor in. For the rest of the trip I tried to be more friendly and project my voice more. From then on Indians thought I was Australian.

Generalizations can be good, just as they can be damaging. For example, when I travel to England I just assume that the British are going to be more polite. Why? Because the British are polite in my mind and my assumption, erroneous or not, makes for a more pleasant trip. When I meet the occasional British ass clown, he becomes an anomaly instead of a representative of temperament based on geography.

Do you have beliefs about how people are supposed to behave based on where they’re from? Please add your comments below. Even if you’re from the south. I know people from the south talk a lot, but here talking’s encouraged.

*Note to my British readers. I know you call the whole lot of us “Yanks,” but in the U.S. a Yankee is someone born and bred in New England. Or as E.B. White said, “To foreigners, a Yankee is an American. To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner. To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner. To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander. To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter. And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.”

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