Monday, December 25, 2017

Compare and Contrast Midwestern Interrogation with New England Nasty

By Upper Midwestern standards, I'm a grumpy and reserved person. Over the years I've gotten more than a few comments from coworkers and classmates that their initial impression was that I was uptight, prudish, disapproving, and unapproachable. Why? "Because you dress so nice and buttoned up, like a librarian. You keep to yourself and sit up straight. And you always walk so fast, like you're on a mission!" one person told me. "But then I got to know you and found out you were cool! I never would have guessed!"

If I'd known all this time that slouching is the key to looking cool...

Midwesterners are often thought of as nice, friendly, and polite. Of course if you ask a Midwesterner if the locals there are nice and friendly, they'll say, "No, ya got all kinds a mean people up here; someone just stole my hodag/Bigfoot lawn ornament yesterday, gosh darnit."

Because when you grow up there, you don't really notice how chatty everyone is, the same way that fish probably don't notice they're wet.

Whenever I'm back in Wisconsin, I prefer to stay home as much as possible because being out in public means some stranger somewhere is going to get really personal, for no apparent reason. If you leave the house and pass a neighbor on the way, they'll ask where you're going and why, and if you're not smiling, you will be admonished to smile. If you greet someone you barely know with a standard "How are you," they'll dive into a play-by-play of their entire day including the results of their recent biopsy. Cashiers want to know why you're buying the product you're buying and will freely judge whether you really need it or not. If a cashier at the liquor store sees your driver's license is from another state, they'll want to know why you're here and how long you lived in that other place and why--for work or school, and what workplace and which school and how long did you attend? If you simply check your oil at a gas station, two or three random people will stop and ask if you need help and tell you what dealership their cousin works at and where you should buy your next car. If you're staying in a hotel and someone in the next room hears you cough, they'll come knock on your door and hand you aspirin and lozenges. If you have even a small bandage or scar, people will ask you what happened and will gladly get into an entire medical conversation unless you stop them. Strangers passing in the street, especially those older than 30, will smile or nod as they pass you, so if you see someone coming, you prepare for eye contact and a little smile and possibly a spoken hello.

If there's any small detail about your appearance that's broken or unusual, you have to mentally prepare a statement "in case anyone says anything." Because people will say something and ask a bunch of personal questions and either wrinkle their nose or offer "help," i.e. unsolicited advice.

Midwesterners believe that not offering help to a distressed person is extremely rude, and likewise that having to ask for help is an affront, because someone should have noticed and offered before you had to ask. People will hint that they need help with something, wait for an offer, and if none arrives, struggle alone. Or, as a last resort, offer beer to get people's attention and assistance.

This is partly why Midwesterners are also perceived as passive-aggressive:

Subreddit: "why are people in the midwest so nosy and phony?"

Midwesterners don't mean anything by those social interrogations. They're not trying to pry. They're trying to be friendly and caring and helpful. Once they get rolling with the chatter, they get carried away and can't stop. It doesn't mean they want to be your friend or even that they'll remember anything you told them. There's a good chance they won't talk to you much after that or invite you to hang out.

Even though I know they don't mean anything by it, it still makes me feel violated and steamrolled. 
The reason for the chatter might be a holdover from the old days when harsh winters demanded that people heavily rely on each other to survive. That can still be the case out in the country with a dead car battery and no cell phone reception.

If you grew up there, you don't think anything of this frivolous chatter between strangers. Like driving your car across a frozen lake, stopping at a gas station with a large cheese display, or stuffing your anger down further and further until you explode, it's totally normal. You think that's how life is everywhere. But once you leave the region and live elsewhere for a while, you realize that, wow, the cheese elsewhere sucks AND wow, I'm actually not an introvert. The Upper Midwest is just overly friendly and open and...invasive and nosy.

To be clear, I like civility and manners in the street. I like when cashiers say hello and when waiters ask if I'm ready to order. I like a warm welcome and a handshake during work introductions. But I don't like prying questions and unsolicited opinions from people I hardly know. I don't like getting ensnared in superficial friendships; I prefer the gradual approach, where people first connect over humor and non-personal subjects, then slowly build trust over time to the point where personal questions feel loving and caring and not intrusive.

That's my ideal, but I admit it's hard to deflect when you have some innocent-looking Midwesterner up in your grill smiling and asking personal questions, because you know that in this culture, you're supposed to go along with the personal info blitz. Resisting a social interrogation is considered rude. It makes you the uncooperative one who doesn't play nice with others. It makes you the one who "keeps to themselves."

By Upper Midwestern standards, I'm that quiet, unfriendly girl who's uptight and reserved. I keep to myself because the interrogations are a bit much for me.
Over the years, I've lived in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio) but also Hawaii, Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, and also Germany. There was one American region I hadn't tried yet that seemed exciting: the Northeast.

New Englanders have a reputation for being blunt and rude, and I thought I'd fit right in. That'll be nice--people saying what they mean and being able to go from point A to point B without random strangers interrogating me, I thought.

I moved to Worcester, MA on Labor Day weekend 2017.

Let's talk about that name real quick. If you mentally break the syllables into Wor/cester, you'll say it wrong.

If you follow British naming conventions and mentally break the syllables like Worce/ster, it's easy to say it right. "Worce" is pronounced like "worse."

Now say "Worce-ster" with a British accent and you get something very close to "Woosta" which is what the townies call it. Though most locals say the final 'r' so you get "Wooster." 

This stuff is Worce/ster/shire Sauce.

Now add the British accent: WUSS/ta/sher. Only three syllables:

I repeat: WUSS - ta - sher. Only three syllables.

ANYWAY, I arrived in early September and applied for three jobs and was immediately offered all three. Knowing MA is an expensive state, I accepted them all--two pizza delivery jobs and one shelf-stocking job. Once I was employed, I searched for a place to rent.

I already knew that housing was mostly unavailable and unaffordable, but I tried anyway. And naturally, potential landlords wouldn't return my calls. Although one of them actually answered the phone and his first and only question was, "How long have you been in Mass?" "Two days!" I said cheerfully. "Yeah, I'll pass," he spat, and hung up on me.

I have a lot of things that landlords typically like--employed, single, female, nonsmoking, clean, quiet, pet-free, kid-free, always pay rent on time, always give proper notice to vacate, have never been evicted or had a security deposit withheld, plus acceptable credit and no criminal record. Previous landlords gush about how lovely a renter I am. This guy didn't want to know about any of that; apparently all he cared about was whether I was a local.

Welcome to MA!

A couple days after I arrived, I stopped at a little independent cafe for lunch. I was the only customer there, and the clerk, a man in his 50s or so, stood behind the counter about 3-4 feet away from me. Facing me, but looking down at some papers and ignoring me. Didn't nod, look up, or return my hello. I looked over the menu for a few minutes, and he didn't say, "I'll be right with you," didn't ask if I had any questions, didn't tell me about any specials, and didn't ask if I was ready to order. He continued to ignore me. I patiently waited for him to come over to the register and take my order. Then another customer came in and asked if I was in line, and finally the clerk looked up and came to the register. Didn't say a word. I politely told him what items I wanted. Still not a word. Didn't tell me my total or anything. I handed over a few bills and he yanked them out of my hand and threw my change on the counter. Didn't tell me what my change was or quickly count it out. "It'll be 15 minutes!" he snapped.


And the food was terrible.

Meanwhile, being the new employee at three workplaces, I did (what I believed was) the professional thing and introduced myself to all my coworkers, smiled, greeted them every day, and kept all questions work-related. I worked harder than required and kept a positive attitude. Sometimes I tried to joke around or talk about world events.

All of which was met with frowns, stony stares, and being ignored and snapped at numerous times per day. All day. Every day. Day after day. For weeks. At all three of my jobs. The majority of my coworkers wouldn't look at me or acknowledge my existence unless I made a minor mistake, like daring to speak to ask a necessary question, at which point they'd growl and snap at me. One morning I stopped for a moment to look for shelf parts at the stocking job and the manager came up behind me and slammed her hand into a drawer just inches from my head. "YOU NEED THE 12" HOOKS!" she shouted, and stormed off.

The pizza places were strangely quiet and somber much of the time, usually only the roar of the ovens breaking the silence--the total opposite of the Florida and Wisconsin pizza shops I worked in, where my coworkers and I would work hard but also banter and sing and play pranks. There was a noticeable absence of smiling, laughing, joking, and teasing at these MA jobs. 
One day I stopped at Payless for work shoes and when I was about to pay, a mother and her preschool-aged daughter came in. The little girl approached the cashier and said, in her adorable squeaky little girl voice, "Where are the kiddos' shoes?" The cashier glanced at her with a look of disgust, then ignored her. Not a word, not a smile, not a finger pointing to the children's shoes, nothing. Again the little girl asked, "Where are the kiddos' shoes?" Again the cashier ignored her. Finally I smiled at this little girl and said, "They're right behind ya, darlin'!" Her mother then scolded her daughter with an angry hiss, "Don't talk to people like that!"

Another day I was behind an old man in line at a gas station. When he walked up to the counter, the Indian attendant said, "Hello sir, how are you?" and the old man angrily barked, "None of your business!"

As December approached I saw one of those Salvation Army bell ringers at the mall. Except she wasn't ringing her bell, just wearing a red vest and standing awkwardly near her red metal bowl hanging on a hook. I was the only one around, and as she saw me coming, she looked away, then turned her body sideways, away from me. Didn't start ringing her bell, didn't make eye contact, didn't greet me or wish me a Merry Christmas, didn't acknowledge my presence or ask me to donate to families in need. Nothing.

Every single day was like that, without exception. I truly mean that not a day went by without 2-3 people snapping at me like the examples above, or being in the crossfire of people snapping at each other.

I often fought the urge to explain basic social skills to MA people, like, "When someone compliments you or does you a favor, say thank you." Or, "When someone says 'hi,' don't stare at them and frown. Say 'hi' back or just nod." Or, "When you're a cashier, the least you can do is tell people their total." Or, "When a customer approaches your register, don't get snappy and say, "That's it??" Say in a pleasant tone, "Did you find everything you needed today?"

"Do you think people are reacting poorly to your hair wrapping?" my best friend back in WI asked.

The unfortunate truth was that I had temporarily stopped wrapping. Mostly because I was just too drained from working manual labor 70-80 hours a week, and because two of my three jobs required wearing a baseball cap anyway, and by this time I'd given up looking for a place and was sleeping in my car, so I didn't have the time or space to keep my scarves and head undergarments clean and organized. My work day sometimes started at 4pm and went to 9:30-10am the next day, with one 1/2-hour break. I was running on fumes. There were no brain cells left for wrapping, or caring about anything besides getting from one job to the next on time and in the correct uniform.

So wrapping was not the problem.

The problem was that I was waaaaaaay on the other side of the social extreme. I'd spent the summer in my overly-nice Upper Midwest hometown, and now I was squarely in a place where pleasantries = stupidity and dishonesty.

By Midwestern standards I'm taciturn and standoffish. By New England standards I'm invasive and nosy and the creepy smiling village idiot.

I wondered which places in the US, or around the world, were in between. In what cultures are people expected to be courteous without being aggressively nosy? Does it really have to be one extreme or the other?

Florida was in between. Beautiful, sleazy, pick-pocketing, geriatric Florida. I love you, Florida!

I told myself that I would get used to the cold and nasty behavior of Massachusetts, that I would grow to appreciate it and that it would take time for me to feel at home. I tried to remember why I moved to MA to begin with and tried to understand the New England 'tude through people-watching and carefully listening to nuances in others' conversations (not that I could get anyone to have a real conversation with me). I read essays and forums like this one and this one to understand the rationale behind the relentless belligerence. I asked others who had spent time in the Northeast if I was just imagining things.

If you didn't read those pieces I just linked to, the idea is that New England people are in a hurry in a crowded place and don't have time for fake pleasantries. They ignore people who are in distress because they believe the distressed person wants privacy in a public space and will ask for help if needed. And it may take a loooooooong time to be accepted into the neighborhood, but once you're in, you're in, and they'll be your friends for life.

I tried to get on board with that model, I truly did. Like I explained above, being socially interrogated by a Midwesterner often does feel like an attack with a smile. But you can't tell me the only alternative is to be nasty and snippy and humorless 24/7/365, or that hazing should be a prerequisite for friendship. I don't think exchanging a few lines of neutral, non-personal chitchat is fake. Acknowledging the existence and dignity of a fellow human is called being civilized. It can also be unexpectedly helpful. For example, a quick exchange with a gas station attendant can result in them offering you important info on road closures or construction nearby.

So there I was, working crazy hours with no days off for 9 weeks straight, sleeping 20 minutes between shifts, and lucky if I got 5 hours of sleep a week. I was stressed and exhausted and holding myself together with string and duct tape. I was crushingly lonely and desperate for a kind word. Each day, each hour, dragged and dragged. It was the slowest hell I've endured in ages. It went by so slowly that it changed my overall perception of time. Months felt like years. Days felt like weeks. Seconds felt like hours. I felt like one of those Tolkien Elves who'd been alive for 6,874 years.

Like a good Midwesterner, working my fingers to the bone.

I don't know if anyone noticed I was living in my car (or is it "living out of my car"?) and showering at the gym, but if they did, no one said anything, and that actually was a small comfort. Living in a vehicle is taboo and I didn't want to talk about it and be judged and criticized or, even worse, pitied.

That tiny comfort wasn't enough to override the nasty, though.

I was too tired to remember why I had moved to MA to begin with. My journal notes were half-hearted and unconvincing. Something about history and art and culture...? I have no idea. I think it was because I was in a temp living situation immediately prior to that and I didn't know where else to go when it ended.

My first visit to Boston in 2013 was fantastic. I had a blast. Probably because I was too busy sightseeing to notice or care whether people were being unnecessarily nasty, or to notice that the roads were so dangerous, winding, hilly, unmarked, and poorly designed, and the drivers so consistently aggressive. But after three months of delivering pizza in Worcester and Framingham, stocking shelves in Northborough, and rotating between five Walmart parking lots to nap, I still wasn't comfortable with those dangerous roads.

Typical right turn in MA.

By November I'd saved enough money to comfortably leave, so I put in my two weeks' at each of my jobs.

The manager of one of the pizza parlors, who usually frowned at me and spoke to me like I'm an idiot, said, "I'm really shocked and upset by this. You're the best driver ever. Even [the district manager] heard good things about you. We just love you! I'm putting you in the system as 'highly recommended for rehire.'"

Several coworkers at both pizza shops seemed concerned that I was leaving, and two even complained about it numerous times. "I thought [the manager] was telling me [you put in your notice] just to make me mad," one said. "You're seriously one of the best people I've worked with."

Just to clarify, in the pizza delivery business, the achievement bar is pretty low. If you show up for your shift sober, answer phones, take orders, correctly make and cut simple pizzas, and take deliveries to the correct address without throwing food at customers or forgetting any drinks or dipping cups, you're seen as a superstar.

Despite my "pizza achievements," for those three months nearly every coworker had, in their New England Nasty way, given me the steady impression that I was unwelcome, a nuisance, an irritant, a bumbling oaf who they wished would just disappear forever. There was no evidence at any point to indicate that I was a valued member of the team. So I was really disturbed and confused when I put in my notice to leave and people started fussing--people who had either snapped at or ignored me for months were suddenly looking at me with sad, wet, puppy dog eyes. Why are you leaving us? You're such a good driver. This is hahhhrrible.

Gosh, I don't know. Maybe if you had responded at least one of the 30 times I said hello or goodbye to you, or you hadn't snapped at me for every minor klutzy moment or honest mistake, or you had spoken to me in a civil or professional tone at least once, you know, maybe I would have put more effort into finding a place to stay and settling in for a bit.

It's been said that New Englanders make New Yorkers seem like sunshiny, happy people. And I was going to say that if you grow up in New England, you probably don't notice how frosty and cold people are--that whole "fish don't feel wet" thing.

But given the fact that they call themselves "Massholes," whether it's a joke or not, it seems they do knowingly prefer to be nasty for no reason at all to people who have done nothing unkind to them. They insist they'd rather deal with others who are mean and honest than with those who politely hide their feelings. But why does one have to be nasty to be honest? Can't one be neutral and honest? Nobody likes being lied to, but who likes being snapped at for nothing? Why are "mean and honest" and "politely hiding feelings" the only options? Much like the question of whether we'd rather work with someone who's nice and dumb than someone who's mean and smart. Why are these the only options? Why the false dichotomies?

Right before I left, I spent a day in Cape Cod, and that was...meh. Full of houses that looked the same. Reading about Cape Cod history is more interesting than physically going there. 

Not bad, but not breathtaking like Florida.

The tour of the Lizzie Borden Museum in Fall River, MA was a good time:

And Newport, RI is pretty tight. I then stopped in Mystic, CT to get pizza from Mystic Pizza. Results: flavorless, oily cheese and a weirdly bitter crust. Blech.

My work was done. My sightseeing was done.

I left Massachusetts on December 1.

Stay tuned for the NYC-Philly-Phoenix adventure I had in December!

In the meantime, here's a nice, cheerful travel poem by my friend Ed:

Gaily bedight,
   A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,   
   Had journeyed long,   
   Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

   But he grew old—
   This knight so bold—   
And o’er his heart a shadow—   
   Fell as he found
   No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

   And, as his strength   
   Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—   
   ‘Shadow,’ said he,   
   ‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

   ‘Over the Mountains
   Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,   
   Ride, boldly ride,’
   The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’ 

--Edgar Allan Poe