Warm(ish) Welcome

Posted by – April 30, 2011

I read an article in Slate recently, by the author of Stiltsville, who was surprised to find herself described in a review of one of her books as “a recent transplant” as she’s been living in the midwest for 12 years, 10 of them in Madison.

It was this section of her article that rang (sadly) true for me:

Midwesterners are wary of prying—they consider it impolite, even unfriendly—and they don’t readily reveal personal information. Which means they exist comfortably at a certain remove that can take years—and I mean years—to breach. When my family gets together in Florida, we share a meal, heatedly discuss current events, then retire to separate bedrooms to catch up on email. When my husband’s extended family gets together, it’s an all-day family-fest. They might not talk about much, but they truly enjoy just being together. To a coastal-hearted misanthrope like myself, it’s mind-blowing. But spending time not saying much of anything with family is one thing—doing it with acquaintances is another thing entirely.

I might find, say, having dinner with acquaintances, where the topics range from the weather to the menu, disappointing. Exhausting and depressing, even. But acquaintances are acquaintances, no matter where you live. The trouble here is the trouble everywhere: how to find close friends, how to really connect. And though I appreciate Midwestern civility (a departure from Miami, for example, where in an afternoon one might witness a fight at a traffic light, have one’s cart rammed at the store, then be persistently ignored by a waiter), I continue to wrestle with the barriers of it.

When you are both an introvert and a “coastie” (as we’re called), there’s real trouble. I generally know when I like people and feel that I can trust them, and in NYC, at least among my group of friends, sexual peccadilloes, money woes, medical diagnoses and trashy humor are conversation starters; I can’t recall ever talking much about the weather — although it may be that midwesterners talk more about the weather because there is so much more weather here (a recent day featured not just snow, sleet, rain, and hail, but thunder, lightning, and tornadoes).

That doesn’t mean there aren’t others like me; for starters, there are other transplants, other “coasties” who leap right in too. And there are most definitely midwesterners who are the NYC pilgrim sort, and who obviously understand, and even like, slightly brassier manners. In an odd way, as depressing as it was, this article was incredibly useful to me as well; I’ve felt like a bit of an outsider, but in the context she’s given me, I’m doing just fine.

But I hate to break it to her that Danskos are quite hip in NYC, especially since we all walk and stand so much more,which leads me to wonder if standing in subways close enough that we can smell each other breaks the ice much more easily than always being cocooned and enveloped in your own private car and your own private smells. I, for one, think we underestimate being both social and animals.

3 Comments on Warm(ish) Welcome

  1. AshleyP says:

    The key to understanding “midwesterners” is to understand that most did not grow up in big cities. in small towns, people are socialized to “give people their space”. In the bigger cities it is the opposite for functionality. You can’t give people space because there isn’t the space to give on a crowded bus or subway at rush hour. This translates into social interactions by people being reserved and to a coastal city slicker, it seems distant or shallow. It really isn’t; it is actually quite respectful. If you want to believe George Bush/Barack Obama is the devil incarnate, that’s fine with them. They just rather not discuss it. But they still want to be with you and enjoy the moment with you. they just don’t want to be “in your space”.

  2. Betty says:

    That’s not quite true, at least in my experience living in NYC. Personal space was highly respected as we all live(d) on top of each other. The version of “space” here in the midwest feels WAY different. Whilst it may be some version of “respectful” it really truly feels “distant and shallow.”

    I prefer the NYC version. It felt way more honest.

  3. Madame George says:

    It seemed more honest in NYC, too. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t discuss personal “stuff” because it’s often drilled into us. Living in a small city, many people fear being bandied aobut or even lynched by the rumor mill.

    My mother received a text from a woman in one of her old social groups informing her of another couple’s divorce becoming final. They are both close friends of our family. I was visibly surprised, but my mother was nonchalant. “If she had felt it was important for me to know, she would have mentioned it when she visited me last week.”

    Sigh. We so need to move.

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