When In Rome…

Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

I just got back from Colorado and I was struck–as I am every time I visit the Midwest–by how overtly friendly the people there are.  I find regional differences in social initiation and response patterns intriguing.

My husband, born and raised in New York, tells of grocery shopping shortly after moving to the Midwest.  As he was checking out, the cashier opened his egg carton and wiggled each egg.   
                He was momentarily irate.  Why was this stranger touching his food?  It took him a moment to realize the cashier was checking the eggs for cracks.  For from being invasive, the cashier was being extra considerate.

During my recent trip I was in the hotel riding the elevator.  Another passenger on the elevator held a plate of food from the restaurant.  We were on the elevator together for exactly one floor.  During this ten second time frame she said to me, “Wow.  This is the best granola ever.  Here, do you want to try a bite?” and held out a chunk of granola towards me.

This is not the kind of thing that happens in Seattle, where the norm is not just silence on elevators, but to even avoid eye contact with strangers.   

Another example:  Shortly after moving here I had a nice break-time conversation with a woman enrolled in the same writing class as me.   She seemed interesting so I asked, 

“Do you want to come over for dinner sometime?”  Whereupon she held up both hands at waist height, waved them back and forth as if fending off a midget attacker and said,

“Whoa!  That’s too scary for me.  Let’s just meet for coffee and see how it goes.”  

Back then I simply did not understand that in places where the population is dense people are socially cautious, even suspicious.  As a result, getting together over a home cooked meal in Seattle or New York City is a progression from the more casual, neutral lunch or beverage date held in public.  

By contrast, in the Midwest dinner parties are a frequent form of entertainment.  In addition to lower population density, there are less cultural opportunities to draw people out of their homes, so there sharing a meal is part of the social “interview” process.    

I must point out here that these observations apply exclusively to city behavior and don’t even begin to address small town social norms, which are another animal altogether and include as much intense scrutiny of ancestral status as any exclusive country club membership application in the Deep South or the Northeast does. 

Many Seattle-folk are, like me, transplants from another part of the country.  Depending on where you hail from, understanding regional norms, population density and the resulting social patterns are important when seeking connection with others. 

And social connectedness is as integral to mental health as physical safety is.  Or to put it another way, friendships are to the emotions what healthy food is to the body, whether you eat at home, in restaurants…or in an elevator.

Auguste Renoir - Le Déjeuner des canotiers.jpg

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