I first realized it when I flew home for my cousin's wedding in October: I'd never before been so happy to find myself at Newark Airport. Then it happened again as my plane landed at Logan and I walked out into the terminal. For four days I've re-entered a world of car horns and obscenities, and I've never had such a distinct feeling of coming home.
As I stood on the T this morning simultaneously cursing the group of shouting teenagers in my car and feeling immensely grateful for their existence, I began to wonder about these stereotypes of Southerners as being nicer and Northeasterners as being not necessarily mean but unconcerned with the welfare of their fellow humans. Now that I live in the South I’m seeing how much truth there is to those supposed differences, but as a born and raised Northerner I always feel compelled to defend the detachment: that’s what feels right to me, and I’d like to think that doesn’t make me inherently less nice.
What occurred to me on the T is that there’s just a lot more physical space for people to spread out in the South, and in my favorite cities (New York and Boston) there are so many more people crammed into the available space. In Nashville my apartment isn’t flanked on all sides by neighbors, and it’s more than spitting distance from the building next door. When I go to the far side of town (which is much farther away than the far side of Boston), I get in my own car and have however many cubic feet of space (and sound and attempt at thermal regulation) all to myself. In Boston you’re constantly surrounded by people – roommates, upstairs and downstairs neighbors through thin ceilings and floors, next door apartments with windows so close you could reach in from your room, jam-packed subway cars and buses, sidewalks full of pedestrians – so in order to maintain any sense of personal space you have to manufacture it for yourself.
Northeasterners are “mean” simply out of self-preservation.
It’s not that someone from Boston necessarily cares any less about other humans, but if you let concern for others surface even half the time you’re in close proximity to other people you’ll be completely overwhelmed by caring for a vast sea of humanity. In Tennessee it’s much easier to attempt connection with a large percentage of the people you encounter because on any given day there are so many fewer people who will come close enough to your personal space for interaction.
Obviously not everyone responds to these situations according to the stereotypes, but I think that if you grow up in the Northeast then you are much more likely to develop the apparently prickly exterior necessary to preserve some semblance of personal space, just as if you grow up with a lot of siblings you tend to be aggressive about staking your claim on things you want (lest someone else get there first). Yes, some people find themselves better suited to the environment opposite that of their own childhood, and some people feel equally comfortable in both sorts of places.
I think I’m a true Northeasterner in this sense, which is why I feel so at home when I’m surrounded by people who will honk and swear and cut you off without thinking twice. To me that’s just how you stake out your space in the world. My subconscious definition of "home" seems to include dense population and the attendant survival techniques. But defining "home" is another story for another day.....
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