Living in the Midwest

Although fraught with minor risks, I love it when most anyone takes on the task of generalizing about a place and its people. Such generalizations are soothing because they make the world feel more understandable and provocative because something has been glossed over.

In a piece published at Slate, Susanna Daniel writes from the perspective of an East Coaster (is Florida East Coast?) who has been living in Madison, Wisconsin for several years. Although she frames the piece as being about the Midwest, she seems to describe her experiences in Madison. Yes, Madison is its own creature, but I actually think much of what Daniel discusses rings true of the Midwest in general.

I had never considered “Midwestern” a cultural category before I went to the Philadelphia area for college. It was only after I started interacting with people from the East Coast that the category started to be useful to me in understanding why I felt different.

Daniel observes a Midwestern difference too. She hones in on reserve:

But what I didn’t realize, when I married the Midwest, was how difficult it is to be welcomed into the heart of the heartland. Broadly speaking—which is the only way to talk about this kind of thing, after all—Midwesterners are, true-to-reputation, kind and friendly, but they aren’t particularly warm. Maybe in my narrow-minded, pre-Midwestern existence, I’d assumed that “friendly” and “warm” were the same thing, but it’s a distinction I’ve found unnerving.

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 grew up in Ohio, lived on the East Coast for a number of years, landed in Madison for several years, and then ended up back in Ohio. I’ve observed differences between regions within the Midwest. There is a Rust Belt Midwest and a North Woods Midwest. There is the Upper Midwest and the Lower Midwest. There is all that land between Minnesota and the Mountain States. And there is Missouri.

They all have different inflections, but I agree with Daniel’s generalization that Midwestern people are reserved, and that that reserve has at least two manifestations. Midwestern people are reluctant to discuss deep, personal, or potentially uncomfortable issues or experiences. And they/we are nice but not necessarily warm (Daniel makes a useful distinction between friendliness vs. warmth).

Niceness and friendliness can be stifling. Although Midwesterners fancy ourselves as taking things at face value—we’re bad at irony—the niceness imperative can drive us to a place full of subterfuge and deception. Because if you don’t like someone, it’s not polite to turn down their lunch date invitation, ignore their calls, or be direct about how you feel.

But this niceness can foster a sense of collectivism, a principle that our actions should not be guided solely by self interest. When waiting for suitcases to loop around the luggage carrel at Midwestern airports, people hang back a bit, arguably more than necessary. No one wants to be seen as crowding other people or cutting in line. From my experience, people in East Coast airports care little about the appearance of politeness while waiting for luggage. If I hang back even a few inches from the carrel, I can be sure someone will squeeze in front of me within seconds.

The niceness imperative can go too far, and I have worked hard to overcome it. One memory in particular continues to be instructive. Years ago while traveling on a train in England, I happened to be sitting above a heating vent. The dry blast was making me sweat and giving me a headache. My window would not open. There was an empty seat with an open window at the front of the car, but I was paralyzed. I did not want to move because I was worried the people in my seating area would think I moved because of something they did.

I caught myself: Josh, this reserve of yours is irrational and is making you unhappy. I got up and move to the other seat, without glancing at my former seatmates. I still summon that memory when a situation at hand merits breezy self interest.

I’m open to the suggestion that my problem is an acute social anxiety–not being Midwestern. But I swear other Midwestern people have shared similar, if not as intensely restrained, versions of my train story.

I’m less Midwestern in the sense that I like to talk about feelings and ask people lots of questions, even if it feels uncomfortable. But then again I was actually born in Pittsburgh, and my family is probably more culturally Pittsburghese than anything else. The question of whether Pittsburgh is in the Midwest is unresolved.

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5 thoughts on “Living in the Midwest

  1. Pingback: Adventures in reading gay, #3 « Regular Midwesterners

  2. Thank you. Really. I need this article to help me stay sane. I just moved here from the east coast, have lived in New England most of my life, and I am having a very hard time with the people here. (I live in Minnesota). I moved here blindly with my husband, and it has not been easy. The people I work with are cold, unreceptive, take my jokes and sense of humor (which is very dry and sarcastic at times, but not rude) seriously, and the customers that I serve – forget it! They can’t even look me in the eye. I have started conversations with some people that have ended awkwardly: they suddenly get very tense and don’t know what to say, and they just don’t know how to interact.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thank you and I hope that you read this message and know that your article was helpful.

    I do have a question though –
    When does it get better?! Ever?

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