December 30, 2006


The United States may be one country, but there are regional differences in culture that make natives of one region slightly out of sorts in others.

I love the warm welcome, the open arms, the fattening comfort food, and the languid lifestyle of the South. It's perfect for a holiday. But it's also almost confusing. Almost. That's right. Because half of the weirdness is the comfort. Everything feels just like home. But it's just slightly different.

People are more gentle here. They don't directly address conflict, they prefer to hint at it and smooth it over before it bubbles to the surface.

What do I mean? Well, the best examples I can describe are all rooted in subtle linguistic differences. First, there's the accent, which I, of course, have been picking up despite my best efforts. The mouth is more open. The speech is much slower. People pause between sentences and rarely interrupt each other. They stop and talk as if they have all the time in the world.

Then, there's the toned down speech patterns. Nothing is certain or definite.

When you meet someone for the first time, you shake their hand and say (slowly, while looking them sincerely in the eyes), "Nice to see you." When you see them again, you do the same thing, "Nice to see you." This neatly solves my problem with the horrid memory of names and faces, so I will consider brining this particular custom back to the West with me.

Example 2: I mentioned to friends that I'd heard that some of our joint friends were planning on coming to their New Year's Party (which the joint friends had told E's sister, who told us.) E quickly interrupted me and said that we'd heard that the joint friends were going to be contacting them about the New Year's Party. This was not the literal text of what we heard, but no doubt, it is what they meant. I have spent enough time here to know that my interpretation of the direct, literal truth will offend people by conveying a message I do not intend, so I no longer pretend to understand the subtle differences. I'm just happy when E jumps in to save my hide.

When leaving a social event, you should say to everyone, "We should do dinner sometime," or "You should come visit when you are in our area." They will respond in the affirmative. This does not mean that you intend to make plans with all of these people. Rather, it is a way of expressing affection and letting them know that you like them. To fail to make some sort of overture in this direction is often an insult.

Similarly, if you actually want to make plans with someone, you must go so far as to say, "We should go to drinks tomorrow evening." "Yes, we should, that would be great." "Okay, I'll call you after dinner." This one is complex because, particularly with younger folks, it can go either way. It may mean that they will call you tomorrow night. It may also mean that they do intend to make plans with you in the near future (the message we'd convey in California with the 'We should do dinner sometime.') What is difficult for the Californian to understand, however, is that by no means have you made any plans for tomorrow night. Feel free to make other plans. No one will be offended or consider you a flake.

The list goes on. I'm slowly learning my way around what at first glance seems exactly like the culture I'm at home in.

Towards that end, E and I've been visiting all the local sights to fully immerse me. Today's trip was to the Cyclorama. E wanted to take me as a joke because he remembered it as something incredibly lame from his school fieldtrip days. Little did he realize, it would be my favorite attraction thus far. It's so Southern, and so absolutely different from anything I've ever seen in my life that it resonated with me.

This place is different from home. It's great. I like it more with each visit and am learning to love it. But, the South has its own strong culture and a Californian default view will occasionally get you into trouble.

I imagine that's true for just about any two regions in this country with their own cultures, I just never experienced this level of foreignness in a place that was within the borders of my own country. I imagine it's because all of my other visits to regions of the U.S. have been just that, visits. But, I married into family in the South, so I'm having to learn how to behave like I belong. It's more work than I expected. But it's fun.

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