Regional Differences

The front-desk lady at the dance studio made my daughter cry.

I was in the back observing ten minutes of a dance class I’m considering for our son (yes, this is the same son who wears a sports bra; that’s a different post), and my spouse was with our kids in the waiting area. He tells the story like this:

Our daughter asked, “Can I go back and watch the class with my mom?”

The lady answered. “No. That’s just for your mom.”

Our daughter started crying.

“Why did she cry? Was the woman angry with her?” I asked.

“I couldn’t tell,” he said. “She might have been angry, or it might just have been the accent.”

There’s something about the way people talk in central Massachusetts; they drop their r’s and seem like they’re punching with their words, no matter their mood. There are people here who I used to think were angry at me or just didn’t like me because they always sounded irate when they spoke to me. Now that I know them, I know that they like me fine and are really very nice people, they just have an angry accent. But I still have to remind myself of this and brace myself when I speak with them because if I don’t, they kind of scare me.

Apparently they also scare my eight-year-old.

I’ve lived a lot of places in the United States, and I’ve experienced a lot of idiosyncratic communication styles.

In North Carolina, people spoke nicely regardless of how they felt about you. They would pull up next to you at a light, motion for you to roll down your window, and then invite you to their church. I rarely knew where I stood with anyone, but at least they were friendly.

In northern California, people hugged first and asked questions later. They had very close personal space. I spent the first couple of years we lived in Silicon Valley thinking everyone was coming onto me.

In Utah, people would bring food whether they liked you or not. When my son was born, I didn’t have to cook for six weeks. People delivered casseroles in Pyrex dishes etched with their family name.

Location of state of XY (see filename) in the ...

Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Massachusetts is the first place I’ve lived where the default is “angry.” They drive angry, they e-mail angry, and they talk angry.

When people told me about “cold” New Englanders, I felt encouraged—people have described me as “cold” and “standoffish.” These are legitimate descriptors. Maybe moving to Massachusetts I would finally find my people. Now that I’m here, I find people less cold than just confrontational.

This isn’t everyone in Massachusetts; it’s just enough of the population that I feel constantly on guard. I try to remind myself, “this person might not be angry.” I try to look for nonverbal cues to their state of mind. Trouble is, I also find the eye contact and body language here aggressive, too. They really, really make eye contact. I look away and look back, and they’re still staring at me. Maybe they can sense my fear.

Recently a friend from Utah mentioned that I sometimes slip into the accent myself. I knew I’d been dropping r’s from time to time, but I didn’t realize that anyone else noticed it until my friend told me. I was too afraid to ask if she felt afraid of me when I did it.

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17 comments

  1. cynkingfeeling · October 31, 2013

    I had a relative move from Ohio to Georgia where he got a teaching job. His students told him his northern accent was “intimidating.”

    Like

    • CJ · October 31, 2013

      When I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, people there told me I talked too fast. I apparently got used to speaking more slowly and then had to speed up the pace when I moved to California six years later.

      Like

  2. gem · October 30, 2013

    I spent a bit over a week in Mass and had to realize people were nice, Just…..firm sounding. And your observation about Utah made me chuckle, when I had my first child, our neighbors from Utah brought us banana bread. No one else brought us a thing. I love travelling and enjoy the subtle differences in our nation, different accents and demeanors, foods, landscapes, traditions.

    Like

    • CJ · October 31, 2013

      That’s my favorite part about living in different places. I mean, if I’d not lived in Utah, I’d never know what “fry sauce” is, and if I’d never lived in North Carolina, I might never have had Brunswick Stew cooked in a kettle over an open fire. And who knew there were so many different names for a grocery cart?

      Like

  3. Angela Ryan · October 30, 2013

    I really enjoyed this post. I used to teach an Interpersonal Communications class, and I had several lesson plans on this kind of thing — regional differences in speech, dialogue, greetings, tone. Most people believe they don’t have an accent, but everyone else does.

    Like

    • CJ · October 31, 2013

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. With as many different cultures and influences we have in the United States, there are so many chances to learn about regional differences.

      Like

  4. Natalie DeYoung · October 30, 2013

    How strange! I’ve never gone through this. Life on the west coast, everybody talks the same – lazy, clear syllables and strong consonants.

    Like

  5. wcdameron · October 29, 2013

    I’m a North Carolina Boy who moved to Boston nine years ago. Are people here more direct? Absolutely. Do you know where you stand? Absolutely. People talk about southern hospitality and northern rudeness, but I have a tough time reconciling that. My husband was born here and you won’t find a nicer man and family. In North Carolina, he can’t be my husband and in fact, the people just voted to make certain he never will be there. I’ll take equality over a veiled “Bless your heart” any day. I guess it just depends on your perspective.

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    • CJ · October 29, 2013

      I think that maybe I didn’t make my point clear in the post. I didn’t mean that people actually are mean here (except when they’re driving), just that many of them seem angry when they’re speaking. For me, that ends up with the same net effect as I experienced in North Carolina: Not knowing where I stand with someone because the way they’re speaking doesn’t match what they’re saying.

      I have found many very sweet people in Massachusetts, but the barriers to getting close to them are different than I’d anticipated and different than I’ve experienced before. I think of the communication styles separately from the issues of equality. I would—and do—put up with a lot of brusqueness for the equality that exists in Massachusetts. I love being married, and I love that I live in a state where everyone who loves each other can also be married. I just need to work a little bit to get used to the rough edges.

      Like

  6. New Beginnings (@thesoupison) · October 29, 2013

    I miss the no nonsense communication style that I grew up with on the East Coast. I live on the West coast now, and sometimes the huggy personal space-invader stuff makes me uncomfortable.

    Karen

    Like

    • CJ · October 29, 2013

      Neither is entirely comfortable to me. Maybe I need to move to the Midwest.

      Like

  7. Kerry Ann · October 29, 2013

    Yes. You’ve described a certain relative of mine (who hails from Massachusetts) perfectly. Angry, aggressive, and confrontational–a far cry from those of us here in the South.

    Like

    • CJ · October 29, 2013

      Well, I didn’t mean that they necessarily are angry…just that they sound angry whether they are or not. It’s taking a little getting used to for me.

      Like

  8. Dana · October 29, 2013

    This was fascinating – I wonder what the way I speak tells people about me. I’m a Marylander raised by two New Yorkers. Angry with a side of friendly, maybe?

    Like

    • CJ · October 30, 2013

      I’m not sure I want to know what I’m conveying with the way I speak. I don’t like making eye contact and I leave seemingly random chunks of silence in conversation, so I doubt it can be anything positive.

      Like

  9. Amber · October 29, 2013

    My family is from Boston and I love that Boston accent, and yes growing up there were certain words I did not pronounce like a Californian and I was mocked by friends ( “quarter” was the big one)
    I really liked reading this

    Like

    • CJ · October 29, 2013

      I actually like the Boston accent. The Worcester accent is a little tougher for me.

      Like

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