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.
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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