15 March 2010

Confessions of a New Englander

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. For some reason, known only to God, I still live here. 

Outside New York, Massachusetts is the least-friendly state in the union. Even New York should get special dispensation because of the tiny, yet dense, anomaly called New York City, which pulls down the average of an otherwise genteel state.

New England is separated from the rest of civilization by the aforementioned New York state to the south and west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and an impenetrable barrier of snow, ice and logging roads to the north (otherwise known as Northern Maine).

Outsiders sometimes think New Englanders are rude. We’re not—not intentionally, anyway. We just have different customs than the rest of the world. For instance, we don’t talk to strangers unless we absolutely have to. Fromawayers (non-natives) take this as being standoffish, but it’s really more about efficiency in communication. We tend to speak in our own localized dialects, referencing people and places no one but we have ever heard of. If I recognize that you’re not from around here, I’ll simply avoid conversation altogether rather than having to be the one to teach you what a “packie” is, why there’s no lake anywhere near “The Lake,” where “The County” is, or how to pronounce Worcester, Gloucester, or Leicester.

Like Mr. Ed, we never speak unless we have something to say—even with people we know. In other places in the world, if two neighbors walk out the front doors of their homes at the same time, they’ll probably walk toward each other and strike up a conversation. Not so in New England. Most of us are smart enough to look out the front window first, and only step out the door, when no one is looking. If we forget, and happen to see a neighbor out of the corner of our eye, we simply look the other way, as if we didn’t notice the neighbor standing there. It’s OK though, because he’s doing the same thing. All weekend you can see folks walking sideways from their front doors to their cars, fumbling with their keys a little too much, and never quite looking in the direction they’re going.

We go through this act, with our downturned eyes and sideways walks, so we don’t have to feel guilty about not talking to the neighbors. It’s not that we don’t like them (in most cases). We’re just in a hurry. If we weren’t supposed to be somewhere else five minutes ago, we wouldn’t be leaving the house yet.

Sometimes neighborly avoidance is less benign. A New Englander will go out of his way to avoid a neighbor—for years—rather than tell her that her pink, plastic flamingo lawn ornaments are an eyesore. Instead, we’ll just stare at those hideous birds and seethe. We're seethers. We'd rather have a root canal than confront a fellow human being—at least one we have to see again. And we let all this seething bile build up inside us. God protect the unlucky soul who opens that door. Get a New Englander angry and it’s as if the gates of Hell itself were opened wide. The pent-up anger from everything, from the neighbor’s pink flamingos, to the boss promoting his nephew, to the guy who gave you the wrong order at the McDonalds drive-thru, comes shooting out like the flames of a verbal blast-furnace. We tend to reserve these tirades for people who can’t retaliate, like out-of-state drivers or spouses.

New Englanders are fiercely independent—at least we like to pretend we are. We’re reluctant to ask for help with anything. Not only is it a sign of the asker's weakness, it's an affront to the askee. You see, we're all so busy all the time, that every second is a valuable commodity. We’d rather give a major organ than an hour of our time. This is the thought process that leads most of our politicians to look at a problem and decide it’s better to “throw money at it” than take the time to solve it. In New England, where we have more money than time, it’s always easier to spend money—especially when it’s someone else’s.