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Being West river

Does human friendliness have a geographical component?

Being West river

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

This morning I did child care at a Christian ministry house for single mothers with the first woman I have ever met named Marlys. She is from South Dakota by way of Minnesota, where Marlys is not an unheard-of name.

I learned from Marlys such interesting things as that inhabitants of SD and MN will greet you on the street, unlike Philadelphia pedestrians (she said), who avoid eye contact. I am used to that trait of Philadelphia. In fact, by this time it seems normal, and therefore right—like not pronouncing “r’s” in “car” and “peppers” seemed right growing up in Rhode Island, and I would even argue to defend it.

Atlantic Coast unfriendliness bothered me only one time, when I was 19 and hitchhiking back home from friendlier parts (that is, every place west and south of New England). I suddenly couldn’t catch a ride to save my life! And these were my people! But soon enough I got back to thinking unfriendliness was standard.

Now if Maine and Massachusetts are decidedly unfriendly states, and Texas and Tennessee are decidedly in the friendly column, Pennsylvania is a state on the razor edge. Every day it could go either way for you. At some times my body language is subtly more outgoing than others and an oncoming pedestrian will sense it and say hi. (Nothing crazy though, it’s still Philadelphia.)

It is important to understand the ways of the people you dwell among.

Snowstorms, particularly a first clobbering of the year, are a guarantee of convivial neighborhood relations over shovels. Also, walks taken very early in the morning; you don’t even have to wonder about that one.

In third grade, at the height of the Cold War, they showed us a picture of Khrushchev and told us that if you are a spy in Russia you had better get the details right because some American spies have been shot right there on the spot for just picking up their fork the wrong way. That’s what they told us. My point is that it is important to understand the ways of the people you dwell among.

A case in point is South Dakota. Marlys says that although Dakotans are already friendlier than Pennsylvanians, the “West river” people are friendlier than the “East river” people. How, I’d love to know, does the Missouri River have such influence on what is acceptable conversation in a Walmart?

I confess fascination with the notion of geographical bearing on human friendliness because I always feel that my friendliness quotient is a function of my personality and nothing more. I can’t imagine myself being any more or less charming in West river than I presently am.

Another fun thing to ponder is what would happen to the Linda Ruths of Philadelphia. Linda Ruth is a woman in town who is irrepressibly friendly. She can’t help it. What would be the result if you unleashed a person like that into a place below the Mason-Dixon Line? Would she absolutely explode from centrifugal amicableness? Does she perhaps even need to be in a Northeastern state just to restrain her enough to save her from herself?

There is such a thing as overdoing it. Marlys’ pet peeve with Minnesotans is the over-polite way they are always saying, “Are you sure?” I was wondering about an example, and one came very soon. She offered me her rocking chair when the baby I was holding fell asleep and became dead weight, and I said no thank you, and she said OK—and a moment later added proudly, “Notice I didn’t say, ‘Are you sure?’”

This, of course, brings up the question of the possible relativity of “rude.” Is it rude to not say, “Are you sure?” when in Minnesota? Paul urged being “all things to all men.” Should you stuff your high-horse philosophical objections and say, “Are you sure?” when offering a Minnesotan a rocking chair when he or she at first declines?

Jesus struck up a conversation with a person who was female and non-Jewish, a double social taboo. “Give me a drink,” he said. It could have fallen flat, incurred a scowl, and been embarrassing. He took a chance, though. Because sometimes when you step out of your bubble of safety, you might just win a soul for God.