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May 14, 2011

Bringing Rudeness and Sarcasm to a Grateful World

Bringing Rudeness and Sarcasm to a Grateful World

by Brunonia Barry

Miss Manners

I recently entertained some visitors from Colorado who, after a brief encounter with a local food service establishment, mentioned that they found New Englanders to be sarcastic. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, smiling disingenuously.

New Englanders are a strange mix of propriety, humorous subtext, and open aggression, especially in the face of anything they find pretentious or dishonest. Growing up in New England, I came to discover that you can get along pretty well by resorting to your Emily Post or Miss Manners, but that when people really began to like you, they will mock and tease you mercilessly. If a person is always polite to you, it is never a good sign.

Now that my two novels have been sold in many countries around the world, I am in communication with the various translators, and I’m finding that 95% of their questions deal with sarcasm, self-effacing humor, and mocking understatements. Making translatable sense out of tongue-in-cheek remarks is challenging enough but even more so when a culture is devoid of multi-generational taunting. Do cultures like that really exist? If so, what do they do at family gatherings?

Trying to explain New Englanders to translators has made me think about the stereotypical behavior we ascribe to certain regions of the country and how different people really are when you live among them. I have lived in many other places during my life, but the ones I know best are New York and Los Angeles.

New Yorkers are the only people in the country consistently cited as rude by New Englanders. I didn’t find them rude at all, rather I thought they were direct, which I appreciated. Once, when I first got to the city, I asked a young man for directions to Port Authority. He was patient and polite and very helpful. Then I went too far. I asked how to get to the New York Public Library. He smiled at me politely and asked, “What do I look like lady, a fucking road map?” That one had me laughing for weeks.

I have to confess that Los Angeles was a huge change after living in New York. Everyone smiled and ended their conversations with “Have a nice day.” I’m not kidding. It was the late ‘70s, and that stereotypical expression was all the rage. Between that and the beautiful weather, I saw L.A. as a very welcoming place. Never mind that my New England and New York friends told me that just because someone tells you to have a nice day doesn’t mean she’s your new best friend. I didn’t care. People seemed so happy and so nice. I wanted to stay. My “visit” lasted for fifteen years. Some of my most enduring friendships started with “have a nice day.”

If you don’t take them too seriously, these stereotypical images can engender a certain pride of place. We’re not rude and sarcastic in New England, we’re colorful, damn-it. We’ve worked hard on our image.  We’re proud of it.

So I and several of my Boston and New York friends were shocked and greatly offended at the results of Travel and Leisure’s latest poll citing Los Angeles as the “Rudest City in America.” Are they kidding? New York slipped to the #2 spot, and Boston didn’t even place in the top 5? Something was terribly wrong!

Obviously we are challenging the poll. Our reputations are at stake. With the exception of liberal politics, there isn’t much that New Yorkers and Bostonians can agree upon, but we are united on this front. My New York friends are working hard to reclaim the top spot. And the embarrassed and ashamed citizens of Boston are practicing their best insults and sarcasm for the upcoming tourist season. The Freedom Trail will never be the same!

What stereotypes does your area of the country engender? What are the people really like? 



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Canadians are known to be polite. I do find the people in Vancouver to be polite on the surface, friendly & helpful on the street, smile in passing but try to actually get to know someone or make new friends and the brakes go on. Unless you fit in whatever niche people are into (pilates/yoga/running/dragonboat paddling etc) it can be very difficult to find real friends. I am not a niche person, I don't know squat about hockey or any other sport and I don't drink alcohol. In theory I would find my peeps at the library but they are all looking at books, not looking for friends.

Come on up to Vancouver, we will help you find wherever you need to be, just don't expect to get invited into anyone's home . . . unless you visit me!

Having grown up with a very sarcastic mother, I think I would do okay in New England!

My dad's family is very "working class Chicago Irish" very loud, sarcastic, aggressive humor, slightly crude at times. They are an experience.
At my aunt's 60th birthday, my dad saw a family friend that he hadn't see for 30 years. He yelled "Sh!t for Brains" and gave her a big hug. That had been his childhood nickname for her. She gave him one back and they talked for a long time. I don't know if that's all Chicago, but I think it exemplifies a certain side of Chicago and def. says a lot about my family. . .
I live in Washington D.C. now. It's hard to peg a personality on a city where there is such a turn over of population. Yes, people are slightly less fashionable and well put together than other East Coast big cities. They're polite enough, but wound pretty tight. Of course, I grew up in a little town in the middle of nowhere, so even though I love the city, most city people seem wound too tight for me.

Brunonia, I love this!

Do you remember the little coffee shop by the high school, out the side way, Vine to Pleasant I think. There was no sign. It was in a house, just an old house. Do you remember that? The man who owned it wouldn't let any teenagers in between 11 and 4 o'clock. And if you made him mad, like by asking for a fried egg over easy, with the yellow part runny, and the white part totally firm - or something... he'd start yelling, "EVrybody OUT," before you even got to the yellow runny part. Evrybody would slug their coffee and get out. Then he'd lock it up for the day.

He had a son named Jack, but I forget his name. I don't think the place had a name. Everyone just called it the coffee shop by the high school... With that guy who kicks everyone out.

He told me to leave once, and I asked him why. He said, "Because you chew gum. And you're 13. And I don't owe you an ex-pla-NA-tion!" Everyone started laughing. It was really funny.

Stereotypes? Why, no Brunonia, honey, cain't think of a single stereotype about living in the South. Everybody admires and respects us and nobody thinks we're inbred and stupid just because we talk a tiny bit different from the rest of y'all.

Heh, heh, Margaret. My next-door neighbor hails from Arkansas, and was in the building trade for a long time. All too many people made the mistake of thinking his slow, folksy way of talking meant he was dull-witted. And my best friend's husband is from Oklahoma, and has made a fortune taking advantage of that stereotype.

When I traveled to NYC for business (Nancy M: I was also a dress buyer for three years for a retail store. Shocked?) I never found New Yorkers rude at all. In fact, once while wearing ridiculous platform shoes I turned my ankle in a chink in the pavement and started to go down. No fewer than three men rushed to help me. When I took my three daughters and my mom to NYC for their first trip there, we had fabulous experiences, partly because I yakked to people, all of whom were so, so helpful. We ended up having dinner at a usually impossible to get into restaurant one night because of a conversation with a waitress at lunch. I wanted my girls to try egg creams (which are apparently vanishing, sadly), and she asked the manager, who asked the chef, who made one for us to share. The manager sat down and chatted, then made reservations for us at Carmine's for that night.

People are people. I've learned that if you take each one individually that stereotypes are usually wrong.

I'm from Wisconsin, so our stereotypes run toward beer and dairy products. Someday, someone will create a beer ice cream float and that will be the end of us. Related stereotypes include obesity (beer gut AND butter butt) and the wearing of cheese hats.

The truth? Well, it's all true, but it isn't all true for everyone.

I am glad to hear that the Canadians in Vancouver are thought to be polite but sad to say that the ones we encounter in northern Vermont can't really be described by that adjective. Glad to hear that I'm colorful, not rude or sarcastic.

Miamah is either hot hot hot or old south transient. A nice mix of Latin passion and fury and retired people sitting on the porch.
Rudeness is breeding like mosquitoes in standing water here. What number are we on the list?

That's so interesting. People's definition of rudeness and sarcasm differs widely, no matter what city you're in. I live in a hippie suburb of LA and people sound outrageously nice but they are just blowing smoke up your ass and you wouldn't know it if you didn't live here.

This made me laugh out loud, Brunonia!

My son is going to school in another part of the country and every so often he calls saying, "I need a dose of New England snarkiness! Help me out here."

When he comes home he sighs that you always know exactly where you stand with a New Englander, and it isn't that we are less polite than other places, it is just that we are moving to fast to talk about it.

I always say we don't talk about religion, sex, politics, or money--which is why we talk about the weather all the damn time!

One time, my husband (who is not from here) was at a business meeting in another part of the country and politics came up. One young man got a bit nervous, saying they should change the subject, and my husband looked at him and said, "You must be from New England." The guy looked at him, shocked, and said, "Yeah, how did you know?"

I think Margaret has perfectly covered my stereotype free (though somewhat prone to inappropriate relationships with cousins and livestock) region. *ahem*

I think NYers are LOVELY. I hope they never stop being lovely----if you stand around with a baedeckers and a puzzled look, they HELP you. They help you BRUSQUELY , lol, but help is help. I want to visit Boston very much -- I have only been there for 20 or so sleep deprived hours at a time, on a coupla book tours.

What great stories!

Reine, I heard about that coffee shop but never went there.

Joshilyn, You're right, help is help. Regarding your trip to Boston, please put the Salem Book Fest on your calendar (September 23rd-25th). I mentioned that you might be interested, and people are swooning. Also, remind me to tell you sometime about wading through waist high water in a restaurant parking lot with three librarians from Mobile. I've never had such fun or heard such polite and creative cursing!i

lol, Margaret!

KarinNH, you're right. I still get uncomfortable talking politics, religion, and money!

Sara, which hippie suburb? I lived in Laurel Canyon and Los Feliz. And yeah, they undoubtedly were blowing smoke, but it was lovely smoke.

Xena, I think Miami is number four in the poll.

Brunonia, don't you think that, given the melting pot quality of big cities like NY, LA, Miami, Boston, et al, that any stereotypes are likely to be inaccurate? I'm always puzzled when I hear these ideas, since so many of the people who live in really big cities are from somewhere else.

Brunonia, I never thought about it but with Canadians (at least the ones I know) talking about religion is a non-issue. People are more surprised if you want to talk about religion, what for? Politics gets talked about during elections or to complain in between elections (or when the premier gets a DUI in Hawaii). People will easily talk about money, how much they make, what their rent is, what the rate on their mortgage is etc. Now, start a conversation about being union or non-union and that can get heated, politely of course.

I guess if you want to see Canadians get all het up, go to a hockey game!

Karen, Boston isn't a melting pot. It isn't even a tossed salad.

Brunonia, I'm actually not surprised you never went to that coffee shop. I mean once Sheldon brought me to the Rook, and I got to spend all my money on a fruit frappé and play chess all afternoon, well who would want to get drop kicked to Seaside Park!

I hope the Salem Book Fest is a great success. I'm sure with you there it will be. Your books are fantastic, and so are you. xo

Since Elaine wrote a book about us, I will only hit the St. Louis highlights.

We call things by the names they used to have, I-64 is called highway 40, except on the Illinois side. The Poplar Street Bridge is really the Bernard F. Dickman Bridge, the airport spent quite a bit of money and a lot of time and effort to get people to stop calling it Lambert Field. Lambert St. Louis International Airport is a mouthfull, but as the airport's PR people will tell you, Mr. Lambert hasn't grown beets there for a very long time.

Ah, in St. Louis, or if you graduated college, this is Missouri, rhymes with money. If you are from further west or cannot spell college, its Missourah, rhymes with duh. (except politicians. then it is -ee if you want a check from a St. Louisian and -ah, if you want the vote of a Boone county farmer).

Several years ago Molly and I were in Des Moines to attend a wedding. While we were there we took in an art show. We were having a little lunch at a picnic table. Another couple were looking at the tables with arms full of food, looking for a place to sit. We said, "here, join us." They did.

Then they said, "You are not from Des Moines, are you? No one from Des Moines would ever do that."

I love the comments. I personally find Southerners to be charming, and very savvy. I loved New England and would move back in a minute if I could handle the winters, and my family is here in California. I never noticed the sarcastic quality-more of telling it like it is.Thanks for explaining the people in LA. I lived the re for a year and there was definitely something otherworldly about it-maybe it was me. The rudest people in this country are New Yorkers, where I was raised. The business people I've dealt with on the phone are too often nasty and mocking. Just too many people. Now I've traveled all over with your comments-neat!

Lil, I would move back there too . . . probably to the North Shore, though - maybe Cambridge. I would just hole up for the winter.

People talk to you back east, and I miss that more than anything.

I love the South and even if no one means the lovely things they say, I love hearing them. I'd have to live there for a long time for the novelty to wear off.

As for L.A., it's my experience that people will say, "you're wonderful, you're fabulous, you're just the greatest thing I've met all year!" and then you never ever hear from them again. Whereas in NYC, they'll say, "no, no, that's all wrong, what are you, crazy?" and just when you think they hate you, they buy you a cup of coffee and you become friends.

In the midwest, people are courteous, but not extravagant in their compliments. They're as restrained as Italians are expressive, but in the end they'll be your friend for the rest of your life, the kind of friend whose sofa you can sleep on for years, with no one telling you to go home already.

As a native New Englander, I take pride in my snarkiness.

Ah Brunonia, you have described the New England I know and love so well. Thank you. I am a proud native of New Hampshire and there nothing as much fun as having friend yank your chain. Wise arse friends rule.

Karen, I do think the melting pot aspect should help, but the stereotypes persist. Go figure.

Gaylin, Bostonians get all het up over hockey, too. Never so much as when we're playing a Canadian team!

These are great comments, everyone. It's fun to travel with you today, albeit virtually.

I just remember back to the 2004 World Series. You know the one...The Curse of the Bambino was reversed with a broom?

All of the Boston fans who were here couldn't get over how nice the people of St. Louis were. The Cardinals got skunked in 4 games but we congratulated the Boston fans and treated them well. No fights, fires, or arrests. They couldn't believe it.

I had someone at the St. Louis Airport remark on how glad he was to be back where strangers would talk to each other while waiting for a shuttle -- he said that wasn't the case in the Boston area, at least not for him. Maybe I'm just oblivious, or irrepresible, because I mostly notice friendly people wherever I go, including NYC, where one rainy day I was amazed by how friendly NY men could be, but that's a story for another day . . .

This discussion reminded me of a story, which I found on my friend Jackie's site

The short tale below is an exerpt from this website -

Nasreddin Hoja was standing in a field when a passerby quizzed him, asking what the people in the next village down the road were like.
"Well, what did you think of the people in our village?" he asked the stranger.
"Block-headed, lazy, stupid and rude, if you must know," replied the traveler.
"That's probably how you'll find them in the next village, too," said the Hoja.
A little later, another passing stranger struck up a conversation with Nasreddin Hoja. He too asked what the people in the next village were like.
"How did you find the people in this village?" countered the Hoja again.
"Warm-hearted, smiling, gentle and hospitable," answered the stranger.
"Then that's how you'll find them in the next village, too."
Jill W. 11/6/09

Hi Storyteller Mary,

For me, what is fun and interesting about this blog today, is the discussion of local character and cultural expectations. I don't see its being about all individuals in a given area, but i do think the neighborhoods of Boston do have distinct character. I think we fill a need to be part of a group by identifying similarities and differences. In the extreme of course, it is harmful, deadly even. I have loved living all over our country. Yet with all my rational thinking I can't get past how easy it was for me to meet new people in Boston, and how difficult/different it is here in Tucson.. I have friends of course, but things are more planned, less spontaneous, than what I experienced in Boston. That doesn't mean I don't like it here. It just means I'm trying to find my fit.


Sandi, it's already been done...although with Guiness rather than a pilsner. I'm not really a fan of that dark heavy brew (and can no longer tolerate any kind of alcohol) but I remember with fondness how well ice cream goes with Guiness.

Well, we Bostonians will have to try harder....so, bite me and I hope you get stuck in a rotary! Thank God for snarkiness!

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