Dear Reader … I’m a Yank. It’s true. I may have sparkly blonde hair, find it easy to talk to strangers, and not assume that anyone who smiles at me has an agenda, but that’s because I’ve been living in Central Coast California for 1/3 of my life.
Here in California, when you tell an acquaintance that they’re particularly clever or sweet, they grin pinkly and do a little riff on, “aw shucks, stop it again, quit it some more,” and like you the better for it. In New England, they’re liable to lift their chins — apparently avoiding a slobbery little dog — and take it as their due … while wondering what your agenda is, and bracing to resist it.
I know this because, after living in each place for a few years and watching the expressions and asking why, I found myself doing these exact same things. (I’m not immune, but I try to be aware.)
I’m also planning to go between the mid-Atlantic seaboard and the Northeast, which I’ve done before, and that has a charming set of subtle cultural potholes of its own.
For instance, if you call a stranger “ma’am” or “sir” in Alexandria, they figure you have nice manners and relax a little.
If you do that in New York, they raise their chins (ever so slightly) and figure you’ve taken a lower peg than themselves in the pecking order; then they’re either magnanimous or obstructive, but usually magnanimous.
If you do that in Massachusetts, they look around in a flustered manner and can’t quite figure out if you’re making fun of them or are putting them on a pedestal they aren’t sure they should occupy. … Which is in interesting contrast to the reaction to compliments.
Mind you, those who know me well have it figured out: compliments are taken pleasantly and “ma’am/sir” lightens the mood. So I’m not worried.
But I am glad that California has the cultural weight that it does, because — as I learned long ago — saying in an explanatory tone, “I’m from California,” smooths out any number of cultural faux pas. And there are sooo many pas to faux up.