Regional stereotypes are very weird. I never have the slightest idea of what people even mean by them. They sound like they are spoken in code. Yesterday at the Christmas Eve dinner, for instance, I mentioned that I had lived on the East Coast for several years.
“The East Coast!” one woman exclaimed. “People are very rushed there.”
“Yes, very rushed!” another guest said. Everybody looked at me for confirmation.
“Rushed?” I asked, unsure of what people were trying to communicate to me.
“Yes, rushed,” one guest explained, probably thinking that my English was a little limited. “You know, rushing, running around all the time, always in a hurry.”
Everybody looked at me in eager anticipation.
I realized that people would not settle down until I confirmed this vision of rushing East Coast folks. These days, whenever I go to a social gathering, somebody always announces, “She has a PhD! From Yale! And a bunch of other degrees! And she speaks many languages! And she has lived in different countries! And she recently got a prize for her book!” After that, people look at me like I’m an oracle, speak in hushed voices whenever I enter a room, and check every statement they make against my reaction. This makes it absolutely impossible for me to contradict anything anybody says because that might carry an inordinate weight and hurt feelings. So, of course, I said, “Yes, they sometimes rush.”
To me this stereotype is extremely weird because it seems completely random and meaningless. If people were to say that East Coasters are stuck up and condescending, I would not agree with that but I’d know where this idea comes from. Rushing East Coasters, however, make zero sense.
The same thing happens with other regional stereotypes. Every time I meet a man from a Southern state, he tells me, “Well, you know what they say about Southern men!”
“What do they say?” I ask.
This invariably makes my interlocutor look confused and upset. After a lot of verbal wrangling, I usually manage to make him reveal something along the lines of, “Well, Southern men, we are not like other men, we are gentlemen.” The a new struggle over what it means to be a Southern gentleman ensues.
I have come to realize that a regional stereotype is not supposed to conceal any meaning. Its entire point is to give people a chance to say, “Oh, those Southerners / Midwesterners / East Coasters, etc., you know what they are like!” The statement means the exact opposite of what it says, namely, “I have no idea what they are like, and I don’t care to find out.”