I’m an American, as I’m sure anybody who has read my blog before has probably figured out by now. One thing I wanted to address that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is just how different this massive country is from region to region, culturally. I’m not going to talk about politics too much in this post, however. As a patriotic Californian, my politics lean decisively in a left-leaning direction, and although I make no secret of the fact that I’m one of those hippie liberals that isn’t too happy with the current administration, it’s also not the point of this blog and I’m not really in it to get into an argument with somebody on the other side. So we’ll leave it at that.
No, this post is more about the more subtle cultural differences I’ve noticed when traveling around the U.S. or getting to know various people from different states and regions. One thing that people who live abroad tend to overlook is the fact that this country is absolutely enormous, and that there are 300 million very different, diverse people living here. Depending on where you go and what you do, your visit to the United States is going to take on a very different shape and you’re going to experience very different things. But that’s not what this post is about, either. No, this post is about subtle things I’ve noticed over the years. It’s sometimes the little differences that are the most striking. Granted, my experiences and observations will always be colored through Californian eyes. As a Californian, I have a certain view of the world and my view may differ significantly from the view of somebody from, say, West Virginia. Still…it’s interesting and I wanted to talk about it. So, without further adieu, here are some of the observations I have made over the years…
Accents and Regional Dialects
I watch a lot of British murder mystery shows because I really like murder mysteries and the British seem to be producing them at a higher rate than anybody else. In these shows, there always comes an episode where somebody is supposed to be an American character, and often their accents make me cringe. Ugh. Jeez. Couldn’t they have just hired an American actor? Or at least a Canadian? That person just sounds…wrong. These are the things that go through my mind every time the supposedly “American” character opens their mouth (I’m sure the British cringe just as much when we Americans try to put on one of their accents).
British people pretending to be Americans aside, we do have a pretty wide variety of accents and dialects in this country. Ask a non-American what an American sounds like, and you’ll often hear some rendition of a Texas accent, or possibly a New Yorker. I’ve also heard some particularly cringeworthy “California” accents, but maybe I’m more sensitive to it because I’m a Californian. They also seem to think we’re all loud, as though no conversation in this country can take place without yelling at the top of our lungs. As most stereotypes go, it’s an unfair assumption. There are plenty of places in this country that are not Texas, California or New York, and not everybody feels they need to be as loud as possible to get a point across. Sure, those people certainly exist, but just as many people are the exact opposite. Accents in this country vary wildly from state to state and even regionally within some of the larger states, as does language and dialect. Here are a couple fun videos I found that illustrate just a small amount of what I’m talking about…
People all over this country eat all kinds of things and it’s certainly hard to put everybody in a box. Because…you know…diversity and stuff. But there are some things I’ve noticed as well as some amusing observations I’ve made when it comes to good in this country.
Americans love pizza. Really, who doesn’t? But opinions on pizza vary greatly depending on where you are in the country. If you head to New York, you’ll hear the opinion that New York style pizza is the greatest thing on the planet and that all other pizza is inferior to theirs. They tend to be traditionalists with their pizza and prefer to keep it classic in their styles and toppings (in general). Head to Chicago, and you’ll find yourself in the midst of Chicago style deep-dish pizza. People in Chicago also stand strongly behind the notion that their pizza is, in fact, the best in the United States. In some of the smaller towns and more rural areas of the country, you’ll find less variety and will mostly get chain restaurant pizza except where enterprising pizza making entrepreneurs have decided to set up shop. Here on the West Coast, we’re a little more relaxed with our pizza. We tend to like pizza in all it’s forms and everybody has their unique preference. I’ll never forget how funny it was to see the uproar online when San Diego was named the best city in the country for pizza. Living in San Diego, however, this didn’t come as much of a surprise because damn does this city love pizza, and I’ve had some good ones! Personally, I go for pizza I can eat, i.e. gluten free pizza, i.e. pizza that isn’t going to make my celiac disease hurt for days, but that’s another story altogether.
Mexican food is another area that varies wildly from region to region. I’ll never forget going on a trip to San Antonio, Texas and sitting down at a Mexican restaurant for a nice lunch. I ordered the cheese enchiladas, an item I have ordered a million times before at a million different Mexican restaurants in my lifetime. When the food came out, however, I was surprised to see ground beef in the sauce topping the enchilada. Naturally, I assumed they had gotten my order wrong, so when I politely informed the server, our interaction went something like this…
Me: Ummm…excuse me. I think I got the wrong order.
Server: What do you mean? You ordered the cheese enchiladas, right?
Me: Yes, but there’s beef on them….
Server: Oh, honey…that’s the sauce.
Me: …………the sauce….has….beef?
I had neglected to realize that I was in Texas, a.k.a. Tex Mex territory. Texas has their own distinctive style of Mexican-American fusion food. Coming from Southern California and living not too far North of the Mexican border, I have eaten a lot of Mexican food in my lifetime, but I just wasn’t prepared for being thrown for such a loop.
Mexican food in Texas is much different than Mexican food in California, and they are both very different from Mexican food in the Northern parts of the country. Not only do we have regional differences in our own food, but each of these regional specialties are of course inspired by the regional specialties in Mexico. California is North of Baja California, so we tend to have a lot more fish tacos, ceviche, etc. while Tex-Mex is adapted from Tejano home cooking from the original residents of areas like San Antonio, Texas.
Barbecue is another food that varies from region to region here in the U.S. You’ve got Kansas city style, Texas style, Carolina Style, Memphis style, and more. Each region will argue that theirs is, of course, the best, but as a West Coast casual observer with no horse in this race, I tend to like them all, depending on what mood I’m in. 🙂
Big Cities vs. Rural Areas
I had to make this a category, because it’s definitely an area of divide. We city slickers love things like sushi, Korean barbecue, Peruvian food, and all other manner of interesting international dishes we can get our hands on. We love fancy cheeses and artisan breads. Even our doughnuts can get fancy as we tend to have a lot of hipster doughnut shops with impeccably dressed bearded men serving up foamy lattes with little designs in them alongside Tahitian Vanilla doughnuts. In rural areas, people tend to like familiar comfort foods a little more. It’s not to say there aren’t foodies in rural areas or that people in rural areas might not enjoy these foods as well if they tried them, but there definitely seems to be a focus on comfort foods such as mac and cheese, steaks, diner food, etc. in smaller towns than in bigger cities. The same is true in the cities. I have a few friends in L.A. who will only eat burgers and sandwiches….but they are a minority. And I’ll never forget the look on the face of a girl from Missouri I used to know when I suggested that sushi is delicious. You mean you eat fish….RAW? Yup. And it’s fantastic.
Attitudes and Lifestyle
This varies quite a bit depending on where you’re at. Casting aside those pesky politics, which divide us…A LOT…there are other things that vary greatly from state to state and region to region in this country. There are, of course…the stereotypes, which although definitely aren’t true of everybody in each region, do exist for a reason. For instance, people in the Northeast are often in a rush and, in general, dress nicely for work. I’ve
found this to be true. Having worked in the corporate world for the past decade of my life, I’ve talked with a lot of people from all over the place on the phone and have met with visiting business people from everywhere. The New Yorkers (and other Northeasters) definitely seem to be in more of a rush and are always wearing suits. As a relaxed West Coaster who has been known to wear sweatpants and flip flops to work, I find the go go go attitude to be a little bit stressful. But to each their own. In Hawaii, they are often on island time and I’ve definitely found this to be the case. My dad went on a business trip to Hawaii and said he had trouble getting the local workers on his project to show up on time. They just take things a little more slowly and more chill than even we Californians do.
As far as lifestyle, again, it’s hard to paint everybody with one brush, but there are definitely some regional differences and attitudes that vary from place to place. Here in California, I don’t really know anybody who is into shooting guns, for instance. Most people I know don’t own guns, and even those who do own them were probably in the military in the past or something and have like…one gun that they keep locked up in a safe somewhere. That’s not to say people here don’t own them, but most people don’t and we don’t have a strong gun culture here in California. In other areas, people love their guns and…again…politics aside….they seem to enjoy doing activities such as going out target shooting on the weekends. To me, that’s a very different activity.
There are also smaller things I’ve noticed. For instance…dogs. Here in San Diego, we’re all about being dog friendly. Do you want to bring your dog absolutely everywhere with you? To the bank? To restaurants? To the beach? Hiking? At the mall? At the grocery store? If so, San Diego is the city for you. We love dogs here, and most restaurants with outdoor patios will happily not only allow your dog to hang out, but will likely also provide them with a little bowl of water and maybe even a dog bed to chill on or a dog treat to snack on. Other cities aren’t as friendly to dogs. My friend lives in Las Vegas and struggles to find places he can take his dog along with him to. Here in California, people are pretty diligent about keeping their dog leashed when out walking and in the yard or in the house when at home, but when I traveled to the South, I got chased by angry, barking dogs that were just wandering around wherever they wanted in various neighborhoods. There weren’t too many other people out walking, and as the one lone weirdo walker through the neighborhood, I was often surprised and a little frightened. That just doesn’t happen at home. It was interesting and definitely unexpected.
We all want to be fit and head to any state in the country and you’ll find people who are extremely dedicated to getting in shape, running marathons, and all other manner of fitness activities. However, here on the West Coast as well as in some of the other trendy cities of the country like New York, etc. you’ll find that people get really specific (and spendy) with their fitness activities. Why ride a bike when you can go to Soul Cycle? Why do yoga when you can go to some fancy schmancy yoga place with some fancy schmancy gimmick? Why go running when you can do Zumba? You get the picture. It’s a little absurd sometimes, but I’m certainly guilty of it myself, and honestly…the most important thing is that you’re doing things to improve your health and fitness, so whatever works, right? Of course, there are plenty of people just out running and riding bikes, too…but the presence of fancy fitness boutiques is something I see more in the larger cities. In smaller towns, people tend to walk, play sports, or maybe run for fitness. My grandmother who lives in rural Arizona goes to the community pool to swim, and others I know tend to prefer outdoorsy pursuits such as hiking, kayaking, or cross-country skiing to get in shape.
New Yorkers tend to be a fairly fashionable bunch and dress a little nicer and more business-like than the rest of us. In a lot of areas of the South, camouflage is popular on things like pants, shirts, hats…you name it, really. We Californians like wearing workout clothes, board shorts, or sweatpants and flip flops. We also do ridiculous things like wear sandals with a jacket, because even though it’s chilly, we still don’t want to put on shoes (because really…who wants to wear shoes?). In Chicago, I found that they tend to dress more conservatively than they do here. We’re pretty free and expressive here on the West Coast, but when I visited Chicago I had people asking me where I was from. I couldn’t figure out why they kept asking until one man who worked at a gallery pointed out that the pink streak I had in my hair at the time and the funky shirt I was wearing was a dead giveaway that I wasn’t from around these parts. You’ll find a lot of cowboy boots in the Western areas, particularly Texas, but really all over the Western states like Arizona, Utah, and into the Southern states as well. But especially Texas. Maybe Oklahoma too (at least according to a friend who lives in Oklahoma). In L.A., they dress a lot trendier than we do here in San Diego, where we’re all dressed like we might go to the beach and/or take a nap at any time (even when at work. In fact, I wore sweatpants to work the other day and nobody batted an eye). Everybody has their personal style, of course, but these are just some regional differences you’ll see when traveling about the country.
Kindness and Acceptance
I wanted to put this in because I hear a lot of things online and from my international friends that they seem to think the United States is an unfriendly place for foreigners. Please, please, please don’t think that. Yes, there are some disturbing incidents that have taken place in this country. But remember that this is an enormous country of over 300 million people. Furthermore, the United States as a whole is only slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. The distance between California and New York is similar to the distance between Western Spain and somewhere in Russia. The distance between San Diego, California and Miami, Florida is similar to the distance from Madrid, Spain to Damascus, Syria. I point this out because people seem to love to paint us all with one brush, but it’s important to note that just because something bad happened in one area of the United States, that by no means is an indication of what people are like in the whole of this country. I know our current political climate is….unfortunate…but please don’t think we all hate all foreigners. Where I live, for instance, nobody would even bat an eye at meeting somebody of any race, religion, or nationality. We’re such a big melting pot and it really is an international community. Maybe they might tell you your accent is cute, but that’s about it.
That being said, don’t be afraid to go to rural areas, either. For instance, I went on a whitewater rafting trip in rural Eastern Tennessee a couple years ago. We had a Muslim couple who was visiting from abroad on our raft, and not only was our local river guide kind to them, but he also was excited to meet them as he had been studying the Arabic language and was keen to try out his language skills with him. I’ve met people in areas of the country where, as a Californian with very Californian political beliefs, one might think they wouldn’t be kind to me, either…but I find that most people are pleasant, courteous, and kind when you meet them in person and relate on a person-to-person level. Sure, you’ll find the odd crazy jerk, but those people exist in every country on Earth.
On that note, I would also like to add that even though we Angelinos (colloquial term for L.A. people…I may live in San Diego now but I’m from the L.A. area originally and I’m proud of it) have a bit of a reputation for being…well…jerks. I’m going to say that on the freeway, this is very much true. Traffic is a nightmare and going anywhere by car is beyond frustrating, made worse only by how it’s even harder to park your car and actually get out of it. This can cause tensions to rise and you’re going to see more than a few middle fingers flying in the air on the road. Ok. That’s fair. However, what is less known is that I’ve found people in L.A. to be some of the friendliest people when you hang out with them in person. People are pretty open and accepting of all kinds of different people, and since it is such a melting pot full of new people in town from all over, it’s a pretty easy city to make new friends in as well. They say people don’t get to know their neighbors, but one weekend staying with my aunt in North Hollywood and I’m meeting all her neighbors as we stroll around the apartment complex, from the very nice neighbor guy who took the time out of his day to help me get my other bag that I couldn’t carry out of the car because, and I quote, “don’t leave anything in there even for a second…there’s people on this street that will rip that shit out of your car so fast as soon as you leave you won’t even know what happened…I’ll help”, to the lady upstairs who invited us up to do some papier mâche crafts in her apartment, that friendly neighborly attitude is alive and kicking in the city of Angels.
I could go on and on and on and eventually write enough to publish an entire book on the subject, but I’ll stop here. The point is…the United States is a diverse place full of diverse people, and if you look past the alarmist reports on the news, you’ll find that most people are kind and excited to share their specific culture with others as long as you’re open and willing to partake. We may be different. We may have different accents, different political views, different food preferences, and different outlooks on life, but deep down, we’re all people. Thus concludes another (rambling) episode of cultural observations with Art. Travel. Eat. Repeat. Hope you enjoyed!
Are you an American or have you visited the U.S. and noticed the regional differences from state to state and region to region? What did you observe or what did you find the most surprising about what you noticed?