Regional culture

Ahead of this year’s SIETAR USA conference in San Diego, here’s a piece on U.S. culture, with a spotlight on regional differences and biases. We’re looking forward to seeing our friends and colleagues from every part of the country next month!

What is U.S. culture? From a macro perspective, we have certain traits which distinguish us from the French, Japanese, Iranians, and Bolivians. In particular, we tend to be individualistic and egalitarian, work/action-oriented, driven by a need to succeed, and concerned with not wasting time. Yet on a micro level, underneath those generalizations, there are abundant differences between racial and ethnic groups; religious traditions; urban, suburban, and rural lifestyles; and regional cultures. Today we’ll take a brief look at the last one.

Regional Divisions

One of the major cultural divides in the U.S. is between regions. Officially-speaking, we have the main Census Bureau-designated areas of the Northeast, SouthMidwest, and West. However the more you zoom in, the more additional cultural fault lines start to appear. It means something different to be from The Great Plains than the Upper Midwest, from the Deep South than Appalachia, and from the Pacific Northwest than the Southwest. We also have areas that may not be physically connected, but are linked in the national consciousness. For example, “The Rust Belt” is less a place than an idea: the former centers of industrial output from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis and Detroit, now (so the stereotype goes) rusting into oblivion. Or “The Sun Belt” – a new promised land stretching from California to Florida experiencing population growth due to its climate, cheap(er) housing, and “resort lifestyle.”

What does this mean for interculturalists? According to scholar Larke Nahme Huang, identity is formed both by our perceptions of ourselves and by others’ perceptions of us.  When the two are not aligned, we experience identity conflict. Using her idea, it is possible to see that this happens not just with people, but with regions. And in the vast U.S. – the fourth largest country in the world by area –  our stereotypes of other parts of the country rarely match how people in those parts see themselves.

“Flyover States” and Cultural Gradients

For example, whereas the Midwest and South see themselves as bastions of traditional values and a place where “real” American life takes place, coastal professionals derisively refer to the entire middle of the country as “Flyover States.” The perception that there is so little of worth between California and New York is acutely felt, and as this country music video shows, the huge swathe of the country in between the oceans does not care for being so easily dismissed.

To be fair, New York and Los Angeles rank in the top six global cities based on GDP, and much time is spent flying between them. With a distance of about 2800 miles (4500 kilometers), driving would take at least 40 hours and would therefore be unreasonable.  But it’s more than practicality that informs this view. There is an assumed cultural gradient at play, too.

We first heard this term in Poland, where it was used to describe the Western European bias that the pinnacle of culture was in London or Paris, with an inexorable downward slope as one headed east. Something similar can be seen in the way that New York dismisses everything west of it. Closer geographically and culturally to London, the Big Apple views itself as a paragon of culture, west of which civilization declines.

Indeed, the East’s tendency to refer to anything west of the Mississippi River as “Out West” implies a vast, empty, and wild frontier. Despite the reality that many of the country’s major cities have been flourishing here for over a century, they are seen more like temporary boom towns or crass sprawls rather than cosmopolitan centers worthy of the name “city.”

Angelinos are particularly resentful of this bias. In a Buzzfeed post one proud resident takes New Yorkers to task for critiquing everything that Los Angeles is not, and entreats them to stop judging it by the extent to which it mirrors New York. “Los Angeles is not like other places . . . That doesn’t mean it’s awful, it means it’s different.”

We all do it, but …

To be fair to New York, nobody is immune from unexamined biases.

We have had people in Portland, Oregon – a city that sees itself as a big hug of tolerance – get on their high horse and lecture us about Arizona. We also had folks in Minnesota ask if we grew up covered wagons, lived on sand dunes, or had ever seen snow.  They also looked at us squarely and stated (directly for Minnesotans!) that “the Southwest was no place to raise a family.”

Yet when we went to Atlanta, we could not get over the fact that it was a sparkling, modern metropolis. (We’re not sure what we pictured – something more like this country song, perhaps). Similarly, having never spent time in New Jersey besides flying through Newark, our only reference point is The Sopranos.  Surely, someone else lives there besides HBO Mafiosi, right?

While sometimes insulting, these assumptions reveal more about the ignorance and arrogance of the person making them than they do about the place they are judging. The truth is always more complex than a postcard or a popular TV show would imply. Rather than dismissing everyone south of West Virginia as hicks and rednecks, or assuming all New Yorkers are rude, how about getting to know them? You might discover that there’s even something you like about another regional culture. As Chimamanda Adichie says, we would all do well to remember that each place has more than one story. Even flyover states.

Would you like to get acquainted with U.S. culture? We can help you understand regional differences - especially in the Southwest, Midwest, and South where we have lived. Let’s talk!

Further reading:

Huang, L. H. (2006). An integrative view of identity formation: A model for Asian Americans. In Race, ethnicity, & self: Identity in multicultural perspective, 2nd ed. (E. P. Salett & D. R. Koslow, Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Multicultural Institute Publications.