The Bostonian personality

Commented to a friend from Kansas this morning that she really ought to consider moving out here, as her personality would fit much better in New England, which led me to muse on one of my favorite muse-snacks, the Boston personality. Here’s what I see, almost 20 years after I made the move from the Midwest myself:

Bostonians value honestly over tact and would rather discuss their opinions than their emotions. We expect people to have some kind of clear identity, whether it’s ethnic, professional, religious, or whatever. We have an innate understanding of multiple intelligences. This moderates the intellectual snobbery people expect from the city, although it also means, in practice, that most of us are easily intimidated by each other: I’ve seen physicists scared of actresses, lawyers intimidated by chefs. We have no ability to move through space in a coordinated and efficient fashion, whether on foot or by car or bike, in striking contrast to New Yorkers, who navigate their city like schools of fish. Despite our terrible street signage, Bostonians place a high value on information and think that giving people the full and accurate intel to make a decision is an important etiquette practice. (The homeless people have more informative signs in Boston than in any large city I’ve been to.) We are somewhat antisocial, although to us it feel more like respecting other people’s privacy, and avoiding the awkwardness that we secretly believe is inherent in every social interaction. (It’s no coincidence that half the cast of “The Office” came from Newton.) Bostonians will ghost at a party because we don’t want to put the host through an awkward goodbye when he’s deep in a conversation about string theory or the Sox with another guest.

What do you think? Am I right? What would you add?

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8 Responses to The Bostonian personality

  1. Chenoameg says:

    “Bostonians place a high value on information and think that giving people the full and accurate intel to make a decision is an important etiquette practice”

    Yes! I’m a “native” Bostonian (a couple of generations in Hyde Park; I grew up in Dedham, went to one of those institutions in Cambridge, now live in Somerville.)

    This explains why I found it so deeply offensive that few of the signs and announcements at the San Diego airport were in Spanish. I feel like Logan has a lower percentage of Spanish-speaking passengers and a higher percentage of multilingual announcements.

    I also feel like placing moral value on thrift is a Bostonian/New England trait, but maybe I am a few generations behind the times.

  2. Deanna says:

    “New Yorkers, who navigate their city like schools of fish.” This is completely true. Also, people actually listen to others because you never know when 1) they will teach you something (everyone here is a learner or a teacher) or 2) that lady at the farmer’s market used to run a non-profit doing just what you need done. We are great networkers and great re-inventors.

  3. Richard Nanian says:

    I grew up outside of Boston, did my Ph.D. in Milwaukee, and have lived in northern Virginia (outside of D.C), which isn’t really the “south” per se, but I’ve traveled enough to know the culture.

    People say Bostonians (and northeasterners in general) are unfriendly, whereas people in the midwest and south are more welcoming. I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I think making a friend anywhere takes the same effort; what changes is the point of resistance.

    Bostonians are superficially unfriendly. You can be around them for months without ever receiving an unsolicited hello, let alone finding them initiating a casual conversation. However, once that initial coldness is breached, I find the interaction proceeds quickly. In other words, you might wait months for a “How are you?” but then you’ll fairly quickly be invited over to the house.

    In the midwest, people are remarkably friendly and solicitous in their daily lives. When you move there, you find yourself thinking, “Wow, people are so nice here!” at least twice a day. If they can do something for you, they will. But as the weeks go by, a Bostonian like me will start to wonder why all that niceness never leads to anything beyond superficial pleasantry, and why the willingness to do something for you doesn’t automatically translate into a willingness to include you in what they’re doing. (In Milwaukee, I found the one exception was drinking, which people are always willing to do in a group, but which doesn’t really count.)

    Southerners are even more initially outgoing. They’ll greet you with a big smile, call you “hon,” and invite you over at the drop of a hat. You’ll think you’re getting along swimmingly. And then you gradually learn that “hon” would be more accurately translated as “honestly I don’t think all that highly of you” than “honey,” and if you ever hear a phrase like “Well, aren’t you precious!” “Bless your heart!” or “How nice for you!” — run.

  4. Robin says:

    Richard, I completely agree! I think Midwesterners are extremely conflict-averse (as opposed to New Englanders) and so they’ll tend to avoid anything potentially controversial or off-putting for simply ages. Whereas the New England ethos tends to be more of a “take me or leave me” kind of thing. My parents were New Yorkers, so I grew up aware of the difference between their friendly and polite, but somewhat more in-your-face ways, and the diffidence of our neighbors.

  5. redheadedgirl says:

    As a born and bred Minnesotan (but living in Boston for 11 years now), the Minnesota Nice thing comes from many of our ancestors coming from a really inhospitable place (and moving to an equally inhospitable place), where the superficial pleasantries equate to the law of hospitality- you shouldn’t let your neighbor freeze to death if you can help it. But you don’t have to LIKE them. And the conflict avoidance comes from months of not being able to leave the house or farm- you just need to get along.

    I don’t find it that different from the New England coldness, honestly- there’s still that barrier to break through before you become actual friends, as opposed to nodding/”Cold enough for ya?” acquaintances. It’s just that the barrier looks different.

  6. MK says:

    I find that the lack of superficial politeness here suits me much better than my “native” midwestern roots might suggest. I’ve also lived down south, which I found intrusive, and in the Pacific Northwest, which was fine, but much more casual. No one bothers me when I go to Boston, and as long as I’m not driving (and hence in need of street signs, which are nowhere in Mass), I find the meandering chaos quite lovely.

  7. Jonty says:

    Fascinating discussion. As a brit, I’m constantly refuting perceptions about people’s being cold. I have an inherent mistrust of the southern style of communication you describe with the “hon” and “sugar”. With me it might take a while but you are a friend for life and I’d never pretend to be someone’s mate unless they were. I used to live in southern Europe and it came as a huge shock to me how ruthless people could be while pretending to be your friend..I’ve heard that phenomenon described as “peaches” and “coconuts”, i.e.. soft/hard on the outside, soft/hard on the inside. I’d take a coconut anyday.

  8. Laura says:

    I am from the Boston area and now live in the deep south… OMG what a difficult transition I had! Yes, that ‘Bless your heart’ is at the heart of what is wrong with the south, MHO, and my Bostonian bluntness is what makes me leery of falsities in personalities, so the south is too surface for me too feel comfy. In Boston Proper, you are not linked to your neighbors and a cheery hello will get you and icy nod and a quick retreat (which real Bostonian’s would not even attempt)… Yet, I find Boston’s coldness to be a form of respect for your privacy, where in the south, the questions on your life that they presume to be a friendly suggestion of interest, just feel too intrusive to be actually friendly and with the added “Bless your precious heart” after you respond (most likely your too icy and somewhat suspicious of their questions) is too ingenuous and proves that though the Bostonian may be stand offish, we lack the intrusiveness to really be coquettishly mean! I love Boston!!

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