This is the fifth state I live in (after Indiana, Washington, Ohio, and Colorado), plus two different cities in Russia (Novosibirsk, my home town, and Moscow). Regional differences are my private delight. Some people enjoy looking for big essential differences. For example, I am often asked about cultural differences between Russians and Americans. I find those conversations very boring and generalizations mainly wrong. Both countries are extremely diverse on many different levels, and almost anything you say about them in general sounds false. However, the tiny variations of accent and affect between, say northern Colorado and Northwest Ohio seem to be fascinating and somehow more profound to me. For example, people in Novosibirsk generally walk slower than the Muscovites; Siberians hate waiting lines and everyone in them, while Muscovites tend to be somewhat more social in line and enjoy a good talk with strangers. One small thing that always gives away Russians in America and Americans in Russia is the eye contact with strangers: quick and intense for Russians, longer and inconsequential for Americans. Ohioans can say “I am fixin’ to…” in a sense “I intend to…” I have not heard that in any other state. Coloradoans still keep the pioneer spirit – it is very easy to talk them into trying something new. Seattle is a city with subtle and sophisticated culture, which you can miss entirely if you stay there for a short time.
Because this is my private hobby, I don’t have to be right about anything. This is just a way for me to feel more at home in a new place. We tell ourselves stories not only to learn about the world, but to create a frame of reference, to domesticate our experience. If I can at least understand or pretend to understand just one rule in the new place, I feel better.
Here is my scoop on Rhody. When a driver facing you wants to turn left, you should blink your headlights, and let him or her go. It is expected, and makes a lot of sense on narrow streets with heavy traffic. You’re not going very fast anyway, so why not unclog traffic going in the opposite direction? If you don’t, you can get a finger. Traffic lanes are more optional, so you should be hyperaware of your environment. Someone may drive on the wrong side of the street, so you need to scoot over to the shoulder. But there is always enough space for you to scoot over – that’s the rule. Russians also have a whole set of informal traffic rules, not written anywhere, but clearly understood by most people.
Rhode Islanders are not quick to smile; you have to deserve it. They are more of a wise-cracking, get-real bunch, rather than the sunny and smiley Westerners, or chill-and-let-others-chill Seatleites. Ohioans tend to be exaggeratingly polite and welcoming, but it actually takes much longer to get closer to them; there is a clear line between the locals and the outsiders. Of all places, I found Ohio to be the only place where my foreignness mattered for a while at least. In Rhode Island, once you pass the initial test, and proves to be not a jerk, most people seem to be very helpful and open, with actions more than with words. I had several experiences with DMV and other offices, where clerks all look somewhat unwelcoming, but are also willing to look the other way when your paperwork is not exactly perfect. The partings are inevitably much warmer than the greetings. This seems to be a place with a stronger working class subculture, which I can relate to. Believe it or not, my working class neighborhood in Siberia was not that different from those in Providence. People will be suspicious to BS in all its forms, and expect some solidarity in the common purpose to defy the authorities. But they are not above trying to take you for a ride, if you look like gullible.
Of course, there is the Rhody accent. I still cannot hear the differences between local variations within it, and perhaps never will. But there is also a specific mannerism in speaking – more loud and more direct; “I am telling it like it is” seems to be the subtext, which I rather enjoy. In the Midwest and in the West, I sometimes get in trouble by arguing with people. While in Eastern Europe disagreement is a sign of respect (I am taking you seriously if I bother to challenge your thinking), it is not in the Western half of the United States, and I suspect in the South. You need to give out other signs of respect first, and only then can you openly disagree. Here I find a number of people who like me enjoy a good argument, and mean no disrespect by it.
There are probably others who think differently, but they have not come out yet and told me so. Please do if you’re one of them. We all come from somewhere, and bring assumptions with us. The big differences are easy to spot and deal with; the small ones can often go unnoticed and be attributed to ill intent rather than to a cultural accident.