Lately, I’ve been amusing myself by following online threads like this one detailing stereotypes and impressions foreigners have of America. I find these observations alternately poignant, flattering, and hilarious.
Many people apparently struggle to grasp just how BIG America is. We’ve got 3,000 miles (4,828.032 km) from sea to shining sea: that’s 4 time zones, 2 mountain ranges, and a week-long road trip between New York and Los Angeles.
"My Italian relatives come here thinking they can visit me in Seattle and also see New York, Miami, the Grand Canyon and Hollywood all in a week--by car. I can't get them to understand that my country spans the North American continent.” -Candace Dempsey, Italian-American journalist, author and travel writer
Along with the sheer size of our landmass, people express surprise at our diversity. Not just the diversity of peoples - generations of immigrants from every corner of the globe - but how dramatically one region of the US can differ from another.
"For any foreigner, the way they know about America is from Hollywood movies, TV sitcoms, and tourists coming to our country. So it is quite normal for us to think America as a whole is like that, which is obviously not the case." -Bruce Li, from Hong Kong, 4 yrs as a college student in the Northeast
As one blogger discovered, where you travel in the US can determine how certain - uh - fashions are received. Americans living in West Virginia can be very different from those in California.
So I thought I’d cook up this brief primer on what to expect from different American regions.
Disclaimer: This article is filled with rampant generalizations and stereotypes and is meant to be a very basic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek overview of American culture.
The American Northeast
The Northeast region is one of the oldest (in terms of European settlement) and most densely populated regions of the United States. Here you’ll find huge, historic cities including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. These cities really don’t ever sleep, so life in the Northeast takes on a rather fast-paced, always-on quality.
This is probably the most cosmopolitan region of our country. The majority of residents hold liberal cultural and political values and are fairly comfortable intermingling with those of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and beliefs. However, they also have a reputation for being brash and unafraid to speak their mind, which some might interpret as downright rude.
The Northeast isn’t all hustle and urban sprawl, though. Away from the coast in upstate New York, Maine, and Vermont, life can be very different. Here the towns are small, the people are reserved, and the moose roam free.
The American South
The South is dominated both geographically and culturally, by those states that fought for the Confederacy (North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee) during the “War Between the States” (i.e. the Civil War). Segregation and poor race relations, unfortunately, remain a troubling part of life in the South.
A majority of Southerners are socially conservative, doggedly self-reliant, and unabashedly Christian. Contrary to popular opinion, though, it ain’t all plantations and bibles. Cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Austin are as metropolitan as they get.
Still, there are far more small towns than big cities and some neighbors have known each other for generations. Outsiders can often be eyed with a heavy dose of skepticism.
Steeped in tradition (not to mention sweltering summer heat), life in the South moves at its own pace. Change comes slowly here. Even the rapid-fire progress of modern technology usually finds its way South last.
Side note: You may be accustomed to calling all Americans “Yankees,” but them’s fightin’ words in the South. “Yankee” is an epithet reserved for meddling northerners.
The American Midwest
The Midwest is a hybrid of the Northeast and South. Urban centers, like Chicago, rival any major city for commerce, culture, and nightlife. But outside the suburbs, in the vast agricultural areas, it can resemble the rural South - Confederate flags and all. These competing lifestyles are what make the Midwest such a heated battleground in American politics.
The Midwest is famously blue-collar, meaning residents are accustomed to working with their hands. The loss of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing and automation has hit this region particularly hard. They are adjusting to a 21st-century economy, but some areas are adapting faster than others.
The Midwest has enormous stretches of flat, uninhabited land - especially as you head west into the plains (North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas). When driving between population centers, fill up at any gas petrol station you see, because you may not find another before your tank runs empty.
Fun fact: Michiganders will point to a spot on their hand if you ask them where they’re from!
The American West
Americans have been heading West in search of fortune and a better life since the California gold rush of 1849. To this day, the West beckons those hoping to get lucky rolling the dice in Las Vegas, auditioning for stardom in Hollywood, or launching the next Facebook in Silicon Valley.
Parts of the West are still quite wild - complete with ranchers on horseback rustling cattle and Native Americans living on sovereign land. Millions of acres of Western habitat are protected by the National Park System including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Death Valley National Parks, all of which are worth visiting if you get the chance.
The Mountain West - Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah - is fairly conservative, while the West Coast - Washington, Oregon, and California - boasts some of the most liberal attitudes in the nation. The coast also rivals the Northeast for urbanization.
Throughout the West, you’ll find a certain free-spiritedness that likes to buck tradition and carve its own path.
The “Leftover” States
Hawai’i: Situated as it is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i is an island (really islands) unto itself. Most mainlanders think of Hawai’i as little more than a vacation resort, while Islanders aren’t always thrilled with visiting mainlanders (especially those of us who forget to go home). The islands have a culture, climate, and heritage unlike anywhere else in the US.
Alaska: The land of the midnight sun is so foreign to most Americans that we’ve made something like forty reality TV programs about it. As far as the rest of us are concerned, no sane person lives in Alaska. It’s enormous, sparsely populated, virtually inaccessible, and way too cold. But Alaska’s got the northern lights and polar bears, and you really can’t beat that.
Florida: Maybe you thought Florida was part of the South? Not really. There are far too many snowbirds (people who have relocated to sunny Florida from the snowy Northeast and Midwest) for this state to be lumped in with the rest of the South. Florida is a region of its own - part retirement community, part celebrity playground.