Opinion

Yarin: Mass. deep in Massholes

It’s no secret that residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts aren’t the friendliest in the nation.

Your own friends and family are lovely, of course, but when you take us as a group and compare us to the easygoing Californians, the gentle-mannered Southerners, or the Jell-O salad-toting denizens of the heartland, we don’t come close to measuring up. I’d venture we’re on the same tier as New York City residents, but I’m wise enough not to go any further than that.

I think it all comes down to how we treat those we don’t know. Like I said, your acquaintances are lovely, and I know that because individual Massachusetts residents comprise my family and friends, coworkers and classmates, and a friendlier and more generous group of people you couldn’t dream up if you slept all year. I’m sure it’s the same for everyone reading this. 

I’m not saying state residents aren’t civic-minded, charitable, and empathetic, because we are. But have you ever traveled far from the area (let’s say south of Delaware and west of Philly) and wondered why passersby were smiling at you or asking you how you’re doing? See, residents of those areas don’t have to wonder. They just smile back without missing a beat. A campground in northern Georgia had me wondering if there was something on my face. I didn’t get it and, frankly, I didn’t really like it.

Maybe you’re not as grouchy as me, and I applaud you for that. But we all know the stereotype of the crabby Bostonian ― the Masshole. He’ll honk at you the second the light turns green; he’ll barge into you if you don’t move out of his way on the sidewalk; he’ll hit the “door-close” button when you’re running for the elevator; he’ll smirk when you slip on the ice. He’s a stereotype for a reason, in that he’s a caricature of a more nuanced abrasiveness (that’s a thing, right?) that typifies the region. He stands for an assortment of behaviors and attitudes that most folks engage in on a more dilute level, but it’s there. People move away because of it.

So, why are we like this? I’ve puzzled over this for a while now, and I’ve never felt completely satisfied with an answer. As a fourth-generation resident, I still feel dubiously qualified to weigh in ― it’s not like I drop my Rs or anything ― but I’ve got a couple of working theories, if you’re interested:

  1. It’s cold. We don’t want to spend time yakking on the street because it’s physically unpleasant to do so.
  2. It’s old. We stoic, faultless Puritans have seen and done every aspect of American public life for centuries, and we don’t have the patience to hang around while others figure it out.
  3. It’s somewhat unpleasant to live here. See No. 1. But also see: roads that make no sense, ridiculously high rents, beleaguered infrastructure, and a preponderance of Massholes.
  4. It’s amazing to live here. We’ve got the best schools, hospitals, white-collar job market, historical landmarks, politicians, and seafood in the country. It can get somewhat annoying when a bunch of 19-year-old students from Milwaulkee run around like they own the place.
  5. Nobody is happy when the Sox lose.

None of that really gels into one, bona-fide reason for our bad attitude, and I apologize if an answer is what you were looking for. If you’re not from the area, however, I might be able to help you out. There’s a theory I’ve been working on for a while that I’ve come to refer to as the “Sandwich Principle,” and I think it gets to the soul of the commonwealth’s, uh, standoffishness around strangers. The idea came to me when a friend from Seattle recounted a social faux pas he experienced in the deli line:

Imagine his guileless surprise when the woman in front of him placed the exact sandwich order he was about to make! Enraptured by the coincidence, he was compelled to tap her on the shoulder and share this information with his newfound friend. But the heartless woman shrugged him off, lip curled into a cruel sneer, and turned a cold shoulder to our poor, hapless hero.

He looked at me beseechingly when he finished his story, and in that moment I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I probably would have responded the same way. 

See, we know what we’re about here. We know that not everyone is the picture of congeniality, and we also know that there are times when we ourselves don’t want to patiently listen while a stranger tries to charm us. The best way to avoid the wrath of the Masshole is to remember that there are variables at play when one tries to bond with a stranger over sandwiches. You could get a rebuke, a shrug, a strange look or, on rare occasions, maybe a smile. You take your chances when you speak up but, if you say nothing, you’ll always be OK. It’s unfortunate that this is the case, but it’s also foolproof. 

Massachusetts has many strengths, but it’s really and truly not the best place to make friends with a stranger. We won’t beat you up or anything, but you could get a nasty bruise to the ego. But, hey! The people you already know are (say it with me now:) lovely. 

Maybe you should tell one of them about your sandwich.

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