What We Mean When We Say Hello

The curious geography of American greetings
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Last week I wrote about conversation starters that follow “Hello” and “How do you do.” Many dozens of you have written in and generously included your comments and interpretations of what you think people actually mean when they say something like “Where do you live?” or “Where are you from?”

Here is what you’ve said so far:

The most popular suggestion is some version of “Where do you live?” But as you describe, you are really after an answer offering some social-economic-cultural hints about a person’s life.

You say that the geography of where you live in town tells so much about who you are: Are you rich or poor, artsy or sporty, are you there for schools or for the new urban measure of “walkability?”

Chicago neighborhood map, from SeanParnell

Those of you from the biggest cities of DC, NY, Boston, Chicago, SF, LA, and Houston often said the more granular the answer, the better.  One of you from Boston writes:

For instance, in Cambridge and Somerville, people will often give where the live by their nearest square or subway station: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Union, Ball, etc.

From Chicago: Identity is defined in layers. First, whether you're from the north or south side: the great, indelible divide. Secondly, what neighborhood you live in. There are so many gradations-- "near north side", "far south side", "south loop" -- but the orientation is always north or south. 

Those of you from a surprising number of mid-size cities write that your version of “Where do you live?” is actually “Where did you go to high school?”  All these places weighed in: Louisville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and the island of Oahu.

From New Orleans: In New Orleans, the most common orientation question on meeting someone is probably "Where'd you go to school?"  That means high school (for everyone... no doctor would think you were asking about med school).  This nails down neighborhood and also social class to some extent since the answer could be a public, private or parochial (Catholic) school. 

From Baltimore: Baltimoreans always ask "Where did you go to school?" and it ALWAYS means, "Where did you go to high school?" Baltimore is a working class town, and college was not an aspiration for folks; your identity, character, life's trajectory was defined in toto by the place you went to high school.

Several of you from smaller towns and rural areas say that your version of “Where do you live?” is “Where do you go to church?”  These from Greenville SC,  from rural Idaho, and VA, and I’ve seen it reported elsewhere from rural Maine and Kentucky. Interestingly, Chicago also makes this list. And in Chicago, you look for very thinly-sliced answers to the question “What’s your parish?”

Two Chicagoans writes that “parish” is the word to use, and everyone, even non-Catholics get this social parlance:

When I attended.. Loyola University Chicago, I often heard a local spin on the question "What neighborhood are you from?" which came out as "What's your parish?" Even the Chicagoans who were not Catholic usually knew the answer, and the answer served as a social marker for everything from your baseball team to your likely politics, to your geographical desirability as a candidate for a movie on Friday night at a school where so many students - in those days - were commuters.  

And another echoes: "What parish did you grow up in?" Even non Catholics will answer St. Mathias, but we weren't Catholic.

 

Migration patterns in and out of Austin, from GayInTexas

A different follow-up question comes from cities with lots of transplants or a transient population: “Where are you from?” Before you read on, take a guess yourself where you hear this question.…

Yup: Seattle, Madison, Austin, Atlanta, the entire state of Florida, LA, SF, Houston, and a few more you perhaps didn’t guess – Corvallis OR and Danville CA. Here are your comments:

Here in Austin, a common follow up to "Hello" and "Nice to meet you" is "So what brought you to Austin?"

Down here in Florida you might actually expect the question to be, “Where are you from up north?”

Alaska and Hawaii ask this question with a twist.

From Alaska (where, we heard when there, some people have histories they are reluctant to divulge): The Alaska variant is, "How long have you lived here?" Bonus points if you've lived "off the road-system."

From Hawaii: The southern part of the Big Island of Hawaii is reputed to home many people in the federal witness protection program. During my honeymoon there I asked a guy selling coffee at the Southernmost Espresso Stand in the US how he ended up there. I got the most cleverly evasive response I've ever received to that question.

And going international, expats everywhere get the question, “Where are you from?” When we lived in China, I got so tired of this question from shopgirls that I would start making them guess, saying “Where do you think I’m from?”  Surprisingly but invariably, their answers were always France, Scandinavia, Germany, Australia, England, Canada.. and they almost never got around to the US.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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