THE GREAT MIDWEST

Dear Artichoke,
I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about Zanudaism.

I’m real curious to know who this acquaintance is (just tell me), but I found the idea in general quite interesting, of course. You’ve told me about Zanudas before, but it’s got me thinking about language and cultural policing in a more general way. I can’t speak to the Russian perspective, but I can tell you that the American modus operandi– even as someone who doesn’t have any other ruler to measure against– is bananas.

English is a motherfucker of a language, because, to use an age old way of phrasing it, we don’t mean what we say and we say what we don’t mean. In other words, an English speaker is always going to communicate their message a little euphemistically, a little between the lines.

We hedge our bets when we communicate; we suss out what the other person might think before we say anything definitive. When we do say something definitive, it tends to be rehearsed, and it tends to be something we know the other person is going to be more than a touch uncomfortable disagreeing with– unless, of course, they’re some sort of non-conformist anti-establishment twit, in which case their opinion can be safely disregarded.

(Consider the example of the SNL skit, The Beygency. It’s an entire skit predicated on the knowledge that you, the average American, is not at all comfortable saying the unrehearsed, anti-establishment line, “Beyonce is just okay”)

As someone who grew up in the Midwest, though, I have to disagree with your understanding of the Midwestern stereotype of the Russian. Not to say that Midwesterners like Russians– they don’t. But, they don’t like anybody. The Midwest is an area settled by people who quite literally couldn’t handle the fact that their neighbor moved within twenty miles of them (please see: Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Frontier, etc). The stereotype of a Russian is of someone who talks too goddamned much. Specifically, Russians are known for TMI, and complaining a great deal.

I’m sure that seems very unkind of the Midwesterners, and yes, it is. But if it helps, it’s part of the Midwesterner stereotype of everyone that they talk too much. It’s merely a matter of what they talk too much about that varies. No one is stoic enough for the Midwest. Hell, Midwesterners’ stereotype of themselves is that we talk too much. (I never know whether to refer to myself as ‘we’ when referring to the Midwest, which is why I switched mid-sentence there. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota… but raised by a Southern mother, and emphatically not of Scandinavian descent, or Lutheran, or drinking the kool aid, if you will. Most of my thought-processes and sensibilities have more in common with North Carolina’s mercenary sense of imaginary practicality than Minnesota’s delicate sensibilities and discomfort any time we have a real fucking conversation. Also, I don’t live there anymore, and even if I were to go back, Minneapolis is culturally a different beast than Minnesota proper. But this is all an aside for a different letter for a different time)

Don’t get me wrong, there is this idea of the ominously silent Russian, but I think that has more to do with Hollywood crafting bad guys (the Cold War was Hollywood’s babydoll, yo) than what a Midwesterner thinks he’ll meet on the train. The thing about Hollywood, of course, is that a) silence is scary, b) how much effort do you really want to put into developing this highly other-ed character, and c) they get to hide behind the excuse of the language barrier, so critics can’t make fun of them for always having the same goddamned villain, a man of few words and a strong accent.

I could make the argument that a term like Zanuda can’t really exist in the Midwest, because we would use it to describe everyone all the time, therefore rendering it obsolete.

The truly insane thing, of course, is that if you ask me, I have met considerably more than my fair share of Minnesotan Zanudas, and I’ve hated every one of ’em. The thing about a culture so determined to be so relentlessly stoic is that within that culture, you can’t really tell someone to shut the fuck up, because any real ability to deliver criticism or engage in confrontation has been strangled out of the culture because we say as little of substance out loud as possible– therefore allowing the people who are a bit clueless, or just don’t care, an entirely free rein to talk as much as they want in the absolute confidence that no one will call them on it. The same thing happens with rudeness– Minnesotan Nice is absolutely a thing, but the rude people are so infrequently called on their bullshit that they behave so rudely that a New Yorker would take umbrage. Then again, maybe my perception here is clouded by the fact that, like it or not, I was raised inside these cultural values.

But before we all throw our hands up at the Midwest’s xenophobia in despair, I do want to point out that the flattened world of the Internet and social media is leveling the playing field in a major way. While Minnesotan baby boomers are the perfect model of everything I just mentioned, Gen Xers and Millennials are a touch more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, they still have some of the traits of their parents, yet to be shaken off, but generally, they’re much more affable, approachable, and even talkative than previous generations. The times, they are a-changing.

As we can see, therefore, the cultural policing of language is a rather complicated thing, and for those Midwesterners, more than a bit fraught. I was thinking, as I read your letter, that I don’t particularly care for language shaming. For example, the way you insult something in Minnesota is to say “That’s different,” which is the most annoying fucking thing in the world. The thing about cultural shaming is that you set up a rule, and then you enforce the rule. You don’t necessarily have to explain to the person you’re shutting up why the rule exists– which also means that they don’t have a chance to explain either why they’re breaking the rule or that it’s a stupid rule that shouldn’t be enforced. The shorthands are useful in the moment, and often fascinating when you articulate what they mean and how they work and what purpose they serve, but it’s hard to defend the continued use of a phrase such as “That’s different” to tell someone, rather covertly, that you’re going to shit-talk them until they’re completely ostracized the second they turn their back. Obviously, language shaming isn’t really a good thing– if it was, we wouldn’t call it shaming.

So. Why do I use the word basic so much?

TO BE CONTINUED…

Yours in Zanudaism,

ONION

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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