The ninth-grader and I were walking the dog in our new neighborhood. It was mid-30s and sunny. Near our house, a neighbor we’d never seen was clearing brush on his hillside wearing nothing but hiking shorts and boots: Unusual.
When we were within earshot, I jokingly called out, “You’re just showing off!”
He corrected me. He wasn’t showing off, he said, merely practicing “cold weather exposure” combined with breathing techniques to better oxygenate his lungs, or something like that.
He explained that cold weather exposure minimizes depression and anxiety, benefits circulation and weight control, staves off illness including diabetes and cancer, improves athletic performance, and assorted other positives. He told us how long he’d been at it and what it had done for him. He certainly looked healthy.
Ten or 15 minutes later, we walked on, having learned much about the neighbor’s life and promising we’d look up Wim Hof (an expert/guru on cold exposure profiled in a best-selling book on the subject who holds 26 world records related to it).
That was a perfectly typical encounter around here, where people talk, share, and dive into unfiltered conversation like recent parolees from solitary confinement.
They take up matters light and heavy, personal and political, sensitive and extremely sensitive. When they say “it’s all good,” they mean it. There seem to be no conversation taboos.
A couple at a party told us about their move several years ago to a remote, unheated alternative housing structure thing; we heard pretty emotionally intense stuff about what went wrong, upgrades, problem-solving and how they avoid turning into Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining in winter.
A guy came over to buy a rug we posted to an online yard sale. He stayed 20 minutes and we learned about where he’s lived and traveled while working for David Copperfield. He was nice, but the oven was fully preheated and the veggies needed to roast, but it seemed rude to cut him off even though we’ll likely never see him again.
A grocery store cashier scanning my high protein frozen waffles told me how she prepares hers, how long they keep her full, what her favorite flavor is, etc., way too excited about waffles to finish ringing me up. Another grocery store cashier practically walked us to our car because he was hadn’t wrapped up his entire life story – failed marriage, second and third careers, geographical upheaval, stuff about balding…the guy had lived.
While having our house painted, I sometimes hid in the basement because conversations the painters kept striking up must have been slowing them down. I mean every time we walked past them it would be another full conversation, like they were houseguests. The painting was charged at a flat rate, but I wanted to get on with my life.
Everyone performing any service of any sort behaved the same way. The carpet cleaning guy, the furniture repair guy (a fascinating business as it turns out), the brush hauling guy (who lives off the grid all winter and snowmobiles six miles to his cabin, and whose 70-something parents trek in to visit him just because it makes him happy despite their advancing age, and they drink wine and play board games and if that isn’t the sweetest thing!), they all talked and talked and talked.
New friends and neighbors have opened up in such detail it seems I’ve known them for years, not months or weeks. Emotional detail. Medical detail. Financial detail.
People come right out and ask how much things cost in our house.
It has taken zero seconds to get used to this. I love it. As a California native and lifelong gum-flapper, it’s refreshing after 16 years in New England to be fighting to get a word in edgewise, to not wonder whether I talked too much, or more than anyone else. Instead of waking up wishing I hadn’t told quite so many tales the night before, I wake up realizing I never got to ask several of my main questions.
Maybe the transitory nature of living out west fosters openness and loquaciousness: ‘We don’t need to agree on anything, either one of us may be out of here any day now!’ Or, more optimistically, ‘Hey, we all came from somewhere else – we’re here now, let’s verbally party.’
Switching sides of the country a couple of times has highlighted that what is polite in one region may be rude in another, and vice versa.
Once, in Massachusetts, a friend described her good friend as “someone who you could run into and ask how she was and she would say great and you would find out later that her kid had just broken his arm and they had just lost their house and had to move.”
She shared that to explain what she loved about this other woman. I didn’t get it. Being misled made her happy? If that happened to me I’d be pissed a friend was hiding important shit.
I’ve shared the ‘woman-who-was-treasured-for-hiding-her-suffering’ anecdote with others, because when people asked what I thought of the East Coast and I answered, “People are very different,” the follow-up was usually, how so? I’d give that example, and everybody would get it. East Coasters would nod their heads: ‘Yep, her friend is solid.’ West Coasters nodded their heads too: ‘Yep, that’s fucking weird, man.’ (Midwesterners listened politely, said something cheerful, then changed the subject.)
Of course there are exceptions. There exist gut-spilling New Englanders and circumspect westerners. (I know three long-winded Massachusetts women who need to visit Utah, they’ll be shocked at how hard it is to commandeer a conversation!)
I don’t claim one mode is better than another. Just saying gut-spilling is way more common out west. And I’m no doctor but letting it all hang out seems better for stress and blood pressure than the alternative.
In a totally unrelated development, I now stand up taller and breathe deeply whenever I’m cold, because according to Wim Hoff, cold is healthy.