Jimbo and his friend from Boston encounter cross-cultural challenges in Portland.

When I was in Peace Corps during training before we were assigned to our posts, we were given some instruction dealing with cross-cultural issues we might have in a country on the other side of the planet from where we grew up. We were told that we would experience a cycle of adjustment, which included initial euphoria, an equal portion of culture shock, followed by decreasing cycles of adjustment and shock. I’ve found that training helped adjust to new workplaces, new homes with roomates, and of course moving to new cities.

We can assume my initial euphoria with being in a new place has ended by now. I have my ups and downs on a weekly basis but having lived here in Portland in 1995 has probably lessened the extremes somewhat. The cultural training also helped me observe differences between coastal cultures as well, which sometimes helps when I find myself frustrated with people here. I’m not saying I’m angry all the time, but little interactions come up on occasion where I find myself confused about how people work here. But I’m learning.

I went on a date (yes I go on dates now!) a month ago with a guy who used to live in Boston, which is a bit more extreme east coast culture than DC. But we both agreed to having some struggle with the way things go in Portland. I tried to frame how we see things here this way in a conversation with him: people from the larger cities on the east coast consciously or unconsciously learn to mind other people’s space, because there is less space for people in the densely populated cities of the east coast. If nobody in New York City minded other peoples’ space, there would be even more cranky people in New York. New York works because people learn to mind each others’ space.

Take for example a crowded locker room in a city gym. On the east coast people will keep their stuff in a smaller pile on the bench, so other people can put their stuff down too. They don’t think about it, they just do it. At my new gym in an even smaller locker room, one guy will spread all his stuff on the bench, and I’m pretty sure he’s completely unaware that nobody else can put their stuff on the bench and not on the nasty floor. And even with three other people in the locker room who need the bench to change clothes, the one guy doesn’t move his stuff to accomodate other people. It happens on a regular basis.

This applies to all sorts of things, like training your dog not to bark all the time or cleaning after the dog on the sidewalk. And resolving conflicts. People here don’t communicate well when they perceive a conflict, so they avoid conflict altogether. On the east coast they are better at voicing something that bothers them, which can be perceived on the west coast as “rude.” In more compact living environments, people learn to resolve conflicts by communicating. They haven’t learned that here in Portland. And I’ve probably been perceived as “rude” already.

There may be a politeness factor involved this close to Canada. Maybe people are too polite to voice conflicts. I think it’s from differences in population density. Just a theory.

I perceive drivers here as too polite, often to the point of endangering themselves in order to drive politely. If I’m at an intersection on foot where a driver has no stop sign and he has the right of way, they’ll often stop for the pedestrian even if the pedestrian does not have a crosswalk. I perceive this as potentially dangerous for the driver. But I will learn to expect this and just cross to be polite to the driver I guess.

When I’m out and chatting with people I’ve heard some interesting west coast perceptions of people from DC. The conversations went like this:

Me: I just moved here in September from DC.
Him: Oh, did you work for the government?
Me: Yep.
Him: Oh but you can’t talk about it. (smirks)

Well I can talk about it, but I won’t bore you about how I did public outreach on an equine STD eradication team. Or that I wrote Q&A documents on invasive fruit flies. It leads to too many awkward conversations about equine STD treatments or the science of how ripening fruit rots. You don’t really want to hear that, do you?

For the record, anyone from DC who tells you they can’t talk about what they do probably spend their time photocopying or filing and don’t want to talk about it. Those who truly can’t talk about what they do have a short pitch like “I do policy work.”

The other strange perception is of gays in DC. When I mention I moved from DC people here have said, “Oh, are all the gays closeted conservative Republicans?” No. Most of them are flaming liberal Democrats, but there are some Republicans, but not all of them are closeted. There are a few flaming gay conservatives who are out, but most of the people I knew were out all over the place. Of course there are a few deeply closeted cases, or semi-closeted gays who work for deeply conservative politicians, but I knew some guys who were out and still worked for these people. I guess there are all kinds of gays in DC, but they’re not all closeted Republicans for the record.

I think I did pick up a few east coast cultural habits without knowing it and brought them here to Portland with me. One strange one I see that makes me stick out a bit is public singing. In the neighborhoods I lived in, or in the deeply African-American Prince George’s County where I commuted and worked in for many years, people were unafraid of singing or humming aloud on the street or in the Metro. Mostly hip-hop but other styles of music too while they were listening to their headphones or iPods. It rarely bothered me, and at some point I guess I started doing it myself. I get strange looks here when I break out a verse in the gym or on the street, and notice that no one else here seems to sing publicly. This is one habit I think I will try to maintain despite cultural differences.
>; )


  1. homer says:

    Public singing- JUST LIKE BEYONCE!

  2. jimbo says:

    I do not lip-synch! I sing publicly, loud and proud!


  3. John says:

    A lot of the things you mention as west coast ways (especially regarding space) are also things I noticed a lot when I first moved to Texas. We have nothing but space and we use it up here. However, singing in public would not get a second look here, which for some reason feels like a southern thing to me.

  4. Mari says:

    Sing baby sing.

  5. pat says:

    Very interesting observations, Jim! Thank you for giving me some perspective on my own feelings of being at odds culturally in my current environment. BTW, I often to used to sing out in public, but now that the vocal cords have aged, I whistle (I think I have better pitch when whistling anyway….)

  6. Mike says:

    It’s not that you sing out, but that you don’t realize how loudly you sing out when the earplugs are plugged in. It’s that confounded loud singing that invades other people’s sound-space — something of which a true east-coaster should always be aware, as much as of body-space and smell-space. In the lockerroom, try using a faux British accent to ask the guy, politely, if he wouldn’t mind awfully if you could share some of the bench space. He’ll be so overwhelmed by the apparent civility of your request, coming as it does from someone obviously raised in the heart of civility, that he will gladly make room. Then follow up with a compliment about his jockstrap or shorts, and ask him for a date. Just don’t slip out of the accent until sometime later in your relationship.

  7. Sean says:

    Very entertaining, thoughtful post. Makes me think of how I had to adjust to life when I moved to NJ for grad school. Quite a shock for the Minnesota boy.

  8. durban bud says:

    When are you moving back to DC?

  9. jimbo says:

    Shush TJ. Considering I no longer have the spare cash to put all my crap back in a truck and drive back, I think I’m stuck here!

    Plus, whenever the Portland cold and gloom and politeness gets to me here, all I have to do is remember that I get Swamp ass 3/4 of the year in DC and I don’t miss Swamp Ass at all. Of course I miss YOU, hon!
    >; )

  10. Kevin M says:

    Swamp ass? You mean BrettCajun?

  11. brettcajun says:

    Brettcajun = Cool

    Kevin M = Douchey (think Portlandia Characters)

  12. Jeffrey C says:

    Singing about equine STD treatments in public probably is what’s getting the strange looks.

  13. Dave says:

    Since you’re probably still using your DC driver’s license you may not be familiar with Oregon traffic law. That some drivers, including myself, may also stop for pedestrians away from corners I consider being polite especially in heavy traffic areas.

    ORS 801.220
    Oregon Revised Statute 801.220 creates an unmarked but legally binding crosswalk at every street corner in the state. This means vehicles, including bicycles, must yield to pedestrians at any street corner.

    [edit] See also

    pedestrian law in Portland
    bicycle law in Portland
    [edit] Full text

    801.220 “Crosswalk”

    “Crosswalk” means any portion of a roadway at an intersection or elsewhere that is distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface of the roadway that conform in design to the standards established for crosswalks under ORS 810.200 (Uniform standards for traffic control devices). Whenever marked crosswalks have been indicated, such crosswalks and no other shall be deemed lawful across such roadway at that intersection. Where no marked crosswalk exists, a crosswalk is that portion of the roadway described in the following:

    (1) Where sidewalks, shoulders or a combination thereof exists, a crosswalk is the portion of a roadway at an intersection, not more than 20 feet in width as measured from the prolongation of the lateral line of the roadway toward the prolongation of the adjacent property line, that is included within:

    (a) The connections of the lateral lines of the sidewalks, shoulders or a combination thereof on opposite sides of the street or highway measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the traveled roadway; or

    (b) The prolongation of the lateral lines of a sidewalk, shoulder or both, to the sidewalk or shoulder on the opposite side of the street, if the prolongation would meet such sidewalk or shoulder.

    (2) If there is neither sidewalk nor shoulder, a crosswalk is the portion of the roadway at an intersection, measuring not less than six feet in width, that would be included within the prolongation of the lateral lines of the sidewalk, shoulder or both on the opposite side of the street or highway if there were a sidewalk. [1983 c.338 §36]

    full text on OregonLaws.org

  14. Dave says:

    Have to echo Mike’s comment about out loud singing, it is an invasion of others space, something that as an adoptive east coaster you should be perceptive of. Unless you sing as well as Beyonce it probably will be perceived negatively. As to the space hog at your gym, you don’t say anything about using your DC acquired conflict resolution traits to solve that issue, how did that work out for you. Something to remember about how you perceive conflict avoidance here, with the number of concealed carry weapons unavoided conflict could quickly escalate to a violent conclusion. Luckily we do have a relatively large amount of space to use to avoid conflict, don’t rag on us for that.

  15. Ohio Tom says:

    We talk more often about moving out of state and have long realized that vacations are not the same as day-to-day living which makes choosing a new home difficult. Maybe this old dog should be content with central Ohio and its foibles.

    Ohio, it’s not that bad.