Flyover States

What is U.S. culture?  From a macro perspective, we have certain traits which distinguish us from the French, Japanese, Iranians, and Bolivians.  In particular, we tend to be individualistic, work/action-oriented, driven by a need to succeed, egalitarian, and concerned with not wasting time.

Yet from a micro perspective, underneath those generalizations, there are stark differences between racial and ethnic groups; religious traditions; urban, suburban, and rural lifestyles; and regional cultures.  Today we’ll take a brief look at the last one.

Regional Divisions

One of the major cultural divides in the U.S. is between regions.  Officially-speaking, we have the main Census Bureau-designated areas of the Northeast, SouthMidwest, and West.  However the more you zoom in, the more additional cultural fault lines start to come into focus.  For example, “The Rust Belt” is less a place than an idea: the former centers of industrial output from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis and Detroit, now (at least in the popular consciousness) rusting into oblivion.  Or “The Sun Belt” – a new promised land stretching from California to Florida experiencing population growth due to its climate and cheap housing.  It means something different to be from The Great Plains than the Upper Midwest, from the Deep South than Appalachia, and from the Pacific Northwest than the Southwest.

According to scholar Larke Nahme Huang, identity is formed both by our perceptions of ourselves and by others’ perceptions of us.  When the two are not aligned, we experience identity conflict.  Using her idea, it is possible to see that this happens not just with people, but with regions.  And in the vast U.S. – the fourth largest country in the world by area –  our stereotypes of other parts of the country rarely match how people in those parts see themselves.

“Flyover States” and Cultural Gradients

For example, whereas the Midwest and South both see themselves as a bastion of traditional values and a place where “real” American life takes place, coastal professionals derisively refer to the entire middle of the country as “Flyover States.”  The perception that there is so little of worth between California and New York is acutely felt, and as this country music video shows, the huge swathe of the country in between the oceans does not care for being so easily dismissed.

To be fair, New York and Los Angeles both rank in the top six global cities based on GDP, and much time is necessarily spent flying between them.  With a distance of about 2800 miles (4500 kilometers), driving would take at least 40 hours and would therefore be impossible.  But it’s more than practicality that informs this view.  There is an assumed cultural gradient at play, too.

I first heard this term in Poland, where a professor explained with indignation the Western European perception that the pinnacle of culture was in London or Paris, with an inexorable downward slope as one headed east.  Something similar could be seen in the way that New York dismisses everything west of it.  Closer geographically and culturally to London, the Big Apple views itself as a paragon of culture, west of which civilization declines.

Indeed, the East’s tendency to refer to anything west of the Mississippi River as “Out West” implies a great emptiness and wild frontier.  This belies the reality that many of the country’s major cities have been flourishing here for over a century.  Perpetual upstarts, they are seen more like temporary boom towns or crass sprawls rather than cosmopolitan centers worthy of the name “city.”

Angelinos are particularly resentful of this bias.  In this Buzzfeed post one proud resident takes New Yorkers to task for critiquing everything that Los Angeles is not, and entreats them to stop judging it by the extent to which it mirrors New York.

“Los Angeles is not like other places . . . That doesn’t mean it’s awful, it means it’s different.”

We all do it, but …

To be fair to New York, it seems nobody is immune from unexamined biases.

I have had people in Portland, Oregon – a city that sees itself as a big hug of tolerance – marginalize me and lecture me about Arizona.  Because presumably, I am a paper cutout limited to the stereotype they’ve seen in the media.

I had fellow students in Minnesota ask me if I grew up in a covered wagon (uhm, no?), lived on a sand dune, and if I’d ever seen snow.  They also looked at me quizzically and stated (rather directly for Minnesotans!) that “the Southwest was no place to raise a family.”

Yet when I went to Atlanta, I could not get over the fact that it was a sparkling, modern metropolis.  I’m not sure what I pictured – something more like this other country song, I suppose.

Similarly, having never spent time in New Jersey besides flying through Newark, my only reference point is The Sopranos.  Surely, someone else lives there besides fictitious Mafiosi, right?

While sometimes insulting, these assumptions reveal more about the ignorance and arrogance of the person making them than they do about the place they are judging.  The truth is always more complex than a postcard or a popular TV show would imply.  Rather than dismissing everyone south of West Virginia as hicks and rednecks, and rather than assuming all New Yorkers are rude, how about getting to know them?  You might discover that there’s even something you like about another regional culture.

This stunning spring surprised me because it didn't match my preconceptions of Georgia. Copyright 2015, Michael Hahn.
This stunning spring surprised me because it didn’t match my preconceptions of Georgia. Copyright 2015, Michael Hahn.

As Chimamanda Adichie says, we would all do well to remember that each place has more than one story.  Even flyover states.


Huang, L. H. (2006). An integrative view of identity formation: A model for Asian Americans. In Race, ethnicity, & self: Identity in multicultural perspective, 2nd ed. (E. P. Salett & D. R. Koslow, Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Multicultural Institute Publications.

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