North By Northwest

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This page last updated on 07/08/2017.

Copyright © 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


The idea for this story was to convey my observations about certain anti-social cultural elements of the northwestern US; specifically Washington state.  The phenomenon is unusual in a number of respects.  I've thought about this a lot over the years and I really believe I have some interesting observations.  The only problem is a good number of these observations are negative.  As a result, this article has a rather cutting tone.  I make no apologies...take it for what it's worth.

My family moved to Washington state when I was ten.  I grew up there and went to Washington State University.  Eventually, after 15 years, I moved to Dallas to take a job.  I thought I'd live in Dallas for a few years, gain some job experience, then move back to Washington.  At least that was the original plan, but the more time I spent in Dallas, the more uncomfortable that plan became.  I came to realize there were significant cultural differences between Washington and Texas.  I also began to realize that Washington culture was...well, warped, to be blunt.  I began to see that the Washington viewpoint had warped my psyche too.  In fact as time went by, I was able to gain perspective on the situation and it dawned on me that the 15 years I'd spent in Washington had been psychologically damaging.  Washington culture was definitely not good for me.  So I ended up staying in Dallas and never looked back.  Occasionally I have regrets, but those are fleeting when I remember just how much of a struggle it was for me to exist up there.  I don't dislike Washington or Washitonians.  It's just that the prevalent culture absolutely clashes with my innate personality.  It's like trying to force two differently pitched gears together; sparks fly, teeth chip off, and the gears are destroyed.  It just doesn't work and it's not worth trying to pound that particular square peg through the round hole.  Oh sure, I can adapt to the culture, after all, I lived there 15 years.  It's just that my psychological health is significantly impaired when I try to fit the Washington mould.  I have only one life, why be unnecessarily miserable?

The sections below detail some of the more agonizing aspects of Washitonian behavior I experienced over the years.  It is by no means comprehensive, but serves to point out why I am now a Texan and will never again be a Washitonian.

The "Oh Huh" State

Missouri calls itself the "show me" state, but they got it wrong...Washington is the true "show me" state...or perhaps better described as the "oh huh" state.  Maybe you're sitting with some friends telling stories or in a casual conversation with someone you met at a party.  You're having a nice talk.  You tell them about something you did once, like skiing at Sun Valley or building a boat.  Frequently, you'll get some kind of skeptical response, as if you're just making up a tall tale.  It's what I call the "Oh-Huh" response.  It happens rather often and in unexpected contexts.

Here's a real example that happened to me.  I was sitting around the dorm with a good friend at college.  As college aged guys are want to do on occasion, we were comparing scars (hey, we were bored).  I have a nasty scar on my left knee that I received in a bike crash when I was 8 years old.  I fell off my bike while riding along railroad tracks that were laid on a bed of black cinders.  Some of those cinders became embedded in the wound and are still there today.  You can see them through the skin.  Anyway, I was showing my friend that scar and the cinders.  After relating the story, his irritated response was, "Oh Russ, I'm sure it didn't happen that way!"  At first I thought he was kidding, you know, just being a smart aleck to invoke a reaction...just for fun.  Upon closer observation though, I noticed he appeared completely serious.  I told him I wasn't making it up, that yeah, I really did fall off my bike, and yeah those really were cinders in that scar there.  He was genuinely irritated (of all things!) and insisted I was full of it.

What a strange response; why in the world would he conclude that I was making this up?  I was not in the habit of fabricating stories, so there wasn't some standing credibility gap here or anything.  I mean, I was there on those railroad tracks and it happened to me; how could this chump be so sure it hadn't happened...he wasn't even there!  It's not like I was claiming something extraordinary, like being been abducted by aliens or something.  However, I noticed his BS detector appeared to go off when I told him those black blobs under my skin were railroad track cinders.  Maybe, to him, that seemed totally unbelievable and invalidated the whole story.  How sheltered do you have to be to not have seen something like that before...sheezh!  How do you think tattoos are made?

I started to become sensitized to this "Oh Huh" response.  As time passed, I noticed that 4 out of 5 times when I told the bike-crash story, I would get the big "Oh Huh."  Now this is just absurd.  Maybe I'm real gullible or something, but if someone tells me a story and it's generally believable and the person has no reason to lie or exaggerate then I believe them.  Apparently, that makes me a weirdo in Washington!  A few times I left out the part about the cinders, just to see if that was indeed the unbelievable element.  I got the almost same rate of "Oh Huh" responses.  I began to realize this "Oh Huh" response was cropping up in other conversations and found it was quite pervasive.  For example, I frequently drove straight through to Palo Alto to see my Fiancée.  Driving hard, straight through, I could make it there in 16½ hours; that fact earned at least a dozen "Oh Huhs!"  One could simply divide the mileage on a map by 16½ hours to see that I wasn't lying!  I wondered if something I couldn't perceive about my voice inflections, facial expressions, mannerism, or reputation was causing this incredulous response.

I watched carefully as others related experiences to see if it happened to them.  I found that one of two things would occur:

  1. The story teller would plainly tell a story and earn a certain rate of "Oh Huh" responses, just as I did.
     
  2. The story teller would carefully water down or avoid telling the story altogether and, in that way, pick his way through the "Oh Huh" minefield.  I discovered this when my friends and I would go out and do something unusual.  When I listened to one of my friends tell the tale, he would leave out most of the really interesting or sensational parts.  Why would he do that?  Finally, I realized he had been conditioned or had conditioned himself to omit parts of the story that would earn social disapproval.

I watched this weird social comedy for a while and was stunned at how widespread it was.  I found it everywhere I went...and that was all over eastern Washington.  I'm convinced it had a profound but subtle effect on the whole social fabric.  Furthermore, after recognizing this phenomenon and reflecting on how it impacted my own behavior, I became worried.  For me, it had the effect of pushing me down inside myself; I really didn't relate experiences I had to anyone but a short list of close friends; friends who knew what I had really been doing and, therefore, were less likely to give me the "Oh Huh."  Hang gliding for example.  I just didn't talk about it to anyone except a few friends because I didn't need an "Oh Huh" rejection.  I noticed that I got this desperate feeling whenever I needed to relate something to someone.  I was greatly concerned and pre-occupied with whether they would believe me or not...a total waste of emotional energy.  These tensions were directly traceable to this weird "Oh Huh" thing.  It created a low-level but persistent background psychological stress that, I realized, had taken a toll on my mental health over the years.

I wondered for a long time where this "Oh Huh" thing came from and why it persisted in the corporate behavior of so many Washitonians?  At first, I thought maybe there was something different about people in eastern Washington.  That section of the state is mostly rural and has a low population density.  Maybe these people, somewhat isolated, were just not exposed to a very wide range of experiences and therefore developed a narrow view of what was possible in the world.  For example, the guy scoffing at cinders embedded in my skin...maybe HE hadn't ever seen anything like that before, so HE thought it was impossible.  Another theory I toyed with was that these rural people were just...well...<ahem> stupid.  Perhaps they were incapable of visualizing something like cinders embedded in skin!  After a lot of thinking and evaluating, I discarded these theories.  They just didn't stand up to real world observations.  A lot of these skeptics were smart cookies and had lived or traveled extensively outside Washington.  No, it had to be something else.

I finally found an explanation I think holds up.  I believe people in eastern Washington do the "Oh Huh" response for two reasons:

  1. It Makes You Look Cool - If someone tells a story with some unusual aspect or notable event and you give it the "Oh Huh," you are, in effect, painting yourself as someone in position to judge the veracity of the story.  It's way of asserting indirectly, "I can tell you this story is BS due to my vast and superior experience in such matters."  In this case, the "Oh Huh" is given because there are others in the audience the perpetrator wants to impress.  The guy doesn't want to "oooh and ahhhh" over your story because then he's just one of the nobody listeners.  No, he has to be seen as very experienced and worldly, so the only course available to him is "Oh Huh."  This works well, especially if no one else is present to confirm the story and if the story contains elements likely to be outside the experience of most listeners.  He just shoots it down, it doesn't matter how, and there's a good chance others in the audience will assume he has some superior knowledge or experience.  Whatever glory or accord may be present in the story rubs off on him, plus some.  His esteem increases as long as he plays the game unwaveringly.  Of course, he burns a bridge with the story teller, but that is only important if he cares about that bridge...which he apparently doesn't.
     
  2. It Allows You to Dominate the Social Context - When you throw the "Oh Huh" at someone, it naturally puts them on the defensive.  The typical response is for the person to fall all over themselves insisting the story is true.  It doesn't matter whether the story is true or not, the important thing is that the person doing the "Oh Huh" is now in control of the whole social context.  It generates a feeling of assurance and superiority.  Mission accomplished for the "Oh Huher."

    My alleged friends in Washington were frequently doing the "Oh Huh" to one another.  I decided to try something, just to test this "domination" theory.  I waited until I got the typical judgmental "Oh Huh" from one of my friends one day.  I then responded with, "I don't care whether you believe me or not, it doesn't change what happened."  I immediately changed the topic and went on.  This was a check-mate to the "Oh Huh" move...a counter slap-in-the-face that, in effect, said, "If you attempt to discredit me, you'll discredit yourself because you're out of your depth."  Instantly, my friend jump back to the topic and fell all over himself back-peddling all the smart aleck, judgmental BS he'd been blathering the last few minutes.

    This whole stupid thing is just a power struggle.  The conversation is only 50% about sharing an interesting story.  It's sort of a form of combat.  The key is to get the upper hand then keep it.  Once the upper hand is gained, you have to cement your dominance.  While he's falling all over himself trying to back-pedal out of the hole he's got himself in, just keep trying to change the subject.  Don't listen to anything he says and for Pete's sake don't respond in any way.  Try to change the topic 2 or 3 times.  If he's still attempting damage control, just end it.  Walk away.  It pokes him in his insecurities and keeps him there.  You didn't start the stupid combat, but you win anyway.

Behind these two reasons are a common denominator:  low self-esteem.  Both of these behaviors contribute to a fluffing up of the "Oh Huh" guy's self-esteem.  It's that simple and it explains why this behavior is self-sustaining.  The weird thing about eastern Washington is that this method of propping up self-esteem seems to have become embedded within the cultural fabric.  It is so common that most people up there don't even realize they're doing it.  They just respond with this conditioned scoffing whether it's appropriate or not.  When you pull an "Oh Huh" counter-move on them, it stuns them and knocks them off balance because, although they are effectively engaged in verbal combat, they don't know why and are not prepared to carry it through.  Normal conversations don't escalate beyond the "Oh Huh" phase.

After living in Washington for 15 years, I developed a sort of internal wincing whenever I related a personal story to someone.  I had come to loath the judgmental "Oh Huh" response and dreaded invoking it.  I didn't even realize this had happened to me until I moved to Texas.  In Texas, when I told a story, people just believed me...right off, without any strange power-struggle dancing.  I'd tell my stories, they'd tell theirs, and it was all about just sharing experiences, not about who'll get the upper-hand.  It took me about a year to get over that internal wincing I had developed in Washington.  After that, I was just so relieved...so relieved.  It's hard to describe what a freeing experience it was for me.  I could just talk to people without all that trepidation and power struggle hassle.  It was nice and I liked it a lot.  My life and relations with other people seemed much more honest and forthright.

All that Washington "Oh Huh" stuff was so pathetic.  I hated it...every minute of it.  I still run across it occasionally when I talk to my Washington friends or go back to visit relatives in Washington.  I find I have virtually no patience for it anymore.  It makes me sick, and I just want to get away.  It's like asphyxiating in some oppressive, smothering, stupid atmosphere.

Pigeon Holing

Let's say you are employed at a company that offers a 401K plan.  For the last 5 years, you've diligently put 10% of your base pay into the 401K.  In addition, you are also investing a sizable percentage of your take-home pay in stocks and mutual funds.  A good friend of yours from Washington comes down on a week-long visit.  The topic of investments comes up.  Your friend immediately begins pleading, in an exasperated tone of voice, that you have to stop stuffing your money in a mattress.  You have to wake-up and start investing some of it.  You tell him that you are investing a large amount of money and that you have nothing "stuffed in mattresses."  He seems not to hear and continues to plead the case for investment as a friend who is genuinely concerned about your well-being.  This ridiculous conversation goes on for about 20 minutes...then recurs several times during his visit.

After returning home, your friend calls you several weeks later.  At one point in the conversation, he clucks in despair at your backward lack of investments.  Now this friend of yours knows other friends of yours in Washington.  They see each other from time to time.  Over the next couple of years, it becomes apparent that this misguided friend of yours has rallied support from your other friends to rescue you from you lack of investing.  Now, in phone conversations, your other friends are scoffing at your lack of investment prowess and complaining that you're "so conservative" with your money.

This is a typical Washintonian behavior.  I call it "Pigeon Holing" because some random, usually derogatory, groundless assertion is assigned to some bloke.  The guy is forever "Pigeon Holed" and the banner is taken up by a variety of associates.  In a way, it is sort of like a nasty political smear campaign, made up by opposition spin-doctors.  The story above is only one of several such unpleasant episodes that really happened to me.  This kind of thing has only involved people from Washington.  I have never encountered it in people from other parts of the US.  It is an immensely frustrating and exasperating experience.

On the surface, the perpetrators seem stupid.  They have no facts or observations to back-up their derogatory assertions; it seems made up out of thin air.  They cling to this belief, even in the face of contrary evidence.  However, in cases where it has happened to me, I know the guys involved; I know they are smart, college educated people.  What gives?

Well, I've spent years trying to figure this one out, and I've come up with a working theory that seems to fit the facts.  I'm fairly sure it's right, or close to the true answer.  I think it boils down to low self-esteem again.  Say you feel like a total screw-up, or are at least very insecure about your self worth.  You make a few investments and maybe some of them work out OK.  A success!  You're flagging ego is greatly encouraged by this; it's like a gulp of air to a drowning man.

To maximize this new found sense of value, it would be useful to imagine that what you are doing is special; the normal rank-and-file commoner is oblivious to such advanced techniques.  You need an ignorant subject to parlay your sense of success against; if none are ready at hand, just invent one.  Pick someone, anyone, and just assume they are clueless about the topic.  To make it more socially acceptable, assume the guise of trying to "help" the hapless dork out of his assumed "predicament."  Conveniently ignore evidence suggesting this is not really an issue.  It is helpful to use a "dork" with whom your other acquaintances have infrequent contact.  That way, the charade may be continued much longer without "facts" getting in the way.

Pervasive Telephone Neurosis

I couldn't decide whether this one was just another example of "Pigeon Holing," or something a bit different.  Because the behavior is so involved and widespread, I decided to give it a section all to itself.  It seems to almost rise to the level of a neurosis.

Here's the situation in a nutshell:  Many of my Washington friends get miffed because they say I don't call them.  But I do...I call each one of them about every 3 to 6 months; and either talk to them or leave a voice mail.  When I leave voice mail, they claim to never have received it...but I know I left voice mail.  Some of them insist they call me approximately every other month and leave voice mail.  However, there is no voice mail on my answering machine, and the caller ID records show no evidence of such a call.  They typically become rather irritated and insist that I screen most of my calls...but I don't.

So is there some kind of weird technical problem with calls placed between Texas and Washington?  It seems unlikely.  I know what the situation is on my end.  Are some of my friends deliberately lying about all this?  No, I don't think so.  They appear to really believe they are not receiving my calls and believe they are placing calls to me.  Now ruling out some kind of technical problem, this is just not possible...their perceptions have to be wrong.

So again, here's another example of strange, seemingly irrational behavior with no apparent basis in fact.  I've puzzled and puzzled about this, and I think it's likely related to low self-esteem again.  I think the person feels unappreciated, unloved, or rejected somehow...maybe it's a kind of victim mentality.  Their feelings will be justified, if they can find someone who treats them callously, one who returns scorn for their kindness.  If such a subject is not at hand, create one; it is necessary to have one.  Make an assertion, with or without grounds, about the subject.  That assertion must imply grievous mistreatment or careless disregard for the feelings of the perpetrator.  The subject becomes the justification for their feelings of rejection.

So, in the case of the Telephone Neurosis, the assertion is that I don't think they're worth talking to, so I just ignore their calls.  I also don't call them because again, they're just not worth talking to.  See how that self-esteem thing comes into play?  It doesn't seem to occur to them that they might be wrong.  They are truly not aware of the self-deception they practice.  However, I've become convinced it's not the individuals...it's the culture somehow subtly training them to have this kind of self-image and behave this way.  It's a sort of weird denial thing I've seen on many levels amongst Washitonians.  They aren't even aware they're doing it.

Better Than You

In the spent the summer following my junior year in college employed in San Francisco.  I worked with another guy from Iowa named Dale.  We spent some amount of time talking about what life was like in Iowa and Washington.  I remember extolling the virtues of Washington and it's people.  I distinctly remember telling Dale, "People in Washington are more independent and self-reliant than people back east."  I was surprised when Dale seemed offended by the remark.

After that incident, I started thinking about what I had said.  I had grown up hearing Washitonians saying their land and people were special and superior...in so many words.  I grew up believing that and it seemed self-evident to me.  I had never really stopped to critically reflect upon it and suddenly realized the arrogance of that position.

I think a lot of Washington people actually believe this deep in their hearts.  I've observed this arrogant attitude amongst most people on the west coast and to a lesser degree in states west of the Rockies.  Sure, all states have a certain provincial pride, but in Washington, it runs much deeper.  Texans are famous for their state pride, but they don't necessarily think less of people from other states.  In Washington, they have that same state pride plus some AND are rather disdainful of people from other states; though natives of Oregon and Idaho are tolerated.

For example, in the last decade or so, there has been an exodus of Californians coming to Washington to begin new lives.  Every Washington native I have ever heard comment about this has strongly derided those transplanted Californians.  Some Californians are oddballs and don't fit in, but both odd and normal seem to earn the same disgusted scorn.  The Washington people just seem irrationally judgmental and stuck-up.

Any state south of Illinois and east of New Mexico is largely considered a cesspool of bigotry and racism by popular Washington culture.  Talk about bigotry...what hypocrites!

Where does all this antisocial BS come from?  Ignorance?  Low self-esteem again?  Who knows.

Cultural Correctness Potpourri

There are many pathological "norms" and behaviors scatter like landmines across the cultural landscape of eastern Washington.  Many of these appear to migrate up from California like some kind of bird flu, infecting the populous with even more inane, irrational behavior.  I offer a sampling here:

  • Anti-smoking - I dare you to try to have a rational discussion about smoking with anyone from Washington state.  Most of them are violently against it, and don't know why beyond the propaganda BS they've heard from others.  Don't get me wrong...I think smoking is bad for your health, no doubt about it.  There's a difference though between a rabid, irrational reaction and a considered position.  Curiously, many of these people think marijuana is OK and should be legalized.  It's tobacco smoking that is evil.  Got that?  Makes perfect sense, right?
     
  • Granola People - There's a certain back-to-nature, quasi-hippie focus through whole society.  It takes many forms:  tree-huggers, ELF activists, Hiroshima day die-ins, wearing Birkenstocks everywhere, hanging out at Starbucks, etc.  You are expected to make a regular pilgrimage to the great outdoors to do some hiking, mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, etc.  If you don't to this at least a couple of weekends a month, you're considered backward and possibly questionable in your political beliefs.  Any favorable talk of industry, even Microsoft, invites distain and a hail of scoffing, sarcastic comments.  You'll fit in best in Washington if you obsessively make emotional and/or sarcastic comments about Enron, conservative politics, nuclear stuff, space exploration, food additives, "radiation" from power lines and your PC monitor, unhealthy tap water, hunting, logging, pesticides, the petroleum industry, El Nino, global warming, the military, etc.
     
  • Gray Supermarket Shuffle - After living for a few years in Texas, my wife and I went back to Washington for Christmas.  While there, we needed stop by a grocery store to pick up some things.  We walked in and were quickly stunned by the behavior of the people.  The shoppers were all dressed in Earth tones, mostly grays and browns.  They grimly pushed their shopping carts up and down the aisles in a silent shuffle.  Their eyes carefully avoided other humans and were directed to the floor or the product they picked off the shelf.  It was like a funeral procession.  There was no sound in the store save the muffled shuffling of feet, the occasional squeak of a shopping cart wheel, and the beep-beep of the cash register.  It was almost creepy.

    I didn't remember it being like this, but my perspective had changed since we left Washington.  When my wife and I moved to Texas and went shopping, we immediately noticed that everyone was looking around...even at each other.  People we didn't even know would look at us and bid us a warm "Howdy!"  It really freaked us out at first; we even thought some of them might be mentally ill...you know, like some of those bag ladies you sometimes see on the street talking to themselves.  After about a year, we got used to it and didn't notice.  People would stop and coo about our baby, talk to us, smile at us, and just generally were pals; we didn't know them.  It was just a warm friendly culture; very different from we came to expect living in Washington.
     
  • Friends Made Through Mutual Acquaintances - Basically, most people in Washington make new friends by being introduced by a mutual friend.  You don't normally just step up to someone and start the friend-making process.  This contrasts greatly with Texas where the assumption seems to be that you are already friends until proven otherwise.  This was another one of those things that freaked my wife and I out when we first moved down here, because we had been so conditioned by Washington culture.  People we didn't even know would walk up and starting friendly conversations with us, invite us over for dinner, and were generally pals right off.  We did know if they were mentally ill, perverts, or serial killers luring us into their lair.  After a while, be began to realize they were just friendly.  In retrospect, Washington state seemed terribly anti-social.
     
  • The Dress - Any self-respecting eastern Washington person must be attired properly to be socially accepted.  The desired uniform will be selected from blue jeans, flannel button shirts, cowboy boots, Berkenstocks, and sneakers.  Cowboy hats are frowned upon, but baseball caps are tolerable, however, in any case no cap is preferred.  T-shirts will due in a pinch, but polo shirts are suspect and dockers are questionable, especially if you wear them a lot.  Sandals are OK as long as you are clearly identifiable as a granola artist.