This page last updated on 04/17/2017.
Copyright © 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer
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:
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:
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.
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: