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Midwestern Manners: “I cannot eat the last cookie unless I offer it to you first.”

Until you guys write me letters, I’m just going to keep posting about weird social interactions, okay?

I grew up on the East Coast, but have lived in the Midwest (Chicago) for the last 10 years, and there are some distinct cultural differences.   Once I went out on the world’s most boring first date, and we discussed some of these.

Him: “I went to Massachusetts once.  They called it ‘soda’ instead of ‘pop.'”

Me: “Yes.  And we call water fountains ‘bubblers.'”

Him: “Wow, that’s so weird.”

Sadly I did not have a ninja smoke bomb handy to make my escape, so there was like 90 more minutes of this crap while we dutifully masticated our Thai food and agreed blandly that we should totally do this again sometime.

Anyway, what I want to talk about here is the Midwestern practice of offering other people the thing you really want before you’ll let yourself have it  Anyone who lives here and who has been to any kind of baby shower or other LadyParty has watched Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox enacted on a plate of brownies knows what I’m talking about.  “Do you want the last one?”  “No, you take it.”  “Let’s cut it in half.”

When I moved out here, I didn’t know about this.

Honestly, I don’t know if I can chalk it up to cultural differences, because until, say, very recently I was very socially backward and not really able to read social cues until it was too late and the social cue was “You’ve screwed this up in some subtle way, weirdo.” But yeah, when I came out here, people would be like “Do you want the last brownie?” and I’d say “Sure, thanks!” and then I’d eat it and there would be this awkward silence while I did and it would get harder and harder to chew because I could tell something was wrong but not what was wrong.  If the person was close enough to me, I’d just ask, “Hey, is something wrong?” and of course they’d be too polite to tell me.  “No, everything’s fine.”  “Wait, did you want that brownie?”  “No, no, I wanted you to have it.” At which point I’d be like, “Okay, everything’s fine!” and the brownie would be tasty again.

There are other layers to this, the whole gross undertow of how women sometimes can’t admit that they want things, and where food is concerned there is even more weirdness, like certain foods are “sinful” (ugh) and you have to be always pretend that self-denial is some kind of virtue so it’s a competition on another level for who can be the most self-effacing and let the other person talk them into like, having dessert.  “Oh, I shouldn’t.”  “No, you should!”  “I couldn’t possibly!”  “Enjoy yourself!”  “Well, if you insist.”  We have to make it okay for each other to want things while allowing each other to save face through this ritual of pretending that we don’t really want those things because it would be too gauche to just eat the fucking last brownie and enjoy it.

So, not understanding the rules, I moved into an apartment with a roommate. We were trying to figure out how to choose our rooms, and she started the discussion with:  “Do you want the back room?  It will probably be quieter when you need to study.” and I said, “Sure, that sounds great.”

And then she quietly resented me for the next two years.

I DIDN’T KNOW.

So after 10 years out here, here’s the rule, I think:

If you’re in the Midwest, and someone offers you something – like the last brownie, or the room with the big closet and its own back porch – don’t just agree right away.  Just run through the ritual with them.  Let them offer.  Refuse.  If they offer again, it’s yours.

“Do you want the last brownie?”

“Okay, but don’t you want it?”

“No, you go ahead.”

Now has been transformed and sanctified by ritual into something you can consume without guilt.

If anyone who is actually from here has any further insight or examples of uniquely Midwestern Manners, please let me know.

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13 comments
  1. Sid said:

    An addendum to the rules of Brownie Engagement: You are expected to want a brownie, ESPECIALLY if you are a lady.

    The scene: Office

    Co-worker: Hey, Sid! I brought brownies! :D?
    Sid: Fantastic!
    Co-worker: Don’t you want one?
    Sid: No, I’m not hungry at all. But thank you!
    Co-worker: *twigs that something is not right* You don’t… want one?
    Sid: No, thank you. I love brownies, but I’m good for now.
    Co-worker: *cogs are turning to Make It Right* You are so GOOD. I can’t resist brownies!
    Sid: …Well, then I’m glad I won’t be taking yours! :D?
    Co-worker: Yeah… well… they’re over on the table!

    The brownies are an Offering. With my words, I told the co-worker that I liked brownies but wasn’t hungry. With the subtext my co-worker heard, I was telling her that her offering was BAD and SHE was bad.

    • JenniferP said:

      Don’t you know that all women crave chocolate 24/7? Sinful, delicious chocolate? :barf: What kind of freak are you?

  2. Joe said:

    The CEO at my place of employment likes to ask new hires how many are from the Midwest. Those who raise their hands (e.g., me) are told, “we’re going to talk about your disability.” I think of the seven years I spent living with the extrovert from Seattle as “communication studies”.

    • JenniferP said:

      Hee! And how do the resulting talks go? Does he teach you about how “You can just shout out your suggestion when you have one” and “You don’t have to raise your hand to go to the bathroom” and “By all means, get to the point!”?

      • Joe said:

        You know, I was laughing so hard, I think I missed the rest of the discussion, but I’m pretty sure it went as you guessed.

        Part of the problem is that we (I, at least) have been taught that the appearance of generosity is as important as actual generosity. I think this hope that we will avoid seeming to be selfish is what leads to us offering others things we want for ourselves, only to be disappointed when they take it. When I’m on your former roommate’s end, I try not to be resentful when someone takes me up on my seemingly kind offer.

  3. Virginia said:

    If I offer you the last brownie, I mean it sincerely.

    (Also, I do not love brownies.)

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m picky about brownies. They need to be sufficiently salty vs. too sweet. If I want the last one I’ll just eat it, so yeah, if I offer it to you it’s because I want you to have it.

  4. zayquana said:

    This is sort of like the brownie thing, but, at least in my family, more genuine. It is the “who pays the restaurant check” politeness battle. Basically, everyone who is an adult offers to pay the check, or at least some portion of the check, even if there was a previous agreement about how it should be paid. Then, everyone refuses to allow one person/persons to pay. Then, you wait for one of the people in the battle to not pay attention long enough to STEAL THE CHECK and pay it, hopefully without them noticing. Now, almost invariably, someone notices that the check has been paid. After ritual scolding of the offender, the other participants in the battle will offer them money for their portion of the check. If the money is not accepted, which it never is, you can expect to find it in a pocket/purse/the hands of your child, who has been instructed to give it to you later.

    • I know this ritual. Over Easter, with my father’s family (my father ALWAYS will fight to the end to pay, because he has the most money), they had this same battle. Turns out my uncle won in the end by sneaking over to my father’s house after dinner, before we got there, and leaving an envelope with cash taped to his front door.

  5. m said:

    I’m from the midwest (indeed, a state bordering on chicago), and female, and I don’t do this at all. I’m pretty direct.

    When I lived on the east coast for a few years, I found folks less friendly and less polite there than they were in the midwest, but not due to this issue, which I didn’t notice a difference in.

    However, since I have a personality type and thinking style that is more common amongst men, I notice that I often annoy some women in mysterious ways, and maybe this is one of them. :-) Therefore, I should try to remember this, but I probably won’t.

    ===
    I was on an internet date in London UK at a swanky bar which lasted 2 hours and seemed to be going fine. We each had 2 drinks and the bar staff brought over (unbidden) several small dishes of finger foods (for free).

    After the date, the guy wrote me and said that he didn’t want to see me again because he could tell that either I wasn’t interested in him or that I had bad manners (or both) because when the plentiful dish of olives got down to the last one, and the lone olive had been sitting there for quite a while in the dish, as the evening wrapped up (and I got increasingly hungry because I hadn’t had dinner), I took it and ate it.

    I wrote him back and asked him what he thought I should have done — perhaps ask him first if he wanted it?

    He said, “No — in a social setting, one is required to leave the last item in the dish, whatever it is — cashew, bonbon, biscuit, etc. No one eats it. You don’t ask each other if the other person would like it. You just silently leave it there.” That struck me as ridiculous. I did my own polite thing by leaving it there in case he wanted it, but after a while, you figure that if the other person is not taking it, not offering it to you, and not paying any attention to it, then he/she isn’t interested in it, so it’s fair game.

    I don’t think I’ve encountered another British person who seems to abide by this rule… but, on the other hand, I’ve probably not noticed if they did, because I was probably too busy eating the last thing on the communal plate. :-)

    • Christen said:

      A few years ago I decided one of my roles in life is to not be afraid to be the person who eats the last of something. I don’t like seeing food go to waste, not if it’s something delicious that I want right now. Sometimes I say, out loud, “Everyone has been ignoring that French fry for 10 minutes. Last call or it’s mine.” Which seems to be allowed in my (West coast, very nerdy) social circles. I can see it being gauche in some circumstances. But I think e-mailing someone you’ve met once to detail exactly which of their nerves you got on is a million times gaucher (more gauche? hell with it, I’m tired).

      • m said:

        I see what you mean about the gauche-eosity of it, but I’m actually one of the few people who really does want to know the truth about this kind of thing. I hate it when communication is suddenly ended, when there are no explanations, when people just disappear. Hearing the explicit reason only helped me realize that 1) he’s a nincompoop and 2) actually number 1 is enough not to spend any more time thinking about him!

        Maybe his going into detail about why he didn’t want to see me again (over a free olive) didn’t stand out as peculiar because around that time, I had already had an internet date with a guy who emailed me afterwards to say that he thought I was great, but he didn’t want to see me again because was concerned that…
        during our 3-hour date spent talking about tricky political and ethical issues (which was entirely his choice, but I’m okay with that sort of thing – nice change from superficial chatter), including the part where we both revealed that we were liberal, vegetarians, drank only a moderate amount of alcohol, did such-and-such, didn’t do such-and-such (etc.)…
        we disagreed on one topic, and that was whether you have the right to defend yourself and your property if someone who is obviously malevolent and has a weapon breaks into your property and seems to be threatening your personal safety or a significant amount of your property.

        [This is the UK, and they don't have quite the same approach to this as most folks do in the US -- there is (well, there was, until this past year when the new government announced that the innocent parties in such a scenario would have more official support) more concern about not harming the intruder even if he/she is threatening violence, and more blaming of and prosecuting the originally-innocent party if the intruder gets hurt in a confrontation.]

        My date explained to me that he that he thought that even if someone was attacking you, on your own private property, even if you had vulnerable people like children with you, you had no right to defend yourself or the vulnerable people, lest you hurt the intruder: you let them do what they want and hope that they leave quickly.

        Although I think that one’s opinion on this sort of thing is probably quite important (that attitude of letting someone do whatever they want to you even if it’s illegal and hurtful probably applies to many spheres of life, not just the specific situation of having someone intrude on private property), I was surprised that he decided this one particular point was reason enough to ignore the 99% of things that we had agreed about during the first date (and we both are pretty unusual people).

        I wrote him back and said I was glad that he had explained his reason to me, and I wished him well.

        A week later, he wrote me and said that he regretted turning me down over the one thing, and could we keep dating? My reply was, “No.”

    • lonelyolive said:

      Nah. That’s not British. That’s just dumb. As a half-Brit, half-American who’s lived and (more or less) functioned socially in both places; the British rule is the same as the Mid-Western rule. (But not the same as the Texan rule; in Texas this problem will never come up because the supply of food will be inexhaustible. If you’re down to just one olive in the dish in Texas, something has gone terribly wrong).

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