The Rude Belt

By Carlo Rotella


"""If you cut in line at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, others may think, 'What a jerk,' but they’ll also think, 'He’s clearly desperate for fine cheese.'""

I have this theory, which looks better and better to me the faster my money dwindles on the bar, that you can define any American region according to four factors: whether it has real winter, whether it’s bumpy or flat, how dry it is, and how rude it is. Let’s consider the last category, rudeness, an essential Boston subject.

Boston is the capital of the Rude Belt. Over the years various causes of the city’s exceptional rudeness have been proposed, everything from a Puritan hangover to the cowpath-based road net. One underrated factor is the feeling of impunity that comes of living in a place full of overeducated types who are unlikely to drag you out of your car and beat you to death for giving them the finger. They might scheme to deny you tenure, but that’s about it. Lack of fear of serious consequences emboldens people around here, especially the overeducated types, to behave like savages in public.

But, whatever the causes, everyday bad manners alone does not put Boston squarely in the heart of the Rude Belt, which extends down the East Coast to Washington and inland no farther than Altoona, Pa.. A more subtle defining Rude Belt trait is how you act when you’re trying to convey genuine urgency and importance to your fellow citizens.

By way of counterexample, take Chicago, where I grew up, well west of the Rude Belt. Chicago’s a bigger and rougher city than Boston but it’s also a place where you look strangers in the eye and say hello, and in Chicago you signal urgency with excessive politeness. If you burst into a White Castle and say something like, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to make a scene and I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was just in a car accident and I need some help,” the people there will take your formal tone as an indicator that you mean business.

Now, here in Boston you would take a different approach. In a similar situation, you’d burst in and say, “What’s the matter with you? Some idiot crashed into me and I need some help right now! What part of ‘get off your ass and give me a hand’ don’t you understand?” And you’d curse at least five times in the course of saying that. Rude Belters would be thinking, “If this wasn’t serious, he wouldn’t be so rude. We better get help.”

The same logic applies in non-emergency situations. If you don’t use your turn signal on Comm Ave or you cut in line at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, others may think, “What a jerk,” but they’ll also think, “She must really need to get where she’s going,” or “He’s clearly desperate for fine cheese.” As Rude Belters, they’ll see you as a person of substance to be reckoned with and even grudgingly deferred to.

We could all be a little more polite as we go about our business in Boston. But next time you have an emergency on your hands, remember that in the Rude Belt turbo-rudeness works like cultural lights-and-sirens. You can politely bleed to death, or you can be a jerk about it and live."

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor