Foundational community assumptions

Note: I believe this article is largely true, but also I am engaging in stereotyping that is definitely not true to a person. This article reflects my perceptions and experiences, and not what every person in North Carolina or every person in Seattle is like.

We moved to Seattle three and a half years ago from southwestern Virginia; before that we lived in North Carolina. Southwestern Virginia was a little different from North Carolina, but after moving to Virginia I concluded that the place where you live is a minor factor in how your life works. You can "make the best of it," and live your life the way you choose to live, anywhere.

In moving to Seattle, I noticed many things that people who live here take for granted, that are often diametrically opposed to what people in North Carolina might take for granted. This has turned into a mini-hobby for me, for example through the Twitter hashtag #justseattlethings. Noticing these assumptions has helped me understand that where you live is actually a significant part of the person you become.

Here are a few of the many differences I've noticed.

Unsolicited activism: Animal rights vs. Christian fundamentalists

In North Carolina, when people came to knock on our door they were usually Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, or other Christian groups. On the brickyard at NC State, the main fixture was a fundamentalist preacher. At Christmas, if there were any protests they would be about "keeping the Christ in Christmas."

In Seattle, the first people who knocked on our door were from Environment Washington asking for donations to stop factory farms. I am vegan and thought I was being targeted somehow, but this group was just going door to door for animal rights. At Christmas downtown, PETA was protesting the treatment of animals in front of the Westlake Christmas tree. Walking near Seattle University, someone asked me to consider becoming vegan for the environment.

There are Christian fundamentalists in Seattle; I've seen them at the University of Washington as well as downtown protesting. Certainly there are animal rights groups in North Carolina, too. However, I think it's fair to say that people here take animal rights activism for granted in the same way that North Carolinians might take Christian fundamentalist activism for granted.

Introverts as the dominant culture

I believe that Seattle is a city of introverts, and that the city self-selects for introverts by being dark for most of the winter, by being rainy, and by large empty spaces inside the city (parks) and outside (water, islands, and state and national parks). Seattle therefore has things introverts like, such as a great library system, coffee shops, board game stores, and cinemas and film festivals. All these introverts result in what people call the "Seattle freeze," where people say they want to hang out but it's hard to make personal connections.

In Seattle it can be jarring to run into an extrovert–it can feel awkward even when people are talking loudly. Where we lived in North Carolina, there were introverts but introverts weren't ubiquitous.

Systemic thinking vs. being nosy

In Seattle our kid asked a teenager working at the carousel, "I want a to ride on an animal that moves up and down. Which animal should I sit on?" The teenager's answer was, "look for animals with the larger diameter poles–the poles are bigger so they can hold the mechanism to move the animal up and down." I was struck that in North Carolina, that sort of answer, answering not only the question but explaining the system, would never be considered–the answer would be "sit on that animal" (while pointing).

Similarly, at a conference in Anaheim I was walking back to my hotel next to a fellow conference-goer and we started talking about why the traffic on the road beside us was so bad. The city had designed really long blocks with U-turns in the middle that merged with fast oncoming traffic. We were both curious about why this traffic problem existed; it turns out that stranger also happened to be from Seattle.

At work or around town in Seattle, most people are very open to engaging in why things work the way they do.

In contrast, people we know who have moved from the Pacific Northwest to North Carolina say that the same sorts of questions can come across as being nosy. If you ask someone why the line at the movie theater is so slow, that question would often come across as trying to stir up trouble or not minding your own business.

Again, this is not to say that people never come across as being nosy in Seattle, or that people in North Carolina don't enjoy talking about systemic issues, just that the dominant community assumption in Seattle is you're curious vs. the dominant community assumption in North Carolina is you're not minding your own business.

Public transit is the ethical choice vs. public transit is for poor people

Seattle traffic is horrible. I believe horrible traffic is the reason why Seattle has a good bus system, light rail, a streetcar, a regional rail system, and other public transit options. Many people here don't think that public transit is good enough–paradoxically, that is the exact reason why the transit is good. Seattle doesn't have the infrastructure of Chicago or New York City, but it's way better than anything in North Carolina.

Because Seattle has good transit and traffic is horrible, many people take public transit. Why sit alone in a car for 45 minutes to get downtown, when you could read on a bus or on the light rail and it only takes 20 minutes? This leads to the next question: why would you ever drive alone? The city also has a commitment that everyone should live within a quarter mile of a public transit option that runs every 10 minutes. There are definitely people in Seattle who believe public transit (or more specifically anything besides single vehicle cars) is the ethical option due to the environmental impact of driving.

In contrast, although I have attempted to use public transit in Winston-Salem, Durham, and Raleigh, to a large extent people in North Carolina perceive transit as the option of last resort. The Winston-Salem bus from downtown to my job, which I took for a long while, ran once an hour and it rarely ran on time. If anything the buses received less funding each year.

Two of the big reasons for public transit being hard to use in North Carolina are that everything is far apart and traffic isn't that bad. People driving through Research Triangle Park at 5 PM on a Friday might think traffic is bad, but driving on I-5 in Seattle on a Sunday morning–where all five lanes each way are still filled with cars–puts RTP traffic into context.

North Carolina's public transit is hard to use–and much less convenient than driving, if you can afford a car–which is one of the reasons why people don't use transit. This means the people riding public transit are the people who can't afford a car.

Liberal vs. conservative defaults

North Carolina has many liberals and has a history (currently on the wane) of being a progressive Southern state. That said, eight times out of ten a bumper sticker, sign, political billboard, or advertisement in North Carolina would be conservative. As examples: giant confederate flags by I-40, confederate flags flying on the back of pickup trucks, "you can pry my guns out of my cold dead hands" bumper stickers, and lots of Trump signs. The most liberal bumper stickers would be something like "Coexist" written with different religious symbols. On our December 2018 visit I saw one "F*** TRUMP" sticker (it was censored).

Seattle is extremely liberal by comparison. Although I have seen conservative bumper stickers, they are almost always from people on cars from out of town. On the other hand, there are many liberal stickers, signs, and advertisements. As examples: "Protect children from faith healing" (Atheist group), "FUCK TRUMP" hats worn by old white men and on stickers (not censored), or "Real Rent Duwamish" (to pay reparations to the Duwamish tribe for colonization). The day after the 2016 elections our neighbors put a "NOT MY PRESIDENT" sign in their window. I remember seeing a Socialist Halloween party flyer on the community board at my kid's school.

Do what you want vs. do what the community wants

In North Carolina I would feel silly skateboarding, because I'm a grown man and grown men should not be skateboarding. Or, I might feel like my kid needs to go to church or play sports because "that's what kids do." Being vegan was outside the norm, and I'd sometimes felt like my being vegan was offending other people because, for example, "in North Carolina people eat barbeque." People wearing spiky leather jackets or visible tattoos are noticed and treated differently.

I know some people are quick to judge in Seattle, but to a large extent Seattle feels like you can do what you want and that's OK, as long as it doesn't negatively affect other people. Wear a suit and carry a guitar to work? Cool. Face tattoo? Cool. Take photos of every mailbox? Cool. I've bought a skateboard and (very rarely) use it, but I don't feel embarrassed about it. Our old neighbors all wore spiky leather jackets and that was normal–the only people out of place were people who made a big deal out of it.

Definitely a lot of this difference is in my head, and again none of this is true to a person, but the default in North Carolina seems to be "freedom from offense" (e.g. "I don't want to see face tattoos") vs. the default in Seattle is "freedom to be you."

The above are a few of the foundational differences, although there are many more. The experience of moving across country demonstrated to me the impact of where you live on what you become. For example, here it feels like less of an inconvenience to others that we're vegan, and our kid's school teaches that each student has a role in building diverse and accepting communities. I couldn't conceive of these differences in foundational community assumptions prior to the move.