In Kansas, we wave

I read an article the other day discussing how public acknowledgment helps people’s mental health.

It makes sense. Think back to early grade school memories. Nearly all of us yearned to fit in, to be recognized and addressed.
And nearly all of us remember the sting when that didn’t happen.

The article I read got into all sorts of measurements and metrics laid out in a study, but the gist was that people generally feel happier when others acknowledge their existence.

We can’t help it. We’re social creatures. Often we fear exclusion. Smiles, waves, nods and even eye contact make you feel included.

Being ignored or not having your invitation returned results in negative feelings.

I read this after a recent trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line, to celebrate Thanksgiving with the soon-to-be in-laws.

Sam’s folks are, for all intents and purposes, Kansas transplants down there.

We were in the car chatting as we headed to a restaurant when we noticed a woman putting up Christmas lights.

How nice. How festive.

So, we did what any Kansan would do when you see someone outside putting up Christmas lights in a near by neighborhood and make eye contact.

We waved.

“Keep it up,” our waves said. “Nice job” our waves said. “Enjoy your day” our waves said.

She stared at us. No wave. Just the cold, dead eyes of someone who clearly did not share our cheerful demeanor.
That sent Sam’s mom and I into a pretty angry rant about how rude the lady was. Sam tried to come up with alternative reasons to not attack the entire state of Tennessee.

“Perhaps she didn’t see you wave,” she offered.

We were not interested in sensible explanations. We argued how much nicer Kansans were.

It brought to mind another experience I had around 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, recently. My friend, another transplant who has been living in Mobile, Ala., for about three years wanted to buy beer and the liquor stores were closed. So, we stopped at a grocery store on the way home and I grabbed a frozen pizza before joining him in the beer aisle.

My friend was taking forever to make a decision. A nearby man made a joke, asking us if it really mattered what beer we picked out as we were holding a frozen pizza.

I laughed and found the interaction charming.

When we got out of the store my friend was clearly offended.
“What was that guy trying to say?” he asked.

I told my friend he was back in Kansas and had been down in the south too long. The guy was just being friendly.

Reading the previously mentioned article and thinking of these last two instances, I offer a theory held by a co-worker.

His theory goes, the further north you go, the more polite people are. Canadians are often stereotyped as the high water mark of polite in the western world.

Your next politest populations are Minnesotans, Dakotans and Wisconsonites, followed by our neck of the woods and so on.

He holds that in cold places you have to get along with each other as winter and indoor times last for sometimes more than half the year. If you’re a jerk, you’re alone and indoors for a very long time.
I’d build on that and add in a survival element. Many such populations are only a generation or two removed from the times where communities had to rely on each other and being neighborly for survival.

In milder climates with more established populations, those reliances and social programming perhaps never had to really develop. I have no science or graphs to back this up. It’s purely my own conjecture.

Leaving Kansas always makes me remember the good things about the state.

We’re not Minnesota nice, but we’re still a pretty friendly people.

Can you find the odd couch on a dirt road or “pee jug” at a Kansas roundabout? Yes.

Are our roadways covered with litter like other states further south? Nope.

There are still open spaces and relatively clean skies. Towns are laid out sensibly and easy to navigate.

Everywhere you go is generally pretty safe. People will help you out, give directions, head nods and at least wave.

Perhaps that’s not everything. But such behaviors always make me feel good to get home.

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