When We Say Hello

You say that the geography of where you live in town tells so much about who you are: Are you rich or poor, artsy or sporty, are you there for schools or for the new urban measure of “walkability?”

Chicago neighborhood map, from SeanParnell

Those of you from the biggest cities of DC, NY, Boston, Chicago, SF, LA, and Houston often said the more granular the answer, the better.  One of you from Boston writes:

For instance, in Cambridge and Somerville, people will often give where the live by their nearest square or subway station: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Union, Ball, etc.

From Chicago: Identity is defined in layers. First, whether you’re from the north or south side: the great, indelible divide. Secondly, what neighborhood you live in. There are so many gradations– “near north side”, “far south side”, “south loop” — but the orientation is always north or south.

“Where did you go to high school?”  All these places weighed in: Louisville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and the island of Oahu.

From New Orleans: In New Orleans, the most common orientation question on meeting someone is probably “Where’d you go to school?”  That means high school (for everyone… no doctor would think you were asking about med school).  This nails down neighborhood and also social class to some extent since the answer could be a public, private or parochial (Catholic) school.

From Baltimore: Baltimoreans always ask “Where did you go to school?” and it ALWAYS means, “Where did you go to high school?” Baltimore is a working class town, and college was not an aspiration for folks; your identity, character, life’s trajectory was defined in toto by the place you went to high school.

“Where do you go to church?”  These from Greenville SC,  from rural Idaho, and VA, and I’ve seen it reported elsewhere from rural Maine and Kentucky. Interestingly, Chicago also makes this list. And in Chicago, you look for very thinly-sliced answers to the question “What’s your parish?”

Two Chicagoans writes that “parish” is the word to use, and everyone, even non-Catholics get this social parlance:

 “What neighborhood are you from?” which came out as “What’s your parish?” Even the Chicagoans who were not Catholic usually knew the answer, and the answer served as a social marker for everything from your baseball team to your likely politics, to your geographical desirability as a candidate for a movie on Friday night at a school where so many students – in those days – were commuters.

And another echoes: “What parish did you grow up in?” Even non Catholics will answer St. Mathias, but we weren’t Catholic.


Migration patterns in and out of Austin, from GayInTexas
Where do you work?” variety. But not so! While it remains strong in DC (I can attest to that personally) and NY and also from one writer from Anaheim, some of you report this question this question is shrinking in popularity, and offer a few reasons why this is the case:

From a baby boomer formerly in Denver: I’m originally from Denver, where “What do you do?” and “Boy, those Broncos, they sure [fill in the blank based on how they’re doing]” are used in about equal measure for people my age (I’m 46). It seems like Millennials ask “What do you do?” less, perhaps because many of them are still trying to figure that out.

From a Gen X’er in LA: asking what someone does for work seems too judgmental.

And even where the question remains popular, it has taken on a twist—going for the granular information.

From DC, with analogous versions in NY: in DC, the question is often more specific: So, are you a veteran of Rep/Sen X’s office too?


American ancestry patterns, from Wikimedia

Finally, a number of you offer this: “What are you?”  Talk about blunt! For those of us unfamiliar, this is a request for ethnic or genealogical information. It may have lost some of its popularity over time.

Finally, there is a grab-bag category of questions, which seem to be driven by local obsessions.

From LA:  The opener, “How did you get here” meaning surface streets or freeway? And another LA resident adds, I also ask “Where did you park?” parking is so difficult or expensive here, that I am perfectly serious and sincere when I ask it.

From CO: In Colorado, it’s “Where do you ski? (hike/mountain bike/fish)?”  And it’s never asked after noon on Friday because everybody is already en route.

From the Bay area“What will we be eating?/what smells great?/what did you bring?” (Long conversation follows about similar things eaten)

And from Houston, a comment that shows language change over time, reflecting a change in the town itself: I moved to Houston (which is where I live now) in 1980. At that point, nobody was from Houston. So the usual follow-up questions was “Where are you from?” and then “What brought you here?”. Over time, this has evolved into one of two questions (still in Houston) “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?”

And from NY and DC, (not really an obsession)“How do you know the host?”

Finally, from one sensitive reader, whom we should all be so lucky to run into one day: “So, what’s your story?”

I have found it to be a versatile and effective utterance. Probing enough to educe some interesting responses, but not so specific as to seem overly invasive. It allows the respondent to adjust a reply to their level of comfort, to project an answer of really any form they want, describing any aspect of themselves with a higher degree of truth (or, at least, externally maintained truth) that they feel is essential to their… well, story. An additional perk is its leveraging of the narrative structure, through which we humans often frame most of life’s events. Bonus points for uniqueness too.