Turns Out Where You Live Really Does Shape Who You Are

By Emily Badger

The Atlantic Cities

Turns Out Where You Live Really Does Shape Who You Are

Mark Twain penned a famous line more than a century ago neatly distilling the distinct cultures of the three largest cities in the American Northeast. “In Boston,” he wrote, “they ask, ‘How much does he know?’ In New York, ‘How much is he worth?’ In Philadelphia, ‘Who were his parents?’”

Boston has been, since its earliest days, a city of higher education, New York a city of financial might, and Philadelphia a city of historical lineage. To this day – Twain wrote this in 1899 – much about his assessment still holds. We often joke about what these cultural legacies mean for ourselves (Chicagoans are so sensible, Angelenos so flaky, people in Salt Lake City so self-reliant). But it turns out there is in fact plenty of truth to the notion that the places where we live influence how we view the world and our role in it.

Take, for example, Boston and San Francisco. Victoria Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist at the UC Berkeley School of Law, went to school and taught in both of these cities. And she recalls that their cultural norms manifested in very different ways in how students behaved (or, rather, how they perceived that they should behave). In Boston, she recalls, it seemed important for students to make a great show of how hard they were working.

“Those social status markers mattered: where you were going to school, how hard you were working,” she says. “Whereas in the Bay Area, I felt what mattered to students was – they were working hard – but it mattered to show you had time to go out and play ultimate Frisbee on the oval. It was like a duck smoothly gliding on the surface but paddling furiously below.”

At a very basic level, the cultures of these two places shaped for these students their understanding of how to be (their sense of “self”) and how to be well (or their “well-being,” in Plaut’s language). This is not an uncommon idea within the national or even regional context. America is typically described as having its own character and values, prizing freedom, liberty and individualism. And distinctions emerge at the regional level too, between, say, anti-government Appalachia and Calvinist-inflected New England. But following this idea down to the more local level, Plaut and several of her colleagues wanted to look more closely at what our cities mean for our selves.

“We knew that cities have local dialects and local vocabularies and local economies and industries and economic realities, local newspapers and radio stations,” she says. “We thought all of those things should mean that cities are cultures, too.”

Plaut and her co-authors, Hazel Rose Markus, Jodi Treadway, and Alyssa Fu, published their findings in the paper “The Cultural Construction of Self and Well-Being: A Tale of Two Cities” (the hat tip for the Mark Twain quote goes to them). They focused in their research on San Francisco and Boston, two cities steeped in quite different popular narratives about the stodgy and history-oriented East and new and shiny West.


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