Ambiguity is scary
March 16, 2011 8:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving from Small Town, Midwest to Big Metro Area, East Coast within the next month. What do I need to know to prepare myself mentally for the transition?

I have lived in the midwest almost all my life and am only vaguely familiar with the east coast (lived there as a young child and have made a few short trips there). I haven't spent a lot of time in big cities and the town I'm in now is half an hour's drive away from the next town. I know it's going to be a big change and I need advice for how to adjust. Things like--how does a normal city dweller cope with traffic? I have hardly ever encountered a traffic jam in my existence.

I'll be living in the suburbs but will be very near big cities and in an area that is much more densely populated than what I am used to.

Apologies if this is a repeat question. I wasn't able to find anything in a tags search.
posted by Lobster Garden to Grab Bag (29 answers total)
It completely depends on which city you are moving to. Driving in the NYC suburbs is completely different from sitting on the Beltway in DC.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:20 AM on March 16, 2011

I have hardly ever encountered a traffic jam in my existence.

Or the road rage that comes with it I guess?

I grew up in Philadelphia, but have lived abroad for most of my adult life. When I go back to Philly I get energized by how rude the people are. Even hostile. It's wonderful, but of course I grew up with it. I have heard, however, that people from other parts of the country find it rather unpleasant.

Don't take it personally. If there is anything you can do to mentally prepare yourself, it is this.
posted by three blind mice at 8:31 AM on March 16, 2011

When I moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, I was up all night worrying about driving down the 405 to the airport. As it turns out, it wasn't scary at all. I quickly learned that if traffic is heavy, it's going to be slower, which is much less stressful from a fear point of view (but more stressful once you get used to it and are stuck sitting on the freeway for an hour when it should be a 10 minute trip). My advice for dealing with heavy traffic: 1. Know where you're going. Look at your route beforehand and make sure you know your exits. 2. If you get lost, pull over immediately and figure it out. I'm sure a GPS would be extremely helpful as well but I've never used one.
posted by something something at 8:33 AM on March 16, 2011

This really depends on where you are moving to. Also, when you say "big metro area", do you mean within the actual city proper, or in the surrounding metro area?
posted by smalls at 8:34 AM on March 16, 2011

Oh, I see you did say suburbs. But still, I think this is really dependent on where you are going to live... especially for things like mass transportation and pedestrian/bike friendliness.
posted by smalls at 8:37 AM on March 16, 2011

I am also a small town Midwesterner who moved to the East Coast. (First to Long Island and now in D.C. with some stints in NYC in between.)

One of my traffic strategies was to try and take alternative routes whenever possible. One route may be shorter mile-wise, but another may allow me to avoid traffic. Even if it took me 10-20 minutes longer, I would generally choose the less trafficy route. Alternatively, I would take public transit whenever possible.

Regarding rudeness, I've often found that if I was nice and polite people generally wouldn't be very rude. It doesn't always work, but it's effective enough.
posted by statsgirl at 8:39 AM on March 16, 2011

In my experience moving from Michigan to Massachusetts, people in the midwest who tell you that Midwesterners are the nicest sweetest neighborliest people ever, and the Big City, and those Yankees, and the East Coast is a terrible, mean, vindictive place full of rude, unhelpful meanies are in fact totally incorrect. Midwestern friendly means you can spend 10 minutes at the checkout counter discussing how those beans you're buying make a delicous plate of beans. East coast unfriendly means you nod and smile to the cashier, she might say "oh, these are delicious" but there's no conversation. I have not found any difference between the communicativeness of neighbors, the say hi to the lady who walks her black lab down my block even though I forgot what she said her name was, the willingness of people to ask for or give directions, the likelihood that the lady from your yoga class will recognize you and say hi at the supermarket, etc. So, don't worry. People are not MEAN. In fact, I've had a much easier time making friends here where you don't talk to strangers but you do get to know aquaintances, than in the Midwest where you're chatty with anybody but not friends unless you've known them since childhood.

It will seem different, and that may seem rude at first, but it's not really. A faster pace means it's assumed that everyone's got someplace to be, so less inclination to engage in idle conversation with strangers. But that means you don't have to say how are you today fine thanks before you ask somebody where to find the bathroom. The larger number of strangers you encounter every day means it's statistically more likely you'll encounter somebody who's having a terrible day and taking it out on the universe, but everybody else on the subway car will roll their eyes and chuckle at each other, and you'll adjust to crazyguy not being your problem.
posted by aimedwander at 8:40 AM on March 16, 2011 [9 favorites]

It does depend where. I'd just say, as an East Coast person who moved to the Midwest and then back, get ready for the pace of everything to be faster. Talking, walking, everything. (Except, as noted above, heavy traffic. That will definitely be slower.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:41 AM on March 16, 2011

I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs as well as grew up in NYC area. If you are moving to NYC, first thing to understand is that "Fuck you" is a greeting no different than "What's up?", not a call out. Second, I think you need to get used to a different type of driving skills. Third, I think the default posture by most people is defensive, but once it is clear that you are not a "threat" east coasters are just as friendly and willing to help as the fine folks in our heartland.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:52 AM on March 16, 2011

I grew up in the midwest in a small town, moved to New England, then to California, and now to urban DC.

As a resident, I try to just take it in and keep reminding myself to not be judgmental and try to adapt.

However, my mom's interpretations of these places that I've lived:

Vermont: the "Yankee reservedness" is "unfriendly" to my mom (whereas I now view the Midwestern "politeness" as annoying and fake...)
California: the "unfriendliness to strangers" is "rude" to my mom (whereas I now see that people are being cautious to stranger and are incredibly friendly and kind and real with people they know)
DC: mom thinks that everyone is moving too fast and it is too "urban" and "dangerous" (whereas I see it as a place to live with Stuff to Do and more diversity and the danger comes with the territory.)

My mom generally complains that it is harder to do stuff because there aren't these mega malls and Targets and grocery stores every 25 feet. She is also not a fan of public transit.

Personally, I'd recommend that you dive right in and move to the actual Big City. Suburbs tend to be boring and you might start equating some of boringness with the Big City itself.
posted by k8t at 8:53 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a big generalization, because all cities have even slightly different cultures, but because we are many people packed into a fairly small space, city people tend to make their own psychological space. This may come off as rudeness or unfriendliness, but it isn't, necessarily. I don't make eye contact with everyone I walk past. I don't smile or nod or say hello to everyone. (This is a little different in my neighborhood, because it's my neighborhood, and many of us recognize each other - this guy runs the corner store, that woman is the barista at my local coffee place, etc. - and will nod, say hi, etc.)

For traffic and driving stuff: leave yourself lots of time until you get to know your routes well. Don't panic if you miss a turn - you can go around the block, or take the next exit. Find a safe place to pull over and consult your map if you're worried you'll get lost. (Oh, and this may seem obvious, but apparently it isn't to a lot of people: Do not leave anything that looks remotely valuable visible in your car when you park it. Yes, even in your driveway. Put it in the console, glovebox, or trunk or bring it with you. Got TomTom or something? Hide it when you park)

On escalators, stand on the right, walk on the left. Don't stop at the top or bottom to get your bearings. Don't come to a screeching halt in the middle of the sidewalk to figure out where you are. It's fine to ask people for directions if you're hopelessly confused - most city people, like people everywhere, love the opportunity to offer the best route to get from A to B.

One thing you'll have to pick up by experience is this: in some places, as a pedestrian crossing the street, you want to make eye contact with drivers who want to turn across your crosswalk; in other places, you do not make eye contact. I don't know why this is, but that's been my experience.
posted by rtha at 9:00 AM on March 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Invest in a GPS, especially if you're used to towns with some sort of grid system, and extra-especially if you're moving to the Boston area.

If you're walking around in the downtown area of a big city, act like you know where you're going. If you meander and take in the sights, you have a greater chance of getting hassled by pushy solicitors and aggressive panhandlers.

General pedestrian courtesy: if you are anywhere with a lot of people, be respectful of their space and their need to get around you. Don't stop in the middle of the sidewalk to consult your phone, move to the middle of the subway car instead of hanging out by the doors, and take care not to hit people if you're wearing a backpack. This doesn't necessarily apply to driving.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:05 AM on March 16, 2011

I am a life-long New Englander, living the last 13 years in New England cities, but I travel very often to the Midwest (particularly small town Midwest) for work.

The biggest difference I see is the food. Portions are bigger, cheesier (i.e more cheese) and sweeter than the food I usually get back in New England (minus the big chains---TGIF, Uno's). And there is way more variety in food types (ethnic, etc.) in New England versus the small-town Midwest.

The other big thing is the driving. I am a way more aggressive driver than the majority of people I encounter on the highways in the Midwest. So much so that I often notice it and feel bad. I am just barely aggressive here in the Boston area. Also, the aggressive driving will come the more you drive. I grew up in small-town New England and wasn't at all aggressive. A year or so in RI cured that.
posted by chiefthe at 9:10 AM on March 16, 2011

I will be living in the Baltimore/DC area.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:18 AM on March 16, 2011

*I see that you just posted you are talking about Washington D.C.
I typed out all of this thinking you were going to be more in the Northeast.... but maybe some if still applies. I think Virginia and Maryland and stuff might be a little different when it comes to people... but I have no idea.

I'm the opposite. kind of. I left living in Boston and moved to rural Tennessee and now in a small city in Tennessee. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston.

As everyone has mentioned, it depends on what area you're moving to.

I didn't deal with traffic in Boston, because I took the subway, buses and commuter rails.
The few times I did, I ended up in 5,000 one-way roads and stuck behind a bunch of people riding bikes.
Also, the driving is pretty aggressive. Which can be pretty scary if you're not used to it. Trying to get over in another lane during rush hour is somewhat of a skill. Also, the "move over if you're in the left lane going slow" is enforced by a lot of drivers. They'll tailgate you if you're driving slow in the "fast lane".

From my experience (Massachusetts/Boston) some differences could be:

-Everything is faster. People walk fast, cars are fast, service is fast (usually), people talk faster, etc.

-There are a lot more things to do - events, concerts, plays, festivals, museums, etc. So I really miss all of that. You'll always have something to do. Places stay open late.

-We're "mean". Sure not EVERYONE is mean... but let's just say, if you're commuting to the city for work - no one is gonna engage you in small talk, make eye contact or smile and say Hello when walking by on a busy street. Sense of humor is mainly sarcasm. Swearing is part of the dialect.... or it is for my family, friends and old co-workers. (probably not relevant in D.C.)

-Neighbors usually mind their own business. Again, this depends on where you will be living. But where i lived (both suburb and the city), I talked to maybe two neighbors a handful of times. I've never seen this whole "bring the new neighbor some pies and cookies" thing that I see on television and in the movies.

-People are less likely to push religion on you... not sure if that's common in the midwest but it is here in Tennessee.

-A lot of different races/types of people. Which I find awesome.

-Agree with the other commenters about subway/sidewalk etiquette.

Of course, take all this with a grain of salt. This is just my opinion/generalization coming from generations of a Boston family.
posted by KogeLiz at 9:29 AM on March 16, 2011

I grew up in rural New England (where people do tend to be stoic but sincere) and spent a few years in Los Angeles (where people tend to be ridiculously friendly but are often working an angle - to trade one broad stereotype for another) after college. I spent waaay too much time keeping score of all the ways L.A. wasn't like the northeast, and resenting most of them. When I made the conscious decision to make peace with my surroundings, things got a whole lot better. I remember my last couple of years there quite fondly, even though I moved back to New England as soon as I was able.

I think the single most important thing is to accept those cultural differences at face value and not get caught up in evaluating or judging them against what you're used to; living in a more densely populated area or getting used to Yankee reservedness, as k8t put it, are not necessarily better or worse than what you're used to, they just are. It's a great opportunity to do some casual anthropology, and even if you ultimately return to the midwest you'll be better for the experience.

As for traffic... don't knock public transportation if it's available in your neck of the woods. I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually driven in Boston, because all things considered it's so much more convenient to hop on the T at the outskirts of town and ride in. Ultimately how much of a concern traffic will be depends on which city you're near (Baltimore/DC I see - I'm sure other Mefites can elaborate there.) and how close you are to it and whether you even need to be on affected roads during rush hour.

Finally: don't be overwhelmed by the size or density of your new locale... when you land in a new, big place it's easy to feel completely anonymous and disconnected, but if you take walks around your neighborhood, or start to frequent a bar/coffee house faces will start to become familiar, and you'll establish a sense of neighborhood. If time allows, look for interesting opportunities to volunteer (as a museum docent for example.) It's a great way to 1) get out of the house, 2) Start to feel a little more engaged with your new community, and 3) Meet people from all walks of life. You never know where you're going to find your next good friend.
posted by usonian at 9:35 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there any reason why you're not being more specific with us about where you're going to be living? There are 8+ million people in the Baltimore-DC metro area, so it's not like we're going to figure out where you live.

For instance, things are going to be a lot different if you live in Bowie compared to Bethesda. (Hell. If it's Bowie, my advice would be to "Keep calm and carry on doing everything that you did in the midwest, because it's really not that different")

You'll catch on quickly. Don't sweat it too much.

Oh, and be careful around tollbooths. People seem to have trouble with those if they've never encountered them before.
posted by schmod at 9:38 AM on March 16, 2011

One thing you're going to have to rapidly readjust is you sense of scale and travel time. I live in northern Indiana now, but grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in New York City. Here, I drive about eight and a half miles to work every day, and it takes me about fifteen minutes. That's from the very north edge of town to literally the city square, mind you. It's also about the same distance from the very southern tip of Manhattan to the north end of Central Park, a trip which can take a truly arbitrary amount of time, easily over an hour, as anyone who lives there can attest. Getting from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn can easily take longer than that, depending on where you're going and when.

But that's not really it either. I drive about seventy-five miles to church every week, which is kind of a pain, but not something that many people in this part of the country consider to be all that unusual. Many people drive farther than that to work every day. But seventy-five miles is almost twice the distance between DC and Baltimore, and while there are certainly people that commute between the two, they tend to be considered fairly distinct localities.

This isn't just because of traffic either. The fact of the matter is that there's generally little need to travel that far to do just about anything you want. Unlike in the Midwest, where the next town can easily be ten or fifteen miles away with very little between them, on the East Coast the towns frequently blend more-or-less undetectably into each other. Where I grew up it was pretty much unbroken urban/suburban development between my parents house and the state capital, but there were at least a dozen municipalities between the two, all of which tended to be more-or-less complete in terms of services. The Megalopolis is a real thing.

Traveling any kind of distance also tends to be a bit more stressful. I can be in Chicago in three hours, and it's honestly a pretty relaxing drive, almost all of which is on one road. But a three hour drive in the DC Metro area will probably involve a lot more traffic, a lot less distance, and a lot more turns. Very little of the trip is likely to involve an interstate. People are just less willing to just jump in the car and do something two hours away, probably due to some combination of the facts that they probably don't need to go that far to do stuff and traveling is just harder than it is in more rural areas.

It also tends to involve a lot more walking. In most of Midwest, you can generally drive just about wherever you want and park within a few dozen yards of the door. A city block at the most. In DC, you could easily find yourself walking two blocks (or more!) to the Metro, waiting five or ten minutes for the next train, then walking two blocks (or more!) to your destination, repeating the process on the way home. In some cases it can actually be faster to just walk, though the weather can make this pretty unpleasant.

In short: your life is almost certainly going to involve a much smaller geographical area in the DC/Baltimore area than it does now. You'll have to get used to people back home not understanding why you're suddenly unwilling to travel as far as they do.
posted by valkyryn at 10:05 AM on March 16, 2011

Baltimore/DC isn't what I'd call fast-paced (I live in LA, but lived in DC for years.) Traffic on the beltway is a pain, even by LA standards.

Did you search here? There's a lot of threads about living in DC.

Baltimore has its own unique culture and vibe, and isn't much like DC. The cliche about the District was that it embodied Southern efficiency and Northern charm, but I don't think that's true any more.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just looked at your other questions--if you're in eastern Wyoming, I don't think of that as the Midwest (sorry, I figured Ohio, Illinois, and a bigger city you're close to.) You're coming from pretty much a rural area to an urban one.

Everything is much more dense. Towns, suburbs, houses, are all closer together. Parking can be hard to find, esp. in the District. Things will cost much more, but there's far more variety from which to choose.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2011

People change lanes a lot more when driving in New York than they do in Pittsburgh.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2011

The DC area is a traffic mess nearly all of the time, but especially so during any time resembling rush hour. The fact hat many drivers have little to no patience doesn't help matters. Given the amount of traffic, confusing interchanges and streets, and frequent diversions due to accidents or construction, I strongly reccomend a GPS for your vehicle or a smart phone with GPS capabilities.

Baltimore and its immediate surrounding area are nowhere near as bad when it comes to traffic, and I feel like there are more viable alternate routes available.

Motorists in this part of the country don't deal well with inclement weather, and even a moderate rain will frequently slow things down.

Except for the driving hassles, I really like living in this area and there are tons of things to do.
posted by imjustsaying at 10:44 AM on March 16, 2011

"hat" = "that" above.
posted by imjustsaying at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2011

Ideefixe, I am in Wyoming but I am pretty close to Denver and its suburban sprawl. I just almost never go down there.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:49 AM on March 16, 2011

You will likely be the first person from Wyoming that many people on the East Coast have ever met. They might think you're totally exotic and want to talk to you, or they might assume you're a dumb hick who used to ride a cow to work. Kidding, sort of. Baltimore (and MD generally) can feel very Southern to New Englanders who move there; I don't know if it would seem that way to you. Baltimore traffic can be...well, daunting. Not the drivers, but the roads. I'm not the only person I know who finds it harder to navigate than Boston. So if you find it confusing at first, know that it's not just you - experienced big-city drivers have been flummoxed by Baltimore driving too. And you will get used to it once you live there, I'm sure. DC has traffic circles, which might be a new thing for you. I've never been to WY but I don't recall any traffic circles in the mountain states I have been to. (I also wouldn't think of WY or CO as the Midwest.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:10 AM on March 16, 2011

Oh yeah, that's one of the other reasons driving out East can be quite a bit more stressful than out West: roads are almost never straight, nor laid out along cardinal directions. Not for long anyway. There are also a whole ton of overlapping route numbers, sometimes with conflicting directions! It's entirely possible to see a sign with something like "US 22 EAST/MD 314 WEST" or other such unhelpful combinations. In the Midwest and points further west, you basically know which direction all the roads go. This is totally not the case in the Northeast.

I'm not just talking about high-end suburban neighborhoods with roads that don't go anywhere either. Major traffic arteries can entirely reverse course at times, sometimes following the terrain, sometimes for reasons which would require a few hours down at the zoning board to figure out.
posted by valkyryn at 12:35 PM on March 16, 2011

I think, in DC, there's plenty of people who didn't grow up there. There's a state society, if you long to meet fellow Westerners, but why would you? (I grew up in Montana, and most people I met in DC were astounded that we had electricity 24 hours a day.)

The humidity, esp. in summer, can be really hard to adjust to. Even walking a block can seem like a deep-ocean swim. In summer, DC is also packed with tourists, who assume you're a tour guide.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:00 PM on March 16, 2011

If you're moving somewhere with good mass transit, heavily consider selling your car. Your traffic fears will be instantly solved.
posted by soy_renfield at 12:25 AM on March 17, 2011

2nd the streets thing. see this "why i drink" joke from reddit. DO NOT trust the estimated time. One "20 minute trip" lasted over an hour thanks to traffic.

One thing my introvert SO (small town type) commented on in DC is that 'it's always crowded'. The store, the movies, the streets, the roads. Don't expect 'empty' at any time.

Baltimore/DC area

Unless your in the endless suburban sprawl, those are far enough apart that suggestions for dealing will be different. I'm in the DC area and have only been out to B-more a handful of times in the past year.
posted by anti social order at 7:40 AM on March 17, 2011

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