How people from away can avoid conflicts, dust-ups, and misunderstandings with the natives. (And vice versa.)
- By: Rob Sneddon
Photograph by Mark Fleming
Down East Etiquette
Here are some visual cues (numbers correlate to the numbers on the image at right; click on the image to enlarge it):
(1) Is it okay to park here? If you have to ask, then it probably isn’t. (2) How long is the wait? Grumbling won’t make a burger cook faster. (3) What’s your recipe? A fair question — unless you’re asking a professional cook about their lucrative, signature dish. (4) Can I bring my kids? Only if they were specifically invited. When in doubt, ask first. (5) Can I bring my dog? See answer to previous question. (6) Can I bring anything? This isn’t a rhetorical question: Mainers get many summertime guests, and entertaining can be hard work, especially if you yourself aren’t on vacation. (7) How do you stand it here in the winter? Just fine, and thank you for asking.
It started as a post in a food critic’s blog. It turned into something else.
John Golden, a contributor to MaineToday.com, had recently moved from Maine back to his native New York and was comparing the two places in a valedictory posting. He cast a stone or two over his shoulder (“I have reveled in great Chinese food and first-rate Mexican cooking, both of which are nonexistent in Maine”), but his blog was overwhelmingly favorable toward Maine.
You wouldn’t have known that from the comments it generated. The first — “Good riddance” — set the tone. The outpouring of negativity prompted Golden to respond: “Quite honestly filling this space has been less than fulfilling in the last year. Besides your often rude comments, so many two-bit barbs have been just plain mean.”
That prompted more comments, including: “Mainers are not mean, except when they’re treated like yokels by those who should know better. Didn’t that man’s mother ever teach him manners?”
At last we get to the crux of the conflict: manners. The definition is straightforward enough: “Ways of social behavior; deportment, esp. with reference to polite conventions.” Complications arise over the interpretation of “polite conventions” — especially in Maine, a state turbulent with clashing cultures. Says Beda F. Knight, founder of the Yarmouth School of Etiquette and Protocol, Inc., in North Yarmouth, “We have two Maines: southern Maine and northern Maine.”
And never the twain Maines shall meet. In both distance and demographics, Portland is closer to Massachusetts than to Madawaska. Factor in the tourists and transplants from all over the world, miscommunicating in a variety of languages — Lewiston, for example, has both a strong Franco-American heritage and one of the highest concentrations of Somalis outside Somalia — and Maine is fertile ground for faux pas.
The key to avoiding them, Knight says, is to show respect. “That’s really what etiquette is all about.”
Knight, a Portland native, learned that simple lesson at St. Joseph’s Academy (now Catherine McAuley High). “It was a school for young women to develop not just academic skills but also skills in terms of going out and dealing with the world,” says Knight. “I’ve always had a problem with people who are able to use the right fork and carry themselves in a conversation but are not truly kind.”
It’s the most important lesson for getting along in Maine: When you meet someone, look at them, not down on them. Take this simple step, and you’ll find that few Mainers conform to the stereotype of the chilly Yankee. The Down East Mainer, Knight says, “may not do a ‘correct’ handshake, but you’ll get the real deal. They’ll be kind, they’ll be generous, and they’ll extend themselves in a way that I think is true manners.”
Despite all the invective he’s endured, Golden agrees: “There are a lot of things going for Maine,” he says, “and the charm of the people is one of them.”
He attributes the high proportion of harsh comments on his blog to the price of honesty in his reviews and “the anonymity of e-mail.” What bothers him about the barbs, he says, is their triteness: “If people don’t like something, they accuse me of being a snotty New Yorker: ‘Go back to the Hamptons.’ It’s just dumb. Hayseeds.”
Of course, casually dismissing a portion of Maine’s population as “hayseeds” might be part of the problem. When speaking to or writing about Mainers, the same rules apply as when using ethnic humor: A member of the clan can get away with a lot more than an outsider can. If a native were to summarize the ambiance at a Maine restaurant as “pot bellies and polyester,” he would probably get a laugh. If Golden were to use the same line — and he has — well, look out. “Some people loved it,” he says, “and some people thought it was the worst thing in the world.”
Golden’s relationship with Maine seems complex and conflicted. He resents the “snotty New Yorker” label while at times conforming to it — as he himself recognizes. During the five years he lived in Maine, “I adjusted to the pace, and I liked it,” he says. “But professionally, I still worked at my own pace, and that didn’t always go over too well. I came off as aggressive.” He laughs. “And I thought I was being nice.”
How can aggressive equal nice? Golden’s explanation reveals the reason behind many a misunderstanding: “The quality of service in Maine is a lot more polite than it would be in New York,” he says. “But I’m talking about surface politeness. To get anything done — that’s another issue. Mainers are slow. If you call someone, it takes them four days to call you back. There’s no sense of urgency.”
In other words, New Yorkers would rather skip the pleasantries and get right to the point. In Maine, the pleasantries are the point.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than on the roads. “I’m a New York City driver,” Golden says. “In Maine, people seem to be dead at the wheel. If someone’s making a left turn in New York, you go around them. In Maine, everyone waits.”
The incredulity leaves his voice as he adds: “Of course, that can be nice. Because there’s less tension.”
Less tension. Keep that phrase in mind the next time you drive up to Maine from New York or Boston or Connecticut. Your goal ought to be to enjoy a change of pace, not to impose one.
And to Mainers: If someone from away is rude to you, try to shrug it off. Maybe they just arrived. Give them a chance to get the city out of their system.
The key to being accepted in Maine is not just in knowing what to ask, but how to ask. For instance . . .
Can I bring anything?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. If you’re visiting friends or relatives at their vacation cottage (or if you use their primary home as your vacation cottage), be prepared to provide your own food, linen, transportation, etc. Also, clean up after yourself, and try to entertain yourself at least some of the time, particularly if your hosts have to work during your stay. A vacation for you can be a burden for them, so don’t compound the stress by treating their home like a bed-and-breakfast. (Incidentally, staying at an actual bed-and-breakfast doesn’t exempt you from basic thoughtfulness. In particular, respect the posted hours for meal times and common areas.)
And if you move to Maine, be ready to practice these principles on a larger scale. Mainers have a strong sense of community, evidenced by everything from church suppers to annual gatherings such as the Yarmouth Clam Festival. “The whole town participates in that,” says Knight. “Whether it’s a librarian who helps with the lobster rolls or a doctor or attorney or whomever, everyone participates. They know that this is their town.”
Can I bring my kids?
Many of the same rules that apply to dogs also apply to kids. Just because they’re welcome doesn’t mean you should let them dirty the carpet or climb on the furniture. And if you have any doubts, ask first — particularly when attending a wedding. Diane York, of Diane York Weddings & Events, Inc., in Portland, notes that while it is inappropriate to print “No Children” or “Adults Only” on an invitation, it is also inappropriate to bring your kids if they are not explicitly included. “When invited couples go ahead and ‘write in’ their children’s names, the breach of etiquette is entirely theirs,” York notes in her wedding guidelines. “It is then up to the mother of the bride [or whoever is hosting the wedding] to call that couple and, politely but firmly, tell them that children are not invited. Many couples think that they can bully the bridal couple — again, if your name is not on the invitation, you’re not invited.”
Can I borrow your truck?
If you move to Maine, there’s a good chance you’ll end up participating in the state’s underground economy. This means either working off the books for cash, paying someone in cash because they work off the books, or bartering. And because an underground economy is, you know, underground, there’s no oversight. It’s dependent on mutual trust. The key is to determine a fair exchange. Some recent listings on u-exchange.com provide a hint of the current rate in Maine. A Buckfield man offered to design a Web page in exchange for a pellet stove; a Steuben man offered a chainsaw-carved bird sculpture for a guitar. Figure out what you have to offer and price your goods and services accordingly. And if you aren’t interested in an elaborate exchange, if you just need your neighbor’s truck to take an old couch to the dump, be sure to give plenty of notice, clean the truck when you’re finished, fill it with gas, and return it promptly.
How long is the wait?
It’s a reasonable question. So why does the answer often evoke an unreasonable response? Grumbling won’t alter the space-time continuum: an hour for a table is still an hour for a table, whether you complain or not. A civil tone makes the wait easier for everyone.
Note to the natives: If you own a business, remember that no hired help will care about the business the way you do. Customers notice the difference. “The biggest problem I have in restaurants is when the owner is not at the front desk,” says controversial food critic John Golden, who counts being greeted by “silly little girls with high voices” among his pet peeves.
How do I get to Route One?
First rule of asking directions: Don’t hold somebody else up to do so (e.g. at a turnpike tollbooth with cars backed up behind you). Second rule: Preface your request with an, “Excuse me.” Don’t just holler, “Hey, where’s Route One?” This is especially important when interrupting someone who is working. “These are just simple things that we are taught as children,” Knight says. “But a lot of people have forgotten how important they are.”
Note to the natives: Don’t get annoyed if somebody asks directions. Instead, feel flattered that you look like someone who would know. “Treat people the way you would want to be treated,” Knight says. “Be gracious. Give directions, and maybe even something more, like the name of the best restaurant in town, or a charming beach that may not be on the map. What is it, a couple of minutes of your time? So what. Think of what it does for Maine.”
Is it okay to park here?
If you have to ask, then it probably isn’t. But asking is a good start — particularly if you do it nicely. Besides being inconsiderate, parking on private property, or restricted public property, is illegal. Even if you really, really have to use the bathroom. “Many drivers seem to think that evidence of a short stay erases their offense,” the Saco Police Department notes in its guidelines for appealing parking tickets. “It does not.”
Note to the natives: Instead of saying, “You can’t park there,” try this: “Can I help you?” And make it a sincere question, not an accusation. Except for the occasional self-important jerk, most people don’t want to park in the wrong place — they do it because they don’t know where the right place is.
Can I bring my dog?
From Acadia National Park (No. 2 on DogFriendly.com’s annual “Top 10 Dog-Friendly Resort Areas in the United States”) to Portland’s Hadlock Field (where you can take your dog to cheer on the Sea Dogs in the annual “Bark in the Park” fund-raiser) to a long list of dog-friendly lodging, Maine caters to canines. But that doesn’t give you license to let your dog run wild. Common courtesy still applies, which means leaving nothing behind. A dog-friendly property owner becomes less so when left with a soiled lawn. And note that beach access varies by town, season, and time of day.
Note to the natives: If you walk your dog on the beach or other public place in winter, the same clean-up rules apply as in the summer.
Don’t Ask . . .
Further advice from Maine’s “Department of Deportment”: Keep these questions to yourself.
Can you really make a living at that job?
This is a question about money, and it’s never polite to ask about that. It’s tough to get by in Maine, which has the lowest median household income in New England by a wide margin. (Maine ranks thirty-five nationally; the other New England states are all in the top twenty-one.) You wouldn’t dream of interrupting a surgeon in mid-slice to ask about his income. Why would you think it’s okay to ask a busy clammer about his?
What’s your recipe?
This is a tricky one. A close friend or relative might be happy to share a recipe for Jackman gingerbread. But to someone whose livelihood depends on a proprietary dish, the question is an affront. They might flatly tell you it’s none of your business. Or they might do so sweetly, as Wicked Whoopie Pies’ Amy Bouchard did when we asked for her secret recipe. “My secret is never being 100 percent satisfied,” Amy told us.
How do you stand it here in the winter?
Let’s rephrase the question: If snow falls in the Maine woods and there’s no tourist around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes. Yes, it does. And it’s quite lovely.
- By: Rob Sneddon