After years of consulting, teaching, and writing, I remain intrigued by the geographic ignorance I encounter, especially in people who are otherwise educated. This ignorance is often compounded by aggressive cultural bias.
When I was working for the University of California—Office of the President, one of my colleagues asked me where I was from. I replied, “Kansas City.” She laughed, placed her hand on my shoulder, and said, “I guess somebody has to be from places like that. How many were in your high school graduating class?” I said, “560.” She hesitated, then asked, “Does Kansas City have more than one high school?”
I guess she heard the word “Kansas” and thought “small town.” As it happens, the Kansas City Metropolitan Area is among the largest in the Midwest.
One of my friends from the Midwest expressed great surprise that I would need a coat in Southern California. Without Midwestern winters, it must always be summer. Every day.
A CPA in Northern California told me that she had always thought that it was over 100 degrees every day in Phoenix. Actually, that’s understandable since Phoenix weather only makes the national news when the temperature hits 115 or better. In fact, most of the year is so beautiful that the natives call it “The Paradise Weather.”
My favorite geographic/cultural comment is “I’m bi-coastal.” What does this mean? For some people, the meaning is obvious. I worked with a manager who routinely spent two weeks in New York and two weeks in Los Angeles. Two apartments, two home phones, and all the rest of the confusion. Now that’s bi-coastal! I also know people who were raised on the East Coast and then moved to the West Coast, visiting friends and family back home frequently.
Some people seem to use his term used as a synonym for liberal, urban, sophisticated, well educated, and hip. In my opinion, these people are confusing bi-coastal with urban/rural differences. Now my relatives in Arkansas are going to inform me without delay that rural people are often better educated than urban dwellers. They’re right.
When visiting relatives in Virginia, I couldn’t find Rhode Island on the map, mistaking Delaware for Rhode Island. Embarrassing!! Of course, I made much of the fact that California has counties larger than Rhode Island. Pretty weak excuse.
Perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead.
As a writer, I have the choice of setting my novels where I choose. If my choice is a well-known city such as Los Angeles AND I choose to describe the city in a way the public expects, such as dwelling on the beaches or the mean streets, I don’t need to worry that my readers won’t know enough geography to visualize the setting. If, however, I choose to set my story on the Central California Coast, I will run into questions like one from an East Coast colleague who asked if it snowed in that region.
I call the Central California Coast, a region several hundred miles long, the least known area of the best known state. I can assume that readers outside California (and some inside!) will not be able to visualize its distance and low population density unless I make it clear. One of my reviewers said that after reading my recent novel Reservation Ravaged, she could have drawn a map.
Perhaps our country is so vast that the average reader cannot be expected to have a keen sense of American geography beyond his or her local area and the nation’s largest cities. I’m going to assume that I need to make everything clear…and be willing to upgrade my own knowledge.
Now where is that pesky little Rhode Island?