Rhode Island natives, including those born overseas, are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don’t know as to seem almost deranged. They never look a stranger in the eye, or if they do, they unfocus their own eyes. I don’t mean a stranger you pass in the street, I mean a stranger who’s lived next door to you for twenty-five years, or a stranger you ask for directions from or hand his dropped wallet to or knock down with your car.
This probably has something to do with the tradition of overcrowding, of living cheek by jowl for two hundred years. Whatever the cause, we have no stage presence at all, no Southern theatrics, Midwestern irony, Western hyperbole, New York cynicism. We don’t even have the famous and overrated Maine understatement. We have instead an Unfortunate Manner.
We literally don’t know how to act. We have no roles to play. We are the nakedest of Americans, and when native strangers, themselves naked and ashamed, make even innocuous demands of us–How much is this? Would you please get off my foot?–we panic and writhe, we shamble and fumble with our buttons, we mutter even as we back away. We make inappropriate noises. I’ve seen man-on-Weybosset-Street interviews on TV, and they’re really too painful to watch. A stout woman with anxious haunted eyes, asked for her New Year’s predictions, blurts, ‘I think we’re going to have World War III!’ and giggles like a toddler. She stand for all of us, an awkward cipher, silly or rude, or silly and rude, and inside, clearly glimpsed in the frightened eyes, some poor trapped soul screaming for help.
Our body language, of course, is wonderfully complex. We know a thousand different shrugs.
Jincy Willett, Winner of the National Book Award
(This is 100% true and explains my life. I had a lot to work through.)