Wyoming manners? Forget about it!

 

Wyoming may be the rudest state in America.

I grew up in upstate New York, where it was rude not to introduce strangers to each other. If you neglected to do this, you found yourself apologizing to the accidentally slighted person.

Nothing in the preceding paragraph applies to daily life in Wyoming. Even New York City, for all its perceived urban boorishness, is probably light years ahead of the Cowboy State in terms of manners.

Maybe Wyoming's determined rudeness is rooted in a taciturnity born of hardship, of trying to make a go of life in an unforgiving place, thanks to the vagaries of isolation, boom-bust economics, harsh weather and few people. It may be a case of no opportunity for manners, as compared to deliberate bad manners.

Unlike in some large cities, this incivility shows itself not as an in-your-face or threatening demeanor, but as a quiet and easygoing one. It's one that says: I don't know you, and I'm going to ignore you.

I cannot count the times I've had to introduce myself to people because our host didn't bother to do it, or the people I introduced myself to failed to notice the overture. The latter situation many times leads to the 'one-sided' introduction, where you approach a person, introduce yourself, and then wait for them to tell you who they are. They don't. In the meantime, there might be chatty conversation with this person, yet you will never learn their name.

I was hitchhiking locally once, and an old rancher picked me up. He drove an ancient rattling blue pickup truck that was a mess inside. As I sat surrounded by a clutter of beer cans, fast-food wrappers and empty plastic motor-oil bottles, an affectionate little border collie licked my face. I immediately introduced myself to break the ice. The old-timer just turned to me, nodded and smiled, but did not tell me who he was. In the course of a few miles of small talk I tried once more, stating my name and where I lived. Again, I got the same nod and smile. But that was it. The paradox is that most Wyoming folks never hesitate to pick up hitchhikers in the first place, and they'll assist motorists stranded out on a lonely stretch of highway in a blizzard. But, when it comes to social interaction, they're just rude, that's all. At least the dog was friendly.

Many Wyomingites also seem surprisingly unfamiliar with the word 'please.' When I first moved to Cody in 1994, I was a waiter at the legendary Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill Cody in 1902, and named for one of his daughters. Today, it's the town's most prominent landmark. As locals perused the menu, I heard a lot of 'I'm wantin'' and 'Get me,' as in: 'I'm wantin' a steak,' and 'Get me a prime rib. OK?' they would ask-say as they handed back the menu. 'OK,' I would dutifully repeat. No please-and-thank-you from these old cowboys. 'I'm wantin'….Get me….OK?' And they were chintzy tippers. In fact, there was a group of Chamber of Commerce types that I secretly labeled 'The 8 percent Club,' but that's another story.

The curious thing is that Wyoming folks are notorious for falling all over themselves to be nice to tourists. These temporary visitors, particularly in Cody, are fawned over and left with the impression that the Wyoming populace is exceedingly hospitable and polite. The tourists have to actually move here -- many do, of course -- to discover the truth.

Much of our homespun rudeness is a function of an endlessly fascinating class system common to the rural West. The 'buckaroo aristocracy' -- a neat phrase coined by the late Bernard DeVoto, once dean of Western historians -- has always treated its inferiors with kind of a jovial contempt: 'You are lucky to live here; therefore, know your place. Play the social and economic game our way, or go down the road, cowboy.' These fourth-and fifth-generation scions of legendary ranchers and lawyers and lawmen may now sell insurance or cars or real estate, though in extreme cases they have been known to serve in the U.S. Congress.

There is a popular bumper sticker seen around here, courtesy of folks who'd like the Endangered Species Act and its federal agents to disappear. It reads: 'Thanks for visiting Wyoming. Now take a wolf home.' As usual, they left out 'please.'

Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer and curmudgeon in Cody, Wyoming.
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