East Is East, West Is West, and New York Is Different

The laid-back Westerner, the hard-driving Easterner, and the stolid Midwesterner are U.S. regional stereotypes. Do they hold true in an age of increased homogenization of American culture?

The federal government officially divides the country into four main regions — Northeast, South, Midwest and West. My home in Texas is officially in the South, my former home in Michigan is in the Midwest, my birthplace of Massachusetts is in the Northeast. I am a hybrid of regions, and with so many other Americans being regional hybrids, perhaps we shouldn’t expect to see any regional differences in behavior, including how people spend their time.

But we do.

There are six major ways that people spend time — paid work; home production, which is child care, shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.; sleep; TV-watching; other personal activities, and other leisure. The average American adult works 28 hours per week, spends over 60 hours per week sleeping, and 18 hours watching TV. Thanks to an ongoing federal survey that since 2003 has collected 1,000 one-day diaries each month from random citizens, we now have enough information to tell how people in different regions spend their time.

Set up a "gratitude circle" every night at dinner. Go around the table and take turns talking about the various people who were generous and kind to each of you that day. It may sound corny, but it makes everyone feel good.

Daniel Hamermesh, Spending Time, Chapter 9.

Differences in Weekly Hours by Activity from to the Northeast

Source: Daniel Hamermesh, Spending Time, Chapt 9.

Let’s use the Northeast as our baseline and compare how people behave in the other regions. There are striking differences, especially when we control for other differences such as education, age, race, ethnicity, and whether people live in big cities. For example, Southerners report 0.6 hours per week more sleeping than people in the Northeast. Midwesterners work longer hours in a typical week than people elsewhere, and Westerners work less than others. Westerners also sleep more than people elsewhere, watch a lot less TV (1 hour less than Northeasterners, and 1.6 hours per week less than Southerners, the regional champions of TV-watching). Westerners spend more time than others in leisure activities other than TV-watching, and Southerners less. The West-South difference in time spent watching TV equals nearly 10 percent of the national average. Also, while the difference is only 3 percent, Midwesterners do work more than people in the West. (These differences are captured in the figure at left.)

What accounts for these differences? Maybe people who want to enjoy the Western lifestyle move to the West. But differences may also stem from the opportunities that people face. Nearly half of Westerners are Californians, and perhaps, as Joe Jones sang in 1960, “they’re out there having fun, in the warm California sun.” Why stay indoors and watch TV, when the climate makes outdoor leisure so inviting? Maybe the temperature and clear skies provide Westerners good reason to enjoy time outdoors.

Our stereotypes about location aren’t just about regions: They’re also about individual cities. For example, we think about the short duration of "a New York minute”— which, as Johnny Carson said, is the time between a traffic light turning green and other drivers honking at you to move. New Yorkers do spend their lives differently even than people in the other four largest American cities (LA, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia). They work over 1 hour more per week than other big-city residents, watch nearly 1 hour less TV per week, and spend over a half-hour less in household chores than people in the other big cities.

Know when to toilet train. Look for these two signs that your child is ready to use the potty: He senses the urge to pee and poop (this is different from knowing that he's already gone), and he asks for a diaper change.

These differences too might arise from the incentives a metropolis offers. Why cook or shop when delivery is readily available? Why spend a lot of time watching TV when there are so many accessible cultural events? People divide their time partly in response to conditions around them—the attractiveness and the cost of the different activities that they might undertake.

Stereotypes exist because they have a hint of truth, but they are not completely true—one of the reasons we should always be cautious when we use them. Those about regional differences are partly correct, but they characterize what are pretty small differences. The average Southerner behaves a lot like the average Midwesterner, Westerner, or Easterner. America may be pluribus, but there is also an unum.