Uncultured Utah?

A peculiar phenomenon has recently come to my attention: people tend to believe that Utahns are uncultured, uneducated, and tasteless. I balk at this assumption because of my own obvious culture, education, and taste, but also because I know that this stereotype is not true. The definition of “culture” according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties esp. by education” or “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training” or “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills” (304). Well, I certainly consider Utah’s inhabitants to fit those definitions. I know more women and men in my neighborhood with college degrees than without, many of my friends and family visit art exhibits that make their way to Salt Lake City, and good food can be enjoyed anywhere by anybody. Yes, even in Utah by the native.

My first awareness of being judged classless simply because I reside in Utah came from an undergraduate student I met while working on my Master’s degree. While eavesdropping, I heard him robustly list to a friend all he knew of French culture: the wine, the millions of cheeses, and the language. As he bragged of taste for French cuisine, I decided to join the conversation. I knew this young man was taking French classes, so I asked him about them. I am interested in learning French as well, although I focused my language requirement on Spanish. (Maybe wanting to learn two languages is very un-Utahn of me, at least in the stereotypical view of Utahns. You know, none of them know anything of other languages and cultures. Just forget the Mormon missionaries. They don’t count.) Anyway, as we began to talk, this student mentioned his desire to visit France someday. In a spirit of camaraderie, I mentioned to him that I had recently been to Paris and loved the experience. His face turned to shock. “What? You’ve been to Paris? I can hardly believe that? Aren’t you from Utah?” he said.

europe 2008 012 (2)

My own face showed shock. Huh? Why would he think that people from Utah can’t travel to foreign countries? I assured him that I had been there. He relaxed and our talk turned to cheese. I mentioned manchego, a sweet, hard Spanish cheese my sister served at her wedding along with tapas. He had never heard of it. Our talk turned to other delicious deli foods, and I showed him the prosciutto sandwich I had brought for lunch that day. Again, he could not register how a person from Utah would even know what prosciutto is, let alone enjoy eating it. I finally decided to ask him: “Where are you from?”

“Colorado,” he replied.

So, he’s from the mountain west. I would have expected his attitude from neighbors further away, but no, even our close neighbors think we are backwards.

Where does this stereotype come from? I admit that I have heard stories of people who think going on vacation is visiting Salt Lake City from their rural town in the east or south of our state. I also know people who have never been to Paris, but surely that does not make them uncultured. Maybe instead they visited Egypt, Brazil, or Thailand. I have a friend actually who taught himself Russian after learning to speak Korean on an LDS mission. He worked for the NSA for several years. Where is he from? Not Colorado, but instead Provo, Utah. In fact, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, “The National Security Agency (NSA) selected Utah for its language analyst offices. The NSA commented that Utah’s famous facility with languages was a big factor in its site selection process” (6.1). I think my French cheese friend would find this shocking, yet I certainly don’t know why. Plenty of people in Utah have such language skills. Currently, Chinese is becoming the language to study in high school, and Utah public schools are now offering Arabic courses as well. I personally know people from Utah who speak Spanish, Korean, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Portuguese, French, Yapese, Danish, and more.

Utahns are also literate. According to a Deseret News article, “[T]he Beehive State still has one of the highest percentages of competent readers in the nation” (Leonard). Apparently our schools do a great job of teaching literacy, something unexpected from a state where people are supposedly below average in being “cultured.” For those places traditionally thought of as more in-vogue, such as New York and California, some “20 percent of the population . . . lacks basic reading skills” (Leonard). Beyond being able to read a newspaper, the state of Utah boasts six universities and a handful more community colleges. As to interest in the arts, our state has some 58 art galleries, 18 art museums (yes, more than just those run by the universities), several websites devoted to making the population aware of the arts (such as artsandmuseums.utah.gov), and a Tony Award–winning Shakespearian festival, details of which can be found at bard.org. This festival, held annually in Cedar City, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The festival puts on 9 plays, and in 2011 had on display “[o]ne of 228 rare First Folios from 1623, considered the earliest and most complete collection of Shakespeare’s works” (Fulton). Wait. You mean Utahns know who Shakespeare is?

I also know Utahns who have visited the best museums in our country and other countries, talk about art as a passion, have knowledge of philosophy, and read books that are not on the bestseller list or written by Nora Roberts or Dan Brown. Apparently, a taste for good food and wine is also abundant in Utah. When I typed “fine dining Utah” into Google, it immediately resulted in 2.25 million hits. One website, http://www.dininginutah.com, is devoted to listing all exceptional restaurants in the state by type of food, a long list that included Indian, Thai, Cajun, Argentine, and “Cosmopolitan/Eclectic.”

Yet, I witnessed the assumption that Utahns are a hapless bunch who know nothing about art, food, or culture again. In a graduate course, taught by a lovely British woman who holds a doctorate degree and yes, gasp, lives in Ogden, Utah, one of the students took cheap shots at the culture of native Utahns during her entire presentation on Virginia Woolf. First, she over-explained Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” to the class, as it was a painting mentioned in the reading we had done about modernism and feminism. She felt sure that none of us had ever seen it before, so she pulled a picture of it up from the Internet. (Eye roll.) She did not bother to assume that any of us knew the painting, had minored in humanities in another life, or visited a museum with Picasso’s work. She believed that none of us knew and that she did, because, as she put it, “I’ve lived many places and moved millions of times.” Is that possible, moving millions of times?

picasso bw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, she showed a painting by Henri Matisse. A member of our class mentioned that she had seen that painting when it came with an exhibition to Utah. The presenter looked discombobulated because she realized that we already knew the wisdom she had been attempting to impart. She recovered her snobbery and said, “I commend you for going to see it when it came. I know a lot of people here don’t ever do that.” What? People in Utah don’t visit museums? I guess that’s why she felt obligated to educate us all. It must really be tough refining all of her neighbors, friends, and coworkers. What a sorry gang they must be for her to believe that all people in Utah are uncultured.

She again mentioned her many moves when she told one of the women in our class that if she was able to find her inner feminist by staying in one place her whole life then she must be a strong person. For her, she must move “millions” of times in order to constantly reinvent and discover who she is and what her potential will be. Isn’t that a form of borderline personality disorder? Or is it just condescending?

I’m not sure why this stereotype persists.  Perhaps it is a common one, which is applied to many states and groups of people.  I think we all like to think of ourselves as exceptional, while discounting other cultures and other areas.  It seems that this is just a microcosm of American exceptionalism, and the fact that I’m here arguing about it through anecdotes (yes, I know my research and my claims aren’t sound) means that I’m inclined to think of Utahns in a more generous-than-necessary way.  Do you face this problem in your culture/geographical area?  What turf wars or stereotypes do you see?

 

Works Cited
“Culture.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed.
Dining in Utah. 2011. 14 July 2011 < http://www.dininginutah.com/&gt;.
Economic Development Corporation of Utah. Utah Language Skills. 1 Oct. 2009. 14 July 2011 <http://www.edcutah.org/files/Section6_LanguageSkills_09.pdf&gt;.
Fulton, Ben. “Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Golden Years: The Intimacy of Turning 50.” The Salt Lake Tribune 11 July 2011. 14 July 2011 <http://www.sltrib.com&gt;.
Leonard, Wendy. “Utah Scores High in Literacy.” Deseret News 11 July 2011. 14 July 2011 <http://www.deseretnews.com&gt;.

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42 thoughts on “Uncultured Utah?

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  1. Fascination with French culture is an old legacy of the British empire. If you watched TV, you’d think New York is the only place that matters. The thing about stereotypes is that cultured vs. uncultured depends on the dominant mindset of the time and place and there’s little logical or rational about it. In some cases, speaking out helps. In other cases the answer is developing a thick skin.

  2. People make huge generalisations about regional and national stereotypes, which unfortunately are rarely true. I often read what people think of ‘Brits’ or their opinion on how we are supposed to view others. I rarely agree, but that is because I value people as being individual and unique. 🙂

    1. Good for you! What an inspiring way to live. I am going to try to do that too. I do try, but it tends to get lost with my own propensity to stereotype. Thanks!

  3. What an interesting post, Emily. I hadn’t been aware of all those stereotypes about Utah.

    Yes, I’ve encountered lots of regional stereotypes…and the interesting thing is that I have seen them in both “cultured” and “uncultured” places. I grew up in Boston, a hubbub of intellectual and cultural activity, and a couple of west coast and southern friends in college were constantly attacking me (for some reason) with stereotypes about Bostonians being rude and stuffy. Now I’m in the Carolinas, and my northeast friends will say things like, “Oh, I’m probably too snobby to live down south.” or make jokes in southern accents. The area where we are, in fact, has the most PhDs per capita in the US.

    The anecdotes you wrote about are just outrageous though! I can’t believe people are so blatant. It’s interesting, because through their stereotyping they are showing the ultimate ignorance and lack of culture.

    1. That is so true, Cecilia. We show our own ignorance by placing labels on people and areas. I love that you shared your own experiences with regional stereotypes. I’ve heard the Boston one. When I visited my sister in Boston, I ended up having some Italian guy grab me and kiss me on the cheek. Charming and surprising! Not rude.

  4. I read an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal several years ago that talked about how Utah was already engaged in (and well equipped for) global trade long before other US states had woken up to the new reality of the international marketplace. The Mormon missionaries’ experiences abroad were a tremendous source of cultural knowledge, skills (like languages), and connections. It’s an outward-focused orientation that you’d think people in other states ought to “get” right away when they think of Utah, but their own stereotypes serve as blinders.

    1. Good point as well. All of you are so smart and add such depth to my silly vent! I would love to see that WSJ article. I do think there are some advantages to having so many people from here visit other areas of the world and then bring that language and those experiences home. Thanks for weighing in!

      1. I was able to find the article online reprinted in a few newspapers, where it must have been pulled off the wire service. I think you’d have to go into restricted electronic library databases to get it from The Wall Street Journal itself.

        Anyway, wow, I was shocked to see how long ago I read this: the article is dated March 29, 1996! I guess it was so interesting that I’ve never forgotten it. Here is the link to its reprint in the Deseret News: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/480339/GLOBAL-VIEW-PART-OF-FAITH-AND-BUSINESS.html?pg=all

        I also found a PDF of the same article reprinted in The Orange County Register on April 17, 1996 (in a newspaper database through my school’s library, so not available unless you’re signed in).

        Since I was able to find it in a couple of places and the author, Bernard Wysocki, Jr., is identified as a Wall Street Journal reporter, I feel confident that this is the article I was remembering.

        Enjoy!

        1. Wow! Thank you for going to all of this trouble. And yes, it must’ve made an impression if you’ve remembered it that long! I look forward to reading it.

  5. This is so true. I’ve certainly heard similar stereotypes about Midwest states, although not Utah in particular. And there is a whole TV series about stereotypes in Portland, OR, where I live. (Portlandia) All I can do is laugh, as the comedy intends, because any outrage in the face of stereotyping just makes others seem to feel they’ve proved their point, that Portlanders take themselves soooo seriously. Your commentators make the excellent point that stereotyping only highlights ignorance. I’ll admit to my own ignorance about places I’ve never traveled to, and my susceptibility to the media stereotypes about those regions. But I think stereotypically only until I travel there myself and can form my own first person opinions. I’ve been to Utah and had a thoroughly lovely experience in your state!

    PLUS! Who’s to say that a tendency towards outdoorsy-ness and a gorgeous environment (which is what I think of when I think Utah) aren’t a higher cultural value than cheese & wine?

    1. I love it! Right on, Denise. Why was I arguing with some jerk about cheese when the true awesomeness of Utah is the view and the hiking and the scenery? Silly me. I haven’t watched Portlandia, yet, but it is on my to-do list. Would you recommend it? I would hate to just start thinking about it in terms of stereotypes, though! 🙂

      1. I don’t actually like the show Portlandia. I tend to get offended. 🙂 But I’ve heard it’s very popular and perhaps if you’re not from here, it’d be very funny.

  6. Stereotypes based on what state, city, or region a person is from are so wrong. Sure, some people fit into the stereotypes, but the majority of people don’t and it’s wrong to perceive that any group of people is uncultured based upon where they comes from. I’ve never heard of these stereotypes of people from Utah, and I’ve never thought negatively of anyone from your state.

    Some people don’t have the ability to travel outside of their country, or even their state, but that does not make them uncultured. Instead they search for culture and experiences that are available to them closer to home, be it art, music, theater, etc. I am one of those people and I’m not ashamed to say that I have never been out of the country.

    As far as your professor is concerned, she should know better than to make assumptions about her students like that. I’m kind of glad that someone brought her snobbery to her attention (it’s possible that she didn’t even know she was doing it), but hopefully she will be a bit more sensitive and aware of what she is teaching and how she is acting in the future.

    Great post! It was very thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Great comment! I love what you are saying about not needing to travel to engage in culture. I heard a story once of a family that had to move every few years, and instead of feeling like it was a hardship, they would take the time to explore their new city/state while they were there because they knew it wouldn’t last long. And just to clarify, it wasn’t the professor that was condescending to us. It was one of the students!

      1. Good, I am really glad that it wasn’t your professor. That would just be bad teaching, right there.

        I really like the idea of getting to know the city and state you live in if you have to move frequently. I feel that those people would have such a wonderful blend of cultures that they are exposed to that life would feel like an adventure to them.

  7. How about immersing one’s self before making judgments and stereotypes about people and places – that is what I try to do. People think I am from Canada due to my accent and when I tell them I am from the Midwest the reactions are so appalling at times – the main reaction is that I am some uneducated, backwards hick – WTH?!? Being blonde and female does not help either – WOW! I went to Jamaica for my honeymoon and people kept telling us to fear for our lives as Americans over there. I just did not get it and those comments made me a little fearful. I went with an open mind though and it was a GREAT EXPERIENCE – great people, great culture, great place:) Great Post – Great Reminder – thanks so much for sharing! Happy Day:)

    1. Good for you! I like that attitude of getting to know a place and its people. We all deserve that chance, and it sounds like you are the beneficiary of such thinking.

      1. Emily – I am very much a questioner and that I think helps me to learn and not judge too quickly:) Plus part of that attitude comes from not liking to be judged by other people either.

  8. Generalizations are just that, even when they are misguided. In our country we say red states and blue states, but as we know not every one in that state is that way. I from the south, so I am used to some thinking less of me as a result. Nice picture of you and the hubby. Take care, BTG

    1. What a great point about politics! I do hate being lumped into a red state or blue state, when the truth is that all states are diverse and varied. Thanks for bringing that part of it up.

  9. Coming from England, I have no real thoughts either way about people from Utah, though on reflection, I’m not surprised at the multi-lingual facet of the state. With so many members of the LDS going abroad to evangelise, why wouldnt they bring other languages (cultures, foods etc) back with them? I hear Mitt Romney is a rather fabulous French speaker, having spent several years in France in his youth, and kept it up when he returned.

    In England, it’s always been fashionable to class the Irish as stupid and ill educated (despite them having a better education, better work ethic etc). The English use the Irish use of English as proof that the Irish are stupid, whilst failing to acknowledge that the Irish speak English *as a second language*. (Meanwhile Irish people pick on people from Kerry as being the stupid ones). Ah well

    1. I love your comment because you really bring home just how common these sorts of assumptions are. I guess we can’t just all get along! You make a great point about the Irish speaking a second language. I would say we Americans do the same thing with those crossing the border from Mexico. It’s a shame. And yes, we LDS speak lots of languages and bring stuff back. You’d think people would take that into consideration! 🙂

  10. I found this very refreshing to read – I had no idea Utah had this reputation, and I appreciate that you took the time to point out that Paris isn’t the only “cultured” place in the world! My family is originally from Alabama, and I graduated from high school in Texas; you wouldn’t believe some of the reactions I’ve gotten here in Chicago (where I came to attend college) when I tell people where I’m from.

    1. How interesting and unfortunate! It sounds like we all have misconceptions about other places. It just goes to show how unfair and divisive judging and stereotyping can be!

  11. Hi Emily, I have a few thoughts on this, the first is that the two people you describe have some growing up to do. Step one is learning that rubbing other peoples noses in your own smugness is not wise. Step two stereotyping just doesn’t work.
    Next up, the guy from Colorado may have believed what he was thinking/saying but perhaps that came from a neighborly competitiveness. We (Kiwi’s) can be stereotyped has having a competitive camaraderie with Ozzies, As ex-Brits we fall over laughing when an Irishman starts a sentence with “T’ be sherr…..” Anyone who makes a big deal of showing off Culcha is liable to be shunned. Oh and we cross the road to avoid having to talk to Mormon Missionaries, that is unless we happen to be part of the large minority from all walks of life who are part of the CLS. And just in case that causes a mis-understanding I am if anything a non-believer but as was pointed out recently I’m a Christian non-believer because this is a country whose culture is rooted in Christianity. My point, if I have one, is that you just can’t stereotype people by where they come from in terms of, well, anything. Anymore than you can stereotype by race, gender or hairstyle. Depending on who an individual Kiwi is some, all or none of the above will be true.
    It is however human nature to seek the approval of your peer group and while there are some who want to dominate, most of us are happy to sit in the middle but we don’t want to be at the bottom either. One way to impress is by attempting to make others look less worthy and that perhaps is what happens with Utah. That Utah was founded as a place for Mormons to practice their religion in freedom just provides the point of difference but I wonder if Montana, Colorado and Arizona would take sides with Utah in a showdown with eastern highbrows using ‘Cowboy hicks’ as a put-down. (Hope my geography is not too far off there)
    Having a rant is a healthy thing by the way. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to know your own self worth; to know that, like a duck in the effluent pond, when you stand up and fly away all the crap runs off and there will always be someone wanting to prove that they are better than you. The trick is to be coated in Teflon without becoming what you despise.
    Well my carpool is on it’s way to get me so gotta go.
    Graeme

    1. I love this, Graeme! Well said, and you make such a good point about competitiveness. What you say about being in the middle is something I probably need to learn to be content with! And perhaps we are all in the middle and need to quit stereotyping as you suggest. Thanks for the wisdom! 🙂 Have a great day.

  12. Hi Emily – I read a number of the comments, and frankly, I think it has everything to do with the religious aspect. Even if Utah is not 100% LDS, people have prejudices against the Mormon church (witness those who ‘sat out’ the 2012 election due to not wanting to vote for a Mormon) that run deep.

    More generally, we have an idea that religious folk cannot be intellectual and that intellectuals cannot be religious which is also elitist poppycock. I am not religious, but i respect it and I know it is not incompatible with intellectual inquiry. I have also worked with a number of Mormons over the years, many of whom were quite intelligent and well educated, well traveled and with fine palates.

    Finally, it’s also true as some commenters wrote that this prejudice extends to the mid-west and south – in effect, every so-called Red State is full of folks who “cling to their guns and religion” and are not “one of us”.

    1. This is such a great comment too! That’s what I love about blogging, that I put an idea out there and the rest of you fill in the gaps and help me to think more deeply about it. There is definitely tension between religion and intellectual inquiry, and I agree that this is part of the issue as well. Thanks for bringing it up!

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