I am eight years old, standing on the porch of my grandparents’ house. I am watching as my mother stands halfway out the door, talking to my grandmother. I take to racing my sister up and down the stairs while my father calls us to get in the car and wait for Mom. But I do not want to get in the car, because I learned a long time ago that even though my mother is further outside of the house than inside, she won’t be leaving anytime soon. I know I will be sitting in the backseat for a while as I wait for my mother to wrap up her conversation, and it is more fun to run through the fallen leaves of the trees surrounding my grandparents’ property.
Thirteen years later I find myself in the same position, halfway out the door of my friend’s apartment, with no end to the conversation in sight.
For a very long time, I thought this was something only my family and I did, a habit I picked up from my mom after years of watching her do the same. I knew that every single time we went somewhere — be it my grandparents’ house, my aunt’s house, or even a local tea shop — I needed to plan for at least half an hour of goodbyes. I needed to plan for the ever-slowing walk towards the door, the words tossed over shoulders as jackets were donned, and the additional ten minutes of conversation that would inevitably follow the moment I thought it was finally over. These goodbyes frustrated my dad to no end and, as a child, they sometimes went on long enough to bring me to impatient tears. Now, though, I understand the pull toward conversations that can last for an eternity.
I have heard people call this phenomenon the “Midwestern goodbye.” There are hundreds of think-pieces and Twitter rants on this very topic, some even breaking it down into nine specific steps. It’s broken down into various stages, ranging from the initial goodbye to a long conversation in a doorway, to several rounds of hugs and waves.
This goodbye can go on for minutes to an hour, but no Midwesterner can truly say goodbye without these long conversations that are, more often than not, about nothing — nothing more than casual small talk to stave off getting out the door.
As a linguistics student, I think a lot about the “ideal American accent” and specifically what is known as Standard American English. Sometimes people call it “accentless” English. This model is based on having as few unique features as possible, such as the lack of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or the Southern Vowel Shift, to name a few. Notably, there is a difference between the old Hollywood and radio announcer depictions of the “ideal” American accent — sometimes called the Mid-Atlantic or Trans-Atlantic accent — and what we now consider the standard. Our current standard is the variety common amongst white, middle-class midwesterners — essentially, devoid of any particular regional, ethnic or socioeconomic features.
As a born and raised Midwesterner, I found this very funny when I learned about it. Initially, I didn’t believe it. Midwesterners are known for talking fast and talking a lot. We squish words together, like the infamous “imma” (“I’m going to”). I’ve been asked on more than one occasion by people with other regional varieties to slow down when I speak because they can’t understand what I’ve said. We pack a lot of information into a very short amount of time. It never seemed very “ideal” to me, especially when you look at how our conversations tend to culminate in painfully long endings. Maybe we just like to talk — maybe that is why we’re consistently unable to say goodbye.
This came into sharp focus a few weeks ago when I was on a date with a person who grew up in the South. It was not more than five minutes into the conversation that I realized our speaking patterns were very different. I would use a thousand words to give a simple answer while they gave one-word answers. There were long silences and gaps in the conversation, pauses of seconds between questions and answers. Our speaking turns did not overlap, as so many of my conversations with other Midwesterners do. They did not freely offer up information the same way I did. I spoke quickly and packed a ton of information in a few sentences, while they spoke slowly and straightforwardly.
I walked away from that brunch thinking that it had gone horribly and that they never wanted to see me again; I even went as far as stress-baking banana muffins to try to forget about it. When, a day later, I got a text asking for a second date, I was pleasantly surprised. But it also recontextualized that first date. Maybe it wasn’t as awkward and tense as I thought it was, at least not for them. The next time I saw them, I kept these different speaking patterns in mind, and suddenly our conversations felt natural and comfortable. It was simply different patterns of speaking that we both needed to account for.
Several weeks and multiple successful dates later, the goodbye aspect still haunts me — I instinctively want to keep the goodbye going longer and longer, while they are perfectly happy with a quick “I’ll see you sometime next week!” The linguist in me understands these differences in speech patterns, but the shy, awkward, human part of me also cannot stop myself from midwestern goodbye-ing everyone I meet.
There is something intimate about these prolonged farewells, as annoying as they might be. More often than not, these conversations are meaningless small talk, but sometimes deeper, more profound conversations can come to pass. There is something safe and comforting about being right next to a door, a quick escape if a conversation abruptly turns sour. As such, the doorway, for me at least, has become a nexus for difficult conversations.
It is in the doorway of my parents’ house, one hand of mine on the doorknob, that my mother can call from the kitchen and ask me if the lunch I’m about to go to with a friend is actually a date. When I tell her it most certainly is not, she can glance at the flannel shift I have tied around my waist and my high-top converse and calls me a gay slur before I bolt out the door.
It is in that same doorway that my father can tell us that he might be laid off because the pandemic has slowed production to near standstill levels. A moment after dropping the news, he can slip away and let us deal with the ramifications.
It is in that doorway that I can tell my mother as she sits at our dining table that I disagree with her on almost every aspect of religion. She can try to rope me into a conversation, bring up all the money she funneled into sending me to a Christian school for eight years, even try to convince me that I’ve been damned to Hell, but I can slip away at any moment.
I’ve had more fired-up political discussions with friends and family alike while someone was trying to say goodbye. The last time I had a friend over to my apartment, we started seriously discussing the pros and cons of anarchy even though we had already said goodbye at least twice. We had started talking at sunset, but by the time they left, it was well after dark.
It is that promise of a quick escape that allows these conversations to happen. We know that if there is any easy escape route — one quick turn of a knob and one step out the door — we can have conversations that might otherwise elude us. There is a safety net there.
Perhaps that is why we need nine steps to say goodbye — maybe it really isn’t a goodbye at all. Rather, it is just the start of a more meaningful conversation.
Statement columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.