does this sound familiar???
The Montana Face
Recently, representing Harlem, I attended a leadership conference in Great Falls with forty-eight others from small towns all over Montana. . The two women facilitators were from Virginia. After introducing themselves, they stood in front of the group and shouted out a lively “Good Morning!” They were used to southern enthusiasms such as “Amen, Sista, tell it.” We sat quietly like glum lots. They try again with another rousing “Good Morning!!!” Throughout the room rose a spotty response.
One of the facilitators, frustrated, finally demanded, “What is it with you people?”
A woman from another small town, maybe it was Malta, stood up and explained, “It is the Montana Face. When we are out in public or in a strange situation or unsure of how to act, this is the face we put on. It is polite, deadpan in expression and gives nothing away.”
Her explanation broke the ice and we all laughed. Now the two Virginians greeted us with “GOOD MORNING, MONTANA!!!” and we made the walls bulge outward with the boom our reply. The weekend continued with loud expression, noisy enthusiasm and kinetic energy.
To see the Montana Face right where you live, just saunter on over to the local café where the men gather for coffee and politics every morning. There is such a café in every town. One day, in our café, I walked over to the group sitting around the table. I knew two or three of the men. I greeted them and asked a question, seeking information. What I then saw was a complete circle of the Montana Face, like they had circled the wagons against the invasion of a stranger, a woman. I felt like a maverick cut out of the herd. Red faced and tongue tied, I turned and left. Someday this group might invite me in, but these days when I enter the café, I walk past them with a brief wave and make no eye contact.
One evening, in the same café, I sat at a table near a couple who have been married over half a century. They ate their salads, the waitress poured more coffee. She brought their chicken-fried steak. The couple ate their meals without once exchanging a word, nor did they look at each other. They finished with pie and more coffee. Each wore the perfect Montana Face, as is appropriate in public.
Closely related to the Montana Face is the Montana Wave. This is the highway version of the Face, and consists of a slight lift of the forefinger from the steering wheel, signifying a greeting. Once you cross the state line into Montana you will begin to see this greeting. If the vehicle sports Montana plates, look for the flicker of friendliness from perfect strangers. But, especially when you are in your home county, be on the lookout and wave back. One day I walked into the café and was accosted by a friend, “I saw you on the way to Chinook yesterday. You didn’t wave.” “I did not see you,” is not an acceptable excuse.
A logical mutation of the Wave is the Montana Point. We all will remember our mothers hissing at us while grabbing our hands, “Don’t point. It’s not polite.” Being a naturally inventive people, and needing a method of indication in a country where the visibility is often ten miles or more, we Montanans get around the impolite finger point by pointing with our lips. You bring your lips together and push out in the direction you wish to indicate. This may be accompanied by a slight upward tilt of the head. A cruder version is the chin point.
A natural outgrowth of the Montana Face is Montana Speak. This relates to the frontier myth of the rugged individual, a myth we hold dear to our hearts. Montana Speak is heard everywhere but most easily spotted at such gatherings as city council meetings or around that table in the café. It contains such well worn phrases as “Nobody in the government is going to tell me how to or where to or when to, followed by such expressions as “Run my cows.” “Build my fence.” “Get a permit.” “Wear seat belts.” The list is unending, and includes injunctions for and against smoking, drinking and shooting guns. I’m not saying this is good or this is bad. Montana Speak is a part of who we are.
We Montanans are doers and survivors, a ‘let’s get it done’ people. We are impatient with reliance on government grants, don’t have much use for feasibility studies, numerous committees, and long waits. If we need it, we do it, find it, or make it. Remember that table in the café? The folks sitting around that table instigate much of the action that keeps this empty yet vital section of our country going. Next time I go in for coffee and a cinnamon roll, I think I just might smile in their direction and say “Howdy” as I go past.
Written February 6, 2009