On Minnesota Nice

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Minnesota Nice is a thing. It’s a real social phenomenon that happens here in Minnesota and in other places with similar climates. Exactly what it is, however, is up for debate.

On the one side, you have the people who celebrate Minnesota Nice. Look at all those lovely Minnesotans! You’ll never hear a bad word said about a soul. Minnesotans are polite and ready to smile at anyone. There’s no better place in the world to need the help of a stranger, whether it’s directions or a jump start for your car in sub-zero weather.

On the other side, there are the people who insist Minnesota Nice isn’t nice at all. It’s just a euphemism for passive-aggression. Minnesotans look friendly, but they’re as cold as their winters. They already have all the friends they want, thank you very much, and they have since high school. If you don’t, well, you’re on your own. Newbies beware.

Oh, the arguments that happen over which of these is the “real” Minnesota Nice. Are we Minnesotans underrated angels or overhyped demons?

We’re neither, of course, or both, depending on how much you like your hyperbole. But the simple truth of the matter is that Minnesota Nice is all of those things, and they’re not particularly separable from each other. How could they be? They all come from the same place.

To understand Minnesotans and Minnesota Nice, you have to understand our weather. You have to understand it beyond “Ha, ha. It’s really cold. Why would anyone ever move there?” too.

A photo of Lake Superior at Duluth in shades of muted gray-blue. The lift bridge is down in the background. In the foreground, ice broken up by the waves is jutting up like panes of broken glass.
“Duluth on Ice” by Sharon Mollerus, CC BY 2.0

You have to understand that our climate is borderline Siberian, that while we don’t get huge amounts of snow, the snow that fell in October can last until April. You have to understand that, while winter is dangerous for the unprepared in many places, here it can be deadly even for people who’ve taken all the precautions.

You have to understand that, in winter, we live and travel in what are essentially tiny space ships, shut in with our life support. We have redundancy only by virtue of traveling with others. We can leave our pods, with preparation and risk, but we are limited in how far we can get away from them and get back reliably on our own. A small accident, an injury or a delay or an encounter with liquid water, can change that calculation dramatically.

Any individual winter may not be that bad, of course. We may only have a day or two where exposed skin freezes in seconds instead a two-week stretch or a month. But over-preparing for cold has its dangers too.

What I’m saying is the really amazing thing about Minnesota is that more of us don’t die each winter. A few do, but in terms of the opportunities for freezing to death (and I haven’t even talked about ice yet), we have an amazing survival rate.

That’s Minnesota Nice in action. That’s the part where we’ll make sure you know how to get to your destination, even if it means starting over with slower but simpler directions we know you can remember, even if it means walking you two blocks over to where you can see your destination so you can’t possibly miss it, even if–you know what? Just follow me. We’ll get you there.

That’s the part of Minnesota Nice where the whole block gets snow-blown because it was such a pain to get the machine out of the garage. It’s where soup or a hot dish shows up on your doorstep with some elaborate “no backsies” dance or an unbelievable “I just happened to cook twice as much food as we could possibly manage to eat.” It’s the part where people will step off the sidewalk into a busy street to push you out of that drift. It’s where everyone will get nosy about whether you have the doctor, plumber, tree-trimmer, funeral director, contractor, and/or pastor who will really meet your needs. But if you’re sure, you’re sure. You’re sure?

It’s where houses have a stash of hats, scarves, mittens, and sometimes even boots that no one there can or will wear, but which don’t get thrown out because someone might need them. No, don’t bring them back. Just pass them on. No, really. It’s fine. You never know where they’ll be needed next.

We also have at least one university campus with a fund set aside to buy winter outerwear for unprepared international students.

It’s kind of funny that being determined not to let each other die gets called “nice”. It feels like a low bar. Shouldn’t nice be…more than that?

At the same time, however, Minnesota Nice is far more than the bare minimum. If we were minimally nice, it wouldn’t have a name. We wouldn’t stand out from other parts of the country. But we do, and I don’t just say that because I grew up in all this. We really are weirdly nice.

If you think about it, however, it’s not that weird. Keeping people alive through Minnesota winters is hard. It requires planning, thoughtfulness, creativity, and flexibility. It requires the willingness to do a lot of work on short notice. It requires much more than normal “nice”.

It also requires that we trust each other, and this is where things get particularly weird. All that smiling at strangers that outsiders find both charming and disconcerting? A lot of that is about telling each other that it’s all okay; we’ve got this. I may not know you. You may not have the first clue about me. We’ll still step up for each other when it really matters. You know, if we happen to be passing on the sidewalk again at the time.

Admittedly, not every smile between strangers is this transactional. Most probably aren’t, because this is the kind of thing Minnesotans learn to do in childhood. There’s something very rewarding about people’s reactions when someone goes from being distracted to putting on a smile just for them. If you try it, whether because you want to be more Minnesotan or just as an experiment, you may find that it sticks. Be careful with this stuff.

Still, this is the cultural “why” of that friendliness. You don’t even have to reach far to see it.

What many people don’t realize is that this is also the source of the “dark” side of Minnesota Nice. It still all comes down to trusting each other to be there when things go dangerously bad. It’s the behavior of people who can’t afford to kick each other out of the space ship, because there’s nowhere else to go.

We talk about cabin fever in Minnesota, about the need to escape the close walls of our homes and our work after months of cold, dark winter. We talk a lot less about the need to escape from each other. That doesn’t mean that need isn’t there. It merely means that it isn’t polite to talk about it, that acknowledging the ways in which we grate on one another is a dangerous thing. Talking about it just makes it feel more real, more unbearable. Then what are we going to do? Where are we going to go?

Beyond that, what are we going to do if talking to someone about the way they get on our nerves hurts that person too much? What do we do if they hate us for it? Can we still coexist in the same small spaces? Will they still help us if we need it? What if all our shared friends get dragged in?

I won’t tell you that conflicts never get settled in Minnesota. They do, when it’s needed, with help if it’s needed. It’s just that every conflict carries the potential of higher stakes, whether we realize it consciously or not. Sure, a lot of people will have no problem handling a bad situation like adults with good ethics and social skills, but sometimes, a lot of the time, it’s just not worth finding out.

Minnesotans have a lot of skills for not finding out and for gently signalling that we’d all be better off if we didn’t find out. That’s what passive-aggression really is. It’s a whole lot of deflection (“Gosh, I don’t know. Did you hear we’re in for some weather tomorrow?”) and neutrality (“Well, isn’t that interesting?”) with tiny danger signs (“Oh, I could never pull that off.”) scattered along the way. Deniable danger signs mostly, but again, social skills vary.

Here be dragons. Ice dragons, to be exact.

This is also part of why it takes us so long to let most people get close to us. People who are highly tolerable, even wonderful, at arms length have secrets that they hide from people they aren’t close to. They have annoying habits that only show up when they drink or let themselves go with friends. They have company manners and whatever happens when they let themselves or you stop being company.

Sure, most of the time that’s just fine, but what if it isn’t? What if you let them in and they turn out to be awful? Or wonderful–but loud when you need quiet?

Things get particularly dangerous when they’re from away*, because you might let them in and never, ever be able to get them to leave. What if they can’t take a hint? What if they really do think you find anything and everything interesting?!

I admit it. Even I’m laughing a little bit here. There is something ridiculous in not being able to pull out your words and say what you mean directly when facing a friendly neighbor or coworker. But really, this isn’t what we’re trained for. It is, in fact, exactly what we’ve been trained from birth to avoid. “Hi, no. I like making small talk with you, but you’re going to have to find your own space ship, even if that means you’ll never make sure I have another pair of mittens.” We’re going to do it badly, and we know we’re going to do it badly, because it requires skills that are the opposite of ours.

So if we like you, we wait, and we watch. We pick up more than you think we do. We give small hints about unimportant things and see how well you pick them up. We might even practice direct communication with you from time to time, because we could need it later if things work out. But invite you to get chummy? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe give it a few years? Just to be sure?

It seems cold, yes. In reality, it’s anything but. It’s cautious but protective, like keeping that box of hats and scarves. We know we can do this at arm’s length and still keep us all functioning and safe. Anything else we’re not sure about, and we’re just not going to put you at risk like that.

We are, after all, Minnesota Nice.

*Not a Minnesotan term. I picked that usage up from a teenaged girl in the public gardens in Halifax and am simply never letting it go.

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On Minnesota Nice
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3 thoughts on “On Minnesota Nice

  1. 2

    I think Germans and Minnesotans would get along like a house on fire. After all we’re quite known for being “rude*” all over the English-speaking world already.

    *Which isn’t actually true. Rude is being outside of the normal social conventions. It’s just that our directness is outside of most English-speaking normal conventions, so a sentence that is perfectly polite for two German speakers is rude for an English speaker.

  2. 3

    Actually, “from away” is a Minnesota expression, or at least it was when I was growing up, back during the last ice age. The expression I’d never heard til pretty soon ago was “Minnesota Nice”, which I suspect was thought up by some marketing weasel in NYC on the same basis as Leifur Eiriksson naming that island “Greenland” instead of “Mile-high-chunk-of-ice-land”.

    Your essay about us captures Minnesota and Minnesotans just perfectly. Brava you!

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