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The Commute - Minnesota Nice

Fri, Nov 15th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

What exactly is “Minnesota Nice”? I’ve heard it referred to quite often lately in the national media. The phrase brings with it a vision of crowds of people with normal bodies but big, yellow, smiley- face heads.

I grew up just assuming that we Minnesotans were unusually nice. I didn’t give it much thought at all until I found myself not living in Minnesota. At the end of our first week in Michigan, my husband and I turned to each other and said in unison, “People are so darned friendly here!”

From the post office clerk, to the McDonald’s worker, to the voice on the other end when I called for phone service, all the Michiganders we encountered seemed abnormally friendly to us because they talked to us. We weren’t used to this and were admittedly a little suspicious at times.

This is the point at which I began to question “Minnesota Nice”. Could Minnesotans really be that friendly if my husband and I, newly sprung from the Land O’Nice, were practically in shock from the warmth of Michiganders?

Part of the friendliness of our new fellow-citizens included curiousity: Do Minnesotans really talk with that funny accent, like in the movie Fargo? Did they really elect Jesse the Body for governor? Is there really such a thing as “Minnesota Nice”?

No. Yes. And, well, I’m not sure. My obsession with exactness made me want to be able to tell the truth about Minnesota Nice.

“Well, it’s not exactly nice. It’s more like, we don’t get into your business, and you stay out of ours, and everything will just be fine. It’s more of a...politeness. Yes, that’s it. Minnesota Politeness.”

I blush to think of all the people I confused with that lame explanation. But the subject won’t leave me alone.

Recently, a young woman from Iowa told me she’d always been baffled by the term “Minnesota Nice.” When she and her family vacationed in Minnesota each summer, they found the natives to be rather quiet and standoffish. “They basically ignore us,” she concluded.

I think I can clear that up. What you don’t understand, dear Iowan, is that when we ignore you, we ARE being nice. Let me try to explain:

If we were to converse with you, maybe ask “how you doing?”, that would lead you to feel like you had to answer (Fine!). In return, we’d feel compelled to answer the same question (I’m fine, too!) which might lead to more conversation (“You know, the truth is, my knee hurts.”), more sharing of feelings, (“I’m a little worried about the winter coming & hate driving on ice, you know.”) and, well, you can see how it could get messy.

Maybe we have a finely-tuned respect for privacy and personal space. In warmer climates, for example, it’s possible to invade another person’s “space” by simply standing too close, or, heaven forbid, touching them. That’s generally not possible in Minnesota since we wear heavy clothes, like parkas, for a good deal of the year. So the only way to invade someone’s space year round is through personal questions, like “how are you?” We understand the basic truth that feelings are nobody’s business; thus, we don’t ask

My other theory is that it all comes down to comfort. In Minnesota, we know from comfort. Or, more accurately, discomfort. Early Minnesotans must have learned quickly that there was nothing to do about the bone-cracking cold, but perhaps try to minimalize it verbally. Thus the phrase, “Boy oh boy! It’s sure a little bit chilly out there then!” became a traditional comment for when temperatures dropped below zero.

Minimalizing discomfort verbally is seen in all aspects of life, and I believe it’s become a way to show affection. To the untrained ear, it could sound like niceness. Picture this: a car is parked alongside the road with smoke billowing out from under the hood, and the owner, your friend, is standing there looking perplexed, and a bit glum. A Minnesotan says, “Say. Looks like a little bit of car trouble, ëeh?”

What would be the purpose of pointing out that he’ll likely be dropping a few grand on a new engine? That would just make him feel bad. And if he feels bad, he’s likely to do something messy, like cry.

It just occurred to me that the very act of writing a regular newspaper column is a very un-Minnesotan thing to do – hanging your personal life out there for all to see, flapping in the breeze, like so much laundry. Uff-da.

I guess I’m still struggling with the definition of Minnesota Nice, and I’d appreciate any insights. Write or e-mail me c/o this newspaper.

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