My Take on Minnesota Nice, or, A Few Requests to My Fellow Minnesotans
Dear Kind Fellow Minnesotans,
I have been living in your lovely state for a total of thirteen years now. Although I was born in Northfield, I spend most of my childhood in New Jersey, so living here is something I chose. Overall, I’m proud to live here. We have lakes, good schools, progressive attitudes, and these days, even gay marriage. My father, who grew up in Minnesota and has no love for the place, often nags me to move back out east. But I don’t because this is home.
But now and then, as a transplant, a few things about Minnesota truly get on my nerves. Like most transplants, this “Minnesota Nice” stuff gets to me. If you’re not from here, you might not understand that Minnesota Nice is different from bona fide niceness. “Minnesota Nice” means that people are courteous and helpful and give lots of money to charity, and that (unlike in New Jersey), the middle finger isn’t a commonly used traffic signal. But Minnesota Nice also means that people are reserved, not particularly warm, and slow to warm up to strangers. It means they talk behind your back instead of telling you how they feel. It’s passive-aggressiveness to an art.
This ee-card says it bluntly:
So, Minnesotans, here are a few gentle things I’ve been wanting to say to you for some time. Feel free to post comments, as opposed to talking about me behind my back.
1. Strangers are Potential Friends
Having talked to lots of transplants, this may be the number one complaint I hear. Minnesotans do not seem the least bit eager to make new friends. They make friends in elementary school, and maybe as grownups they make a few new friends at their church. But they aren’t eager to make new friends who are outside their immediate, well-established circles. As a transplant, this makes it very difficult to make new friends.
So, Minnesotans, I am wondering if you could try to be a little less cliquish. It’s great that you have well-established friendships. But if you’ve ever been a Girl Scout, you’ve no doubt sung the little ditty, “Make new friends, but keep the old.” If you’ve only been doing the second part, try out the first part.
2. Conversation is a Give and Take
This request is related to my first request. People who aren’t accustomed to looking at strangers as potential friends aren’t very good at small talk. After all, why make small talk if you don’t intend to know people outside your circle?
Here’s how Minnesota Conversation Deficiency goes. I’m at a party, and I ask questions of the person I’m chatting with. Where do you work? Where are you from? I often try to look for common ground with the person I’m speaking with. “Oh, you have an eight-year-old daughter? Me too. Where does your daughter go to school?”
If she’s good at conversation, my small talk companion will answer, and then say, “So where does your daughter go to school?” That’s give and take.
But here in Minnesota, that often doesn’t happen. You ask questions of strangers at a party. They answer politely. Then they walk away. I’ve considered walking up to people with Minnesota Conversation Deficiency later in the evening and saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m an instructional designer, and I grew up in New Jersey, and my daughter goes to elementary school in St. Louis Park. Thank you so much for making me feel welcome here at this party.” I suppose it’s possible that I’m just a really, really boring person, and that no one could possibly be the least bit interested in my profession, my background, or my child. But I tend to think not.
So, fellow Minnesotans, since I know you don’t want to make people feel invisible, please take the time and reciprocate conversational questions. You might find that your fellow strangers are more interesting than you thought.
3. Learn to Be Direct
Here’s the thing about Minnesota. People aren’t direct. And when it comes to indirect communication, there’s a whole complex set of social cues, rules, and norms you need to understand to know how to function. After 13 years, I understand these cues — some of the time. But for transplants like me, failing to understand what Minnesotans really mean is kind of like having something I’ll call Minnesota-Situational Asperger’s Syndome.
People who have real Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty processing social cues. For example, a person with Aspberger’s may not understand that the person they are speaking to wants to leave the conversation. The other person may be nodding, glancing around the room, and making frequent, “uh-huh” sounds, but a person with Asperger’s misses these kinds of social cues. In the workplace, people with Asperger’s have trouble reading subtle clues that they’re expected to do X,Y, and Z. Naturally, a person with Asperger’s would have an easier time with direct communication — like a boss saying, “I expect you to do X, Y, and Z.”
So what is Minnesota-Situational Asperger’s Syndrome? The feeling experienced by transplants that it’s really, really hard to understand the complex set of Minnesota social cues. Like when you ask your hostess if she wants help with the dishes, and she says no. That doesn’t mean no. It means you’re expected to offer your help two more times so that she can “reluctantly” accept your help.
So, Minnesotans, can you please just learn to say what you actually want? And also, as a corollary to that…
4. Learn to Be Direct Nicely
Minnesotans don’t get enough practice actually being direct. Therefore, when a situation comes up when they have to be direct, they don’t know how to do so without being a jerk. They don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry, but no.”
Here’s an example. I sent an email to a woman at a local school district, asking if my out-of-district daughter was eligible for some services in her district. She wasn’t actually eligible. The direct-but-polite answer to my question would have been, “I’m sorry, but she’s not eligible,”
However, in the world in Minnesota Nice, this isn’t the way people respond. Instead, the woman sent me this long, weird administrative discussion of policy that made little sense, and never actually contained the word, “No.” So I truly had no idea what the answer was.
So, i wrote back the following, “Could you please not be Minnesota Nice with me? From your response, I think the answer to my question is no, but I can’t tell that for sure. Can you please give me a direct yes or no answer?”
Well, the woman flipped. In icy cold language she informed me that no child outside the district was permitted into this program. Her ultra-curt response contained neither a greeting nor a signature. If she could have done so without getting fired, I’m sure she would have called me a bitch.
So, Minnesotans, please learn how to be direct without flipping out. Practice the following mantra. “I’m sorry, but no.” Which brings me to yet another request:
5. Learn How to Say No
Out of fear of being non-Nice, many Minnesotans refuse to say no. Sometimes this is out of genuine kindness. Unfortunately, for those of us afflicted with Minnesota-Situational Asperger’s Syndrome, we do not always recognize that your vague, beating-around-the-bush responses mean no. And that can lead to embarrassment and other problems, Let me give you an example.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, that I’m hanging out with relatives. Another relative is coming to town soon, and she’s having a milestone birthday. So let’s just say, hypothetically, that I excitedly get the idea that we ought to throw her a surprise party. Whee! What do you say, everyone?
Well, “everyone” doesn’t like this idea one bit. But they don’t want to be rude, so they give some vague responses that I was supposed to interpret as no. However, since I don’t speak Minnesota Nice, I never hear “no” and send out a big email with explicit instructions to various people on when to arrive at the surprise party.
The first I hear that this is not actually a surprise party is when the guest of honor shows up, hours early, because the other family members have told her that we’re throwing her a birthday party and she wants to help us set up.
And yes, this is not really hypothetical, and I do know the parties involved absolutely did not mean harm. But a simple “No” would have saved me a lot of embarrassment.
6. Stop Resolving Problems by Reporting them to Higher-Ups
Having a problem with a coworker? The best approach is to talk to the coworker directly about the problem, right? Well, no, not in Minnesota. Since it’s rude to confront people directly with issues, a problem with a coworker can only be resolved in two ways: (a) be nice to your coworker to his face, and take out your frustrations by talking about him behind his back, or (b) report the problem to his supervisor.
The same goes for other problems. Having an issue with your child’s teacher? Tell the principal. Unhappy with your restaurant server? Tell the manager.
This doesn’t mean that you should never report problems to a higher-up. There are plenty of good reasons to do this. But using this as the default way of dealing with conflict is dysfunctional. Yes, I know it’s awkward to confront people, even for us New Jersey-bred individuals. But if you don’t confront someone because you’re worried that he’s going to be upset, well, think of how upset this person will be when it gets back to him that you were nice to his face and then reported him to management.
7. Different is Good
So what do you Minnesotans say when someone wears something you don’t like? Or serves a dish that’s not to your taste? Or speaks of some lifestyle choice you don’t approve of? Do you say, “Oh. I don’t care for that.”
Nope. You say, “Oh. That’s different.”
I’ve heard other transplants complain about this use of “different” as well. It takes us transplants awhile to figure out that “different” is euphemistic for “bad.” Or “weird.” Or “not normal, and therefore suspect.”
Minnesotans, please get out of the habit using the term “different” this way. I mean, do you truly believe that anything that’s not “normal” is suspect? No? Then stop misusing this term. Different is good.
8. Opinions are Good
Hey, Minnesotans. It’s okay to have an opinion about political issues. And, under reasonable circumstances, it’s okay to politely express your opinions in public. No, this doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to go stark raving mad at strangers on Facebook pages and in Comment boxes. But please understand that there’s a big difference between engaging in a flame war and saying, “Well, personally, I feel strongly in favor of Issue X. What do you think?”
I learned this the hard way when I was teaching at several different Minnesota colleges. I would present multiple sides of an issue that was relevant to the course topic, and then ask the class, “So, what’s your opinion about this issue?”
Silence. Pulling teeth. No one wanted to be “rude” and debate the issue at hand. Students told me sometimes, “I don’t want to come across as opinionated,” as if expressing one’s opinion openly automatically earns the negative “opinionated” designation.
Having opinions, and expressing those opinions, is a crucial part of how democracy works. Change of any kind will never happen if we’re all too polite to talk about it, and if nobody ever gets exposure to opinions different from their own, we all stagnate. So, hey, Minnesotans, could you please practice voicing your opinions now and then?
9. So, Hey, Minnesotans, Thanks for the Lakes and All…
I know this post is blunt and not the least bit Minnesota Nice. I’d like to add again that I really do like this place. It’s not perfect (and don’t even get me started on the winters or the current state of the Minnesota Twins), but like I said, I chose this place as home. But hey, Minnesotans, you could sure be a little more direct once in awhile, dontcha know?