My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Archive for the category “Culture”

Socioeconomic Pong: A Game about Inequality

Do all Americans have an equal chance to be economically successful? Or is the playing field inherently unequal?

To illustrate the concept of socioeconomic inequality, we created Socioeconomic Pong. Play Socioeconomic Pong and let us know what you think! (The game works best in Firefox, Chrome, or IE9.) Select the image below:


Our version of Pong is modelled after Atari’s traditional arcade game. In traditional Pong, players are each given equally-sized paddles, and therefore neither has an advantage. In Socioeconomic Pong, the size of a player’s paddle is determined by socioeconomic factors. The purpose of this game is to demonstrate that the socioeconomic advantages and obstacles faced by an individual at birth have a strong impact on the likelihood of that individual’s success.

I created this game with my colleagues Matt Taylor and Estelle Domingos at Capella University. We are in the Course Media department, and we design media pieces for online courses. We presented Pong at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference and received the Judges’ Choice award at the poster session.

Musings on My 25th Year High School Reunion, or, Miss Lynch is the Real Badass

Me, as Miss Lynch in Grease, at Pennsauken High School in 1986.

Me, as Miss Lynch in Grease, at Pennsauken High School in 1986.

My 25th year high school reunion is coming up soon. I am not going to the reunion. Mostly this is because the reunion is in New Jersey, and I no longer have family there. It’s not worth the trouble and expense. But I’ve been reading about the reunion on Facebook, and all kinds of memories are surfacing.

Let me start out by saying I intend this to be as non-whiny a blog post as humanly possible. I want this to be an empowering post. I’m tired of thinking of myself as a kid who was lonely and unpopular in high school. I’m tired of feeling sad that I skipped out on our senior trip to Disney World because I was afraid no one would hang out with me. I want to start thinking about myself as someone who rocked the shit out of high school.

PHS. The middle school, Pennsauken Middle School, is most unfortunately PMS.

PHS. The middle school, Pennsauken Middle School, is unfortunately PMS.

Here’s the part of the blog post where I risk being whiny and I summarize my middle school and high school years. I was the stereotypically bright child who severely lacked social skills and coordination. You know, the kid with the straight A’s who was always the last one picked in elementary school kickball? That was me.  After my parents’ divorce, I started middle school in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Being the new kid in seventh grade would pretty much suck for anyone, but if you’re painfully shy, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. To top it off, the largely working-class, conservative town of Pennsauken was just not a good fit for me.  I was a liberal professor’s kid, and one of only a few Jewish kids in the school. From the beginning, there was a pretty good chance that This Would Not Go Well.

Whining done. I have a mental library of painful stories I could tell you about my socially awkward attempts to fit in that ended badly. You don’t need to hear these stories, but more importantly, I don’t need to keep telling them to myself.

My sophomore year at PHS, I auditioned for Grease. I really wanted to play the part of Rizzo, the sexy bad girl. But then I read for the part of Miss Lynch, the curmudgeonly old lady teacher.  I was hysterically funny and got the part.

For years, I told this story and emphasized how emblematic it was of my high school years that I had to play an old lady school teacher instead of a sexy bad girl. But these days, I’ve come to realize that Miss Lynch is the real badass. Because, you know, there are a lot of high school girls in the world who could play Rizzo. But I may be the only high school girl in history who could make the old lady school teacher the most memorable character in that whole play.

And when you think about, there’s no better musical to play the outsider than GreaseGrease is horrible play for high schoolers. The message is terrible. If you’ve never seen Grease, it’s all about Sandy, the sweet new girl who doesn’t fit into the bad girl culture at her new school. She had a summer romance with Danny, the king of the high school bad boys, but he won’t have anything to do with Sandy at school because she doesn’t fit in.

So, is Grease like High School Musical, where everyone learns that the most important thing is to be yourself?  NO!!  Sandy decides to change her looks and her personality, becomes a bad girl, and gets the boy.  At the end of the play, the kids all sing “We Go Together,” and Sandy’s a part of the “together” now, just like I wanted to be. But she’s only part of “together” because she’s squeezed herself into black Spandex pants. Three cheers for conformity!

Miss Lynch, however, doesn’t give a crap what these self-righteous, conformist little greasers think of her.

A girl whose name I can’t remember came up to me after the play was done and said, “You know, I used to think you were weird. But now I think you’re cool!” So there you have it. Fuck Rizzo. Miss Lynch was the real badass.

On Facebook, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about some of the people from my high school.  It’s been stunning for me to learn how many other students felt more like Miss Lynch than they felt like Rizzo. If I lived closer, I would love to sit down and have a beer with these people at my reunion and hear about what they really thought about PHS.  I used to think I would never want to go to a reunion, but now I think I might try to go to the next one. And why not? I was Miss Lynch. I rocked the shit out of high school.

Coming out as a Humanistic Jew

My daughter, reading the Four Questions at a community Passover seder at my Humanistic Jewish synagogue.

My daughter, reading the Four Questions at a community Passover seder at my Humanistic Jewish synagogue.

I am a Humanistic Jew.

Not everyone knows what that means. When asked what kind of Jew I am, people generally expect me to say I’m Reform or Conservative. My answer is less common, and according to some, more controversial.

I am a Humanistic Jew. In a nutshell, this means that I identify culturally as being a part of the Jewish people, and that I am proud to be a part of Jewish history. I am also an agnostic, so I do not have Jewish religious beliefs.

Here’s how the Society for Humanistic Judaism describes it:


So why do I feel the need to come out as a Humanistic Jew? Well, not all Jews (or Gentiles) see this as a legitimate identity — and, frankly, I personally am someone who worries too much about what others think of me. When I belonged briefly to a Reform synagogue, I didn’t hesitate to answer the question, “What synagogue do you belong to?” In fact, it made me feel like part of the “club” to have a conventional answer. Unfortunately, belonging to that “club” made me feel like a hypocrite because of my lack of religious beliefs. I felt like I was being disrespectful to the religious people in the congregation.

The Humanorah, a symbol of Humanistic Judaism

The Humanorah, a symbol of Humanistic Judaism

So, happily, I found a new “club” when my family and I joined Or Emet, the local Humanistic Jewish congregation. It feels wonderful to have a warm, inviting place where I can unapologetically be who I am, a Humanistic Jew. But I still feel nervous about telling some people about Or Emet.  Recently, when I was chatting with a Jewish woman by the pool during our daughters’ swim lessons, she told me that she belongs to a Conservative synagogue and sends her daughter to a Jewish day school. She asked me if we belonged to a synagogue. I felt nervous sharing this information with someone who was obviously more traditional than me, but since this particular stranger had just spent half an hour oversharing juicy information about her ex-husband with me, I figured what the heck? Happily, she didn’t seem phased.

Others, however, are not okay with the concept that Judaism can be seen as an ethnicity and culture separate from religious beliefs.  For some people, this is because they are religious Jews. For others, regardless of their beliefs, it’s about a genuine fear that we’re all going to become assimilated and forget about who we are. There are only about 14 million Jews worldwide, and in case you’ve been paying attention to history, you know there’s been some effort made to both assimilate us into Christianity and to annihilate us. Many Jews are alarmed by a recent Pew Research Study of Jewish Americans that shows that 62 percent of Jews define Judasim is being primarily about ancestry and culture, and that almost a third of millennial generation Jews define themselves as Jewish and secular.

I can understand the fear of Jews dying out. I fear this too.  But I see Humanistic Judaism (and other alternative movements, like Reconstructionist Judaism) as part of the answer. Humanistic Judaism is one possible space where that third of millennial Jews can go to be Jewish and still be secular. Both Reform and Conservative Judaism evolved to meet the changing needs of American Jews who had immigrated from the Old World. Humanistic Judaism can fill in a similar need, while still promoting Jewish identity.

Some may wonder why it’s so important to me to retain my Jewish identity if I don’t have Jewish religious beliefs. Part of it is that like many humans, I feel a powerful connection to my ancestry and history. Religion is not a mandatory part of that type of connection. After all, would you tell an African-American that she couldn’t be African-American unless she was Christian?  Of course not. Christianity has been an integral part of the African-American experience, but it’s by no means the only part, and someone isn’t “fired” from being black if she professes agnosticism. I feel the same way about being Jewish.

Like many Jews, the connection I feel to my heritage was reinforced when I travelled to Israel as a young adult. I was sitting on a bus on the way to Jerusalem and felt overcome by emotion. I though about the many generations of Jews who have ended their Passover seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For years, this was an unrealizable dream, and yet here I was. When I arrived at the Wailing Wall, I did what many Jews do: I wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and inserted it into the cracks of the wall.  One of my best friends, who is Jewish, was about to have her first child, so I wrote a prayer for her and her baby.  Despite my agnosticism, I am getting choked up just writing about this moment. This was a moment in my life when I felt deeply in touch with my place in the human experience.

And that’s the thing about Humanistic Judaism that probably has the most meaning to me — it’s about feeling proud and connected to my place in the beautiful, tragic, and complex story of humanity as a Jew. On my trip to Israel, I visited the Diaspora Museum, a museum that documents the detailed story of the Jews throughout history. After spending hours in the exhibits tracing Jews throughout the world, I finally came across the exhibit about American Jews. There was a U.S. map with push pins, and a sign explaining that each push pin was inserted into an American community with a significant Jewish population.  My first thought was that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area probably didn’t have a large enough Jewish population to warrant a push pin. But then I looked, and I was wrong. And there was another moment when I felt deeply connected with my place in human history, in Jewish human history. There I was! There was my push pin!

Of course, one part of my understanding of myself in the human Jewish story is the Holocaust. Like many other American Jews, my great-grandmother was murdered by the Nazis. In fact, there’s a photo of Bessarabian Jews in a Nazi ghetto on Wikipedia, and I actually think the woman on the left hand side might be my great-grandmother. Even if she’s not, my place in history is now digitized.  My daughter has started asking me questions about the Holocaust, and it’s painful to answer these questions, but I always tell her, “This is one reason why we can never forget we’re Jews.”

And when I tell my daughter about the Holocaust and its place in our Jewish human history, I want her to remember not just victimization but also heroes. Like Boris. My father doesn’t talk about his childhood as a first-generation American Jew very much, but after we saw Schindler’s List, he told me about his father’s friend Boris. After Boris escaped from a concentration camp, he spent the rest of the war running back into Nazi territory and smuggling out children. Later in his life, Boris suffered from tremendous anxiety attacks and hid under tables, and my grandfather was the only one who could coax him back to reality. Boris was a hero.  And so was Liviu Lebrescu, a Holocaust survivor and a Romanian Jew who was born not too far from where my grandparents were born. Lebrescu was a professor at Virginia Tech and was in his classroom the day in 2007 (on Holocaust Remembrance Day) when a deranged student started slaughtering people with a machine gun. Professor Lebrescu died as he barricaded the door with his body, and all but one of his students escaped through the window.  These stories of Jewish heroism fill me with pride, as does the tradition of the Jewish labor organizer and the many Jewish politicians who have fought for social justice, like Paul Wellstone.

I know that for many Jews, this sense of connection comes from going to a temple and participating traditional prayers. My own experiences do not exclude this. A few weeks ago,my great-uncle Morrie died and I attended services for him at a Reform temple. Most of the people in the sanctuary were older, probably in their eighties at least. The rabbi told a humorous anecdote about Morrie’s poker games and about how the expectation back then was that the wife would offer the poker group a big tray of food around 11:00 pm.  There was a very old couple sitting in front of us, and when the rabbi told this story they beamed at each other spontaneously. I felt honored to witness this brief, loving moment in the life of these old strangers. And I felt connected. I understand that the experiences of the Jews in that sanctuary have probably been very different than mine, and I felt honored to be in the sanctuary with them, sharing their traditions.

So there you have it. I am a Humanistic Jew. I hope that no one will read this and think that I disapprove of Jews who are more traditional and who have religious beliefs. That is not the case, just as I don’t disapprove of religious people who are not Jewish. I only hope that traditional Jews will share the same feeling of inclusion about me. For many years I felt lost in the Jewish community, eager to find a way to connect, but feeling shut out because the only way I could see in was through beliefs I didn’t share. I hope that traditional Jews who read this don’t reject me as an outsider, and that they will see something of themselves in my stories of feeling connected to the human Jewish story.

Attention Racists! “Muslim” is a Religion, Not a Racial Slur

Miss America 2013, Nina Davuluri, "accused" on the Twittersphere of being a Muslim

Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri, “accused” on the Twittersphere of being a Muslim

Here’s my latest theory on racism in America.  Since the 1970s, and especially since 9/11, there’s been quite a bit of anti-Muslim hatred in America. My theory is that this racism falls into two categories.

First, there is anti-Muslim rhetoric that is the same thing as anti-Islamic rhetoric.  Proponents of this type of rhetoric oppose Islam and the people who follow it.

The other type of anti-Muslim rhetoric? It’s not about followers of Islam per se.  Rather, I suspect that many people who spew hatred about Muslims do not actually know what “Muslim” means. It seems that Americans have come to see the word “Muslim” as synonymous with “brown-skinned foreigner.”  Or at least with brown-skinned foreigners who don’t fall easily into a category with whom many Americans are familiar.  People from Mexico and China aren’t often “accused” of being Muslim.  But people from Egypt, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Kenya — and Americans who descend from people from these nations?  They’re all a bunch of “Muslims.”

And when I say that some Americans don’t understand that Islam is a religion, I don’t mean that these people are ignorant about the details of Islam. I mean that there’s a certain percentage of the population that literally doesn’t know that Islam = religion, just like Christianity = religion.

What made me conclude this? Just look at the bizarre anti-Muslim comments that spread throughout Twitter after the crowning of Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri. This woman is an American woman of Indian descent.  Like most Indians and people of Indian descent, she’s not a Muslim.  And yet you’d never know that from reading Twitter after the pageant. Here’s a representative tweet that declares that Miss America is a “Muslim”:

Miss America Muslim

Of course, in lieu of actual information about Islam, Americans with this mindset “know” that Muslims are associated with terrorism.  Hence, the Twittersphere was abuzz with accusations that Miss America is a terrorist:

miss america terrorist tweets

Of course, this all relates to anti-Obama rhetoric that Barack Obama is a Muslim.  Barack Obama has stated clearly that he’s a Christian, so people who “accuse” Obama of being a Muslim are (1) believers in the conspiracy theory that the president is lying about his religion and is part of a secret Muslim takeover or something like that, or (2) do not understand that “Christian” and “Muslim” are mutually exclusive categories.  For people who define a Muslim as a “brown-skinned foreigner,” and who know that Obama’s father was from Kenya (and who was, indeed, a Muslim), then of course Obama’s a Muslim.  I mean, just look at him!

Obama flag

Among other things, this makes for a more socially acceptable way to use a racial slur to describe the president. After all, it’s not socially acceptable to call him the n-word, much as some people would like to do this.

Of course, part of what’s infuriating about the “Miss America is a Muslim” rhetoric is that it demonstrates ignorance about the world. Anyone with basic knowledge of geography and culture knows that India is not located in the Middle East, and that dissimilar countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya can’t be lumped together as one homogenous group of brown-skinned people.  But it’s more than just cultural ignorance.  The “Miss America is a Muslim” rhetoric points to the birth of the term “Muslim” as a racial slur directed at an ill-defined group of brown-skinned people, some of whom of actually Muslim and some of whom are not.

Drunk TV, or What if All TV was like Drunk History?

Drunk History
Think that history documentaries are too stodgy? Clearly you haven’t been watching Drunk History. On this new Comedy Central sensation, historical events are recounted to the audience by graduate students who are extremely drunk.  Famous actors are cast to star in the drunken storytellers’ tales.

To me, the humorous part about Drunk History isn’t that the storytellers are drunk.  It’s the juxtaposition.  Drunk History is done in the format of a crusty history documentary. You know, those documentaries that are narrated by professors blazer sleeve patches and monocles?  Replace the narrator with someone who’s falling down drunk, and you have humor through juxtaposition.  Here’s a scene from the early days of Drunk History, before it made its way to Comedy Central:

Of course, it’s not for everybody. My mother, a former social studies teacher, watched Drunk History for about three minutes and promptly left the room.

But this makes me wonder. What if all TV were like Drunk History?  Maybe Comedy Central has kicked off a new genre.  Maybe we’re all so fed up with Reality TV that we’re ready for a paradigm shift to Drunk TV. Here are just a few of the many possibilities for Drunk TV.

Drunk Cable News

Wolf Blitzed?

Wolf Blitzed?

Filling up 24 hours with news is next to impossible, so a good deal of that time is devoted to people yelling loudly at each other about their opinions.  That’s old already.  Instead, why not replace the Sean Hannitys of the world with drunk commentators who say things like,

“Dude, what the f**k are we gonna do about the Middle East?”

“I know, man!  We’ve been fighting one f**king war after another there since that Ayatollah sh*t!”

“It’s all about oil, dude!  It’s all about f**ing oil!”

Note:  this would work better with some commentators than others.  Wolf “Blitzed” Blitzer would be a riot.  So would Rachel Maddow.  But we probably don’t want to see Sean Hannity drunk.  The rage potential would be just plain dangerous.

Drunk Food Network

I know, some of the Food Network stars already seem a little drunk, like Rachael Ray, and don’t even get me started about Guy Fieri:

guy fieri drunk

But wouldn’t it be more fun if the cooks on the Food Network really were drunk?  “OK, dude.  What was I doing here?  Oh yeah, making pesto.  It looks kinda like it”s missing something.  Oh yeah, let’s add some parmesan cheese.  Just throw it right in the blender, as much as you want, like three or four pounds or so.  Now let’s press the button on the blender… OH S**T!!!  @#$%!!! I forgot to put the top on the blender.  That’s going to be a mother****ing mess to clean up.”

Try not to vomit on the antiques.

Try not to vomit on the antiques.

Drunk Antiques Roadshow

Antiques Roadshow is a great concept.  People dig up old stuff from their attics and bring them to this travelling roadshow of stodgy appraisers.  The appraisers tell them how much their junk is worth, and sometimes it’s worth quite a bit.

The problem with Antiques Roadshow is that it’s on for about 8,430 hours per day, and PBS really needs to mix things up.  Why not hand out cocktails to the appraisers and the junk-wielding masses before the show?

“Dude, I found this piece of c**p chair in my attic.  I didn’t think it was worth s**t, but my old lady made me bring it in.”

“Well, your old lady is one smart lady!  This chair is from the Eduardo period.”

“Dude!  The Eduardo period?  Does that mean it’s worth, like, millions and zillions of dollars?”

“Indeed!  Millions and zillions of dollars indeed… but oh dear.  The value is now greatly decreased, now that you’ve vomited all over it.”

Drunk House Hunters

"B**ch, that's one ugly f***ing house!"

“B**ch, that’s one ugly f***ing house!”

As I’ve written before, House Hunters is predictable and boring.  Most of the people buying houses want the exact same kind of countertops, bathroom fixtures, and floors.  As they walk through the houses, couples make the same “witty,” gender-stereotyped comments over and over again.  “Oh, honey, look at that massive walk-in closet.  it will hold all my stuff.  But where will your stuff go?”

it would be a whole lot more interesting and honest if the House Hunters looked for houses while drunk.

“Oh, honey, look at that big walk-in closet. It will fit all my shoes.”

“Huh. We’d have plenty of room for your shoes if you hadn’t spent half the down-payment on your f***Ing designer shoe collection.”

“What the f**k is that supposed to mean?  How much f***ing money do you spend on beer?”

“I wouldn’t have to drink so much if I didn’t have to listen to you talk about your f***Ing shopping sprees all the time.”

Drunk Weather Channel

Weather TV is weird.  Once in awhile, something huge like a tornado or a hurricane happens, and people are glued to their TVs.  But most of the time, Weather TV is just a bunch of people talking about the weather and saying inane things like, “Well, it’s going be another scorcher out there today!”  These inane things would be a whole lot more funny if the meteorologists were blasted.

Of course, this might be closer to reality than we think.  Search for “drunk weatherman” on YouTube, and you get a surprising number of real weather clips:

Drunk Sportscasters

beer at baseball gameSome of the best sports commentators out there are drunk guys.  They’ve had a few beers at the ballpark and they’ve got something say to that @#$% outfielder who belongs in the Little League and that @#$% manager.  Some of these guys are actually pretty funny.  Maybe they ought to be covering actual broadcasts.

This would be especially effective in covering baseball games, which last on average for 4,380 hours.  Even the best color commentators run out of interesting obscure statistics to discuss, so why not liven things up with some drunk guys?

Drunk C-SPAN

I need a drink just looking at this image.

I need a drink just looking at this image.

Our electorate would be much more well-informed if we only watched more C-SPAN.  Unfortunately, other than watching suburban city council meetings on Cable Access Channel 17, there’s nothing more dry imaginable.  About the only thing that would drive up C-SPAN’s ratings would be drunkenness.

Drunken commentators, drunken Senators, it doesn’t matter.  Drunk political debates would be especially cool.  Especially Vice Presidential debates.

So… Drunk TV Anyone?

Of course, this is all just wild and silly speculation.  Or is it?  There are an awful lot of cable TV hours in need of content.  Is Drunk TV any less likely than the fact that there are dozens of shows about pawn shops, prison life, redneck child pageant queens, and cupcakes?  And hey, they’re already using alcohol to get reality TV contestants on shows like The Bachelor to act like idiots.  Sadly, the intelligence level of so much of our TV is so low that getting everyone on TV drunk may not be that big of a change.

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:

minnesota nice

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 Friendsstrangers

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

give and takeThis 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

directHere’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

happy minnesotaMinnesotans 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.No

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

differentSo 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?

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