About nine or ten years ago, television reporters from Channel 11 were surveying people out on Nicollet Mall in Downtown Minneapolis with the question: “Is Minnesota ‘Nice’ a Real Thing” (or something like that). They caught up with my two co-workers and me as we were out for our lunch stroll and posed the question to us. My friend from Chicago said, “No, it’s not a real thing – people aren’t that nice here. They just act like it.” My comment was something along those same lines. The third party of our team, a nice boy from Willmar, said, “I think Minnesotans are the nicest people in the world,” then yelled “Douche-Bag!” as we were walking away from the reporter. We laughed and ran all the way back to the office.
The KARE-11 report that night, of course, concluded that Minnesota Nice was a real thing and that Minnesotans take extra pride in being polite and helpful. Then they showed my friend from Chicago and me ranting like a couple of blathering lunatics who obviously did not know what was going on – how could we not think that Minnesota and its people were “nice?” But my Minnesota born-and-bred friend’s remark really makes a person think, “What is this Minnesota ‘nice’ stuff about?”
Wikipedia characterizes Minnesota Nice as “the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered.” Wiki goes on to say, “[C]ritics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change.” Ah, there it is, passive aggressiveness. That’s more similar to my observation of the phenomenon. I have lived here in Minnesota since 1984 and have been on a sociological journey, trying to understand the real meaning behind the frosty stares and thin-lipped smiles. Example: My co-worker in the cube next to me was muttering swear words under her breath and slamming cabinets.
“What’s wrong, Debbie?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Patti, everything’s great.”
“Please tell me if I’ve offended you in some manner, and let’s go for a walk and talk.”
“No, no, I’m FINE.” (I’m just seething with anger and you will never know the truth…. Now let me go down the hall and slag your name all over the office.)
Please do not misinterpret – I love Minnesota and the Twin Cities. I have made this my home. I married a Minnesotan who likes to fish. There are lots of things to love here, and I have made life-long friendships. But not without a lot of patience and some frustration. I grew up in New Jersey and Detroit around lots of Irish and Italian folk – both groups very emotive and up front with their feelings. When someone in my Irish family is mad, it’s never a secret. Yes, it might be said that we’re hot heads, but there’s no misunderstanding about what’s going on – a person pretty much always knows what’s happening in my family when someone is pissed off or happy or just has something to say. Because I’m not from here, it’s taken me a long time to understand the stoicism and non-communicative ways of the White Nordic Minnesotan settlers.
It could be the unending winters here that just make people clam up and brace against any emotion. Who has time to be in touch with their feelings when they are trying to survive?
A little darker possibility is that Minnesota Nice or the philosophy relative to Scandinavian stoicism may have had its origins stemming from the work of author Axel Sandemose, (1899-1965). In The Jante Law, a novel about a fictitious village in an equalitarian society. “Jante’s law is defined by Sandemose: ‘This is Jante: each little soul’s struggle for coequality and recognition, never without consciousness that all the others are greater than he.’” (The Law of Jante in Swedish Society: Crystal Lee Möller, 1998.) Sandemose’s ten rules of Jante Law are as follows:
1. Don’t think you’re anything special.
2. Don’t think you’re as good as us.
3. Don’t think you’re smarter than us.
4. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
5. Don’t think you know more than us.
6. Don’t think you are more important than us.
7. Don’t think you are good at anything.
8. Don’t laugh at us.
9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.
The Danish Secret, Sharmi Albrechtsen, July 2, 2010. If just being a little passive-aggressive is the only leftover effect of the Jante Rules, then I suppose Minnesotans have made extraordinary progress.
Professor Eric Dregni, in Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) writes:
To complain is simply not acceptable because it won’t do any good. Even in the hospital, Scandinavians tend to remain unflappable. Norwegian American historian Odd Lovoll wrote that ‘another characteristic [of Scandinavians] is public denial of inadequacy or suffering, a stoicism. . . . Norwegians require less local anesthesia for minor surgical procedures than is common in America….’
Could this be where the expression “keep a stiff upper lip” came from?
How I wish I had had humorist Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan book when I first moved here – it would have explained so much to me. “Whatever expresses emotional turmoil of many variations and takes over in Minnesota conversation when you bet and that’s different won’t do the job. Whatever can be used to express disappointment.” How many times over the years have Minnesotans said, “Whatever, Patti,” in really upbeat positive voices and nodding heads, and I’ve totally misinterpreted it and thought they meant that they were really ok with something. It might have saved me a lot of time and heartache.
I have spent many years of trying to decipher and interpret what people mean when they say certain things here in Minnesota. But all in all, Minnesotans are actually nice people. They help people in need and are very generous. And also very warm, not cold at all.
So what if Minnesotans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves – it just makes them more interesting to me. I’ve always loved a good mystery. I guess I no longer feel like an outsider. However, as many newcomers from all over the world come to live in our fair state and attempt to assimilate, we can perhaps examine our customs and take note of how welcoming we truly are.
The Law of Jante in Swedish Society: Crystal Lee Möller, 1998, (citing The Jante Law, Axel Sandemose)
The Danish Secret, Sharmi Albrechtsen, July 2, 2010
How to Talk Minnesotan, Howard Mohr, 1998