Dr. Jan Meyer: ‘Minnesota Nice’ makes living easier

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

Yesterday I was in a fabric store picking up a half-yard of something to make a pillow cover. I found exactly what I was looking for, and proceeded to the measuring counter. It was one of those where you take a number and wait until it is called.

I looked around; there were four ahead of me waiting, and one being served. I had number six. Soon the clerk called out for number three. None of us responded, then a woman appeared from among the rows of fabrics and said she was number three. She had a cart laden with bolts of fabric; clearly she was making a big purchase. I think the rest of us did an inward groan.

One of them stepped towards the counter and asked if the clerk could just put a price on the piece she was holding; it was clearance and had already been cut. Number three said that of course, that was OK. This one hadn’t taken a number.

The clerk then called out number four. That customer looked at the single bolt that I was holding and said, “Why don’t you go first?” I looked at the other two and they nodded in agreement; they all obviously had more to be cut than I did.

My task accomplished, I turned away and profusely thanked the others for their patience. As I walked away, the remaining waiting customers started urging each other to go first. “You go!” “No, you go. Look at how much I have!” Finally, the one with less in her basket stepped up and began her transaction. That left just one, and as I left I said to that last one, “If you keep on being Minnesota Nice you might be here all day!” We both laughed, recognizing the truth about ourselves.

It seems to me that Minnesota’s fame for people being nice has gotten more publicity this spring than usual. According to one article, the term first appeared in that newspaper in 1986 (“Is Minnesota Nice even nice?” by Rachel Hutton, April 23, 2019, Star Tribune). That paper’s glossary defined it as a “tendency to be polite and friendly…penchant for self-deprecation and unwillingness to draw attention to ourselves….” That sure sounds like a lot of people I know and love.

Hutton went on to put forth some theories as to the origin of the behavior and the expression. The one that made the most sense, and is likely the widest believed, is that it comes from our Scandinavian background. Yes, not all Minnesotans have that history: German ancestry actually has a larger percentage at 35% and Scandinavian descendants are at 30%. But she related that “Scandinavians were more active in early politics, their ‘son’-ending surnames gave them greater visibility, and the local NFL team is named after their iconic seafaring tough guys.”

Hutton quoted one researcher who cited a connection: a code of conduct “described in a 1930s satirical novel by a Danish-Norwegian author that forms a code of conduct for residents of a fictional town…Rule No. 1: Don’t think that you are special.”

Hutton described other theories of the origin of Minnesota Nice, including this one: “. . . perhaps these yarn-spinners manufactured the idea to help us stand out in flyover-land?” I like that one too, and it reminds me of a past production of one of the Twin Cities’ oldest and best known satire/comedy theatres. It was during the time that New York City was experiencing a financial crisis.

To help out the Big Apple, the governors of all of the other states got together and worked on ideas to try to do so. They decided that the best way they could help was for each state to take so many New Yorkers for resettlement. That would relieve some of the financial pressure of the city.

The first scene was the arrival of a number of New Yorkers at the MSP airport, with a requisite amount of fanfare and media outlets on hand to record the occasion. Scenes after that were the New Yorkers behaving as they do there. The last scene in the play was the governors all getting together and deciding they would pay NYC’s bills if they would just take back their New Yorkers.

I could understand the differences: during the time I worked in New York, I found that most people stopped across the street at a bakery/café for a Danish (what we call a sweet roll) to take back with them. Good idea, I thought, since that hotel at which I stayed did not have a restaurant.

At the counter, there was no apparent waiting line and I soon found out how it worked: customers elbowed their way to be next. Contrast that with Minnesota Nice: here we look around and see who was there before us, and wait until it is our “turn.” I found that I was never given a turn, and ended up waiting until there were no more customers so I could order. I could not adapt to what I considered rude behavior, so I started sitting down at the tables at the other side, and getting served there.

When I worked in Chicago, a colleague who had become a good friend would sometimes accompany me back to Minnesota for occasions such as holidays. We’d go out to eat, and he’d make menu substitutions, and even send food back to the kitchen. I admit to being mortified: we don’t do that in Minnesota. The next time I was in New York City, he and I went to a theatre and afterwards went to a famous establishment. He yelled at the waiter, and the waiter yelled back at him. My friend had grown up in New York City. What’s “right” and “normal” in one place isn’t the same as in other places; that doesn’t make it wrong.

There’s too much to be said about Minnesota Nice to be contained on one page of my diary, so — to be continued!