Dr. Jan Meyer: There are two differing views about Minnesota Nice

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

Not all of the press about Minnesota Nice is, well, nice. In her recent article, Rachel Hutton, author of “Is Minnesota Nice even nice?” that I referenced in my last diary page, wrote that maybe it is a myth, “a marketing vehicle created by our cultural narrators.” She identified those “yarn spinners” as people like Garrison Keillor (formerly of MPR’s “Prairie Home Companion” show) and Howard Mohr (“How To Talk Minnesotan”). Hutton used jokes from former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak as examples, such as “Minnesotans will give you directions to anywhere but their house,” and “If you want to make a friend in Minnesota, go to kindergarten.”

I disagree that there is a “dark side” to Minnesota Nice. The example of not inviting people to your home is reflective of everywhere I have lived in other states. When I was the transplant, I continually invited people to my home, and I cooked meals for them. I loved to have parties, and was known to invite strangers, sometimes people I’d read about in the newspaper for having done something interesting.

Some of the recent publicity about the subject totally refutes all claims about us being only superficially nice. When I first wrote about Minnesota Nice (in 2014!), I quoted from a letter to the editor from a couple who had moved here from New York City. They had described their experience of moving here as “nothing but pleasant.”

They wrote, “Minnesotans are the friendliest, most helpful people you will ever meet. Just don’t sit around waiting; Take a positive approach” (“Minnesota Nice? It’s real. Though it’s a two-way street” July 17, 2014, Star Tribune). I’d add that no matter where you live, the path to friendship is a two-way street. It’s just that the path to those developing relationships is a lot “nicer” here than most places.

Expecting to be invited to people’s homes is a myth in itself. That should not be a surprise to anyone: according to one interesting study I had read, approximately 85% of Americans never invite others into their homes. And I know from experience that 85% does not all live in Minnesota.

Writer Hutton had a chance to write about the opposite view (“Minnesota’s biggest fans” Star Tribune, April 28, 2019). This article was also about a couple that had moved to the Twin Cities from New York. Ashlea Halpern and Andrew Parks had been on a quest to find a new place to settle, and have been so impressed and enthused that they are compiling a list of “Reasons to Love Minnesota.” That growing list (40 items at the time that article was published) is apparently making the online social media rounds.

They chose Minnesota through a disciplined process, creating a spread sheet listing the virtues of all the 40 states and 229 towns they were considering; they actually visited more than 200 of them. Minnesota, however, was not on that original list. They found us because a New York friend had moved here and constantly raved about how great it is. The friend’s descriptions, over time, planted the seed: “This is a good life, and it could be yours.” They described reactions from their New York and Los Angeles friends: “No matter how we tell some of our friends...they don’t get it until they come here. They just think we’re living in Siberia.” They’ve become “Minnevangelists.”

The other reaction they described is from Minnesotans, who are equally surprised but for different reasons. They wrote that Minnesotans can’t believe they came here for Minnesota’s attributes, “and not, like so many transplants, because they had family nearby.” I am not surprised because I think we take Minnesota for granted.

There are those naysayers who claim that our niceness is just a mask for being extremely passive-aggressive. I disagree, and while I recognize that there are some people who approach difficulties and conflict that way, most do not. And there are certainly no more passive-aggressive types here in Minnesota than anywhere else.

Minnesotans have not yet developed the anonymity that is commonly found among strangers, though beware, it is changing! But we still make eye contact with strangers we meet on the street, and even smile and voice a greeting. We rush to help others in need, strangers or not.

When we first moved to Nebraska, we were always out early clearing the driveway if there had been an overnight snowfall. While we were at it, we always did our next-door neighbor’s. When we got to know them better, the husband told us that he was telling his law partner about his crazy new neighbors from Minnesota who constantly shoveled his driveway early in the morning. His partner said that yes, he used to live in Minnesota, and those Minnesotans love to shovel snow! Not long after he told us that, I found an ad that I gave him with a photo of someone shoveling snow. The caption: “Minnesotans make good neighbors.” We were trying, and like the folks who moved here from New York, getting acquainted is a two-way street. Those neighbors have remained very good friends.

I don’t know if others got the same message from their parents as I did: my father was fond of saying that no one is a stranger, just people we may not have met yet. Recently we were convinced to visit a new restaurant by the slogan that headlined their advertisement: “Where strangers become friends, and friends become family.” After all, friends are the family you choose for yourself.

Maybe there is a dark side to Minnesota Nice after all. The word is spreading about how great it is to live here. Do we really want all of those people moving in?