“Minnesota Nice” sacrifices candor for courtesy

My first experience with Minnesota Nice was in the bathroom at Chapati, the Indian restaurant in downtown Northfield. The incident occurred about two weeks into my freshman year, so it was my first time eating a meal off campus in Minnesota.

I was in a bathroom stall when I heard a strange female voice. Someone said, “Oh my goodness, I just love your shoes!” While still in the stall, I snuck a peek outside, assuming I would see two sets of shoes by the sinks. But there was no one there. The only two people in this bathroom were this mystery woman, also in a stall, and me.

I couldn’t believe it. Was she really talking to me? A total stranger in the middle of using the bathroom! I was speechless – and slightly flattered because I was wearing boots that I had been tempted to throw out – but still! The whole incident was creeping me out.

We emerged from the stalls at approximately the time, and she just kept chatting like we were two Northfield ladies out on the town together. I returned to the dining area, excited to see my friend’s reaction to the world’s strangest place to give a compliment I was eating with a girl I knew from Atlanta who now goes to Carleton College. My friend’s reaction did not disappoint: she was even more confused and flustered than I was.

Upon returning to campus, I told multiple girls on my floor this story. The non-Minnesotans were thinking the same thing I was: that this lady was crazy for talking to a stranger in a public restroom. But the Minnesotans’ response to my story was a shrug of the shoulders, saying things like, “Welcome to Minnesota!”

After talking to several Oles, I decided that this encounter was an instance of quintessential Minnesota Nice. Being a person with strong opinions, I find it funny that I still can’t pinpoint exactly what I think of this Midwestern polite-yet-often-distant behavior. Is Minnesota the land of Nice or Ice?

As an Ole and a fan of randomly bugging people, I decided to collect the views of five lovely Oles from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa about Minnesota Nice, as well as how the phenomenon impacts both life on the Hill and how the state is perceived as a whole.

“I think that people feel uncomfortable sharing the struggles that they go through, even with their close friends on campus, because Minnesota Nice makes sharing feelings a taboo … and so many Minnesotans have lots of pent-up negative feelings … If we, as a culture, were more okay with saying, ‘no, I am actually not all right today, please talk to me,’ perhaps this wouldn’t happen as much,” said Julie Anne Franzel ’16.

“I think Minnesota Nice … is much more a stereotype than it is a reality … It’s such a simple, seductive idea that people love to talk about and perpetuate it – which, to be fair, may cause more Minnesotans to feel like they have to live up to the expectation,” said Kelly Martin ’15.

“I like to call it ‘Minnesota passive aggressive.’ Someone does something wrong, a Minnesotan brushes it off and says ‘It’s okay’ and then they continue hating the other person behind their back. I have also heard from others outside Minnesota that they feel like Minnesotans are friendly, but don’t follow through. Here’s a classic example: someone says, ‘We haven’t seen each other in forever, how are you? We should really get together sometime!’ And then it never happens,” said Janna Jansen ’15.

I overhear both guys and girls put on a big fake smile and use that voice – the one that sounds too excited to be truly sincere – in the Caf all the time. While you can sometimes track down these people to make plans, Janna is right more often than not. Usually, you never hear from that person until you randomly bump into them later in the year.

“I think that Minnesota Nice has its advantages and disadvantages, but here is one poignant example of Minnesota Nice that I remember my dad telling me about when I was a little kid: When you are in a store, people who don’t even work there will ask you if you need help finding something if you look lost or confused. And similarly, this Minnesota Nice friendliness to strangers may not be carried over in closer relationships,” said Megan Ecker ’15.

“At its best, I think Minnesota Nice means smiling strangers and neighbors willing to go the extra mile to lend a helping hand. However, sometimes it can cause difficulty among family, friends or coworkers. Maintaining relationships requires being open and honest. Problems arise when people sacrifice openness and honesty for niceness,” said Brianne Power ’15.

I think many Oles would agree that sacrificing honesty for niceness causes more problems than it solves. How many times have you wanted to call a friend out for saying something that truly bothered you, but instead brushed your feeling under the rug? All these Oles show that while Minnesota Nice seems quite fine and good on the surface, a problem arises when people maintain that same basic level of niceness to strangers as they do with their friends and family.

Jocelyn Sarvady ’15 sarvady@stolaf.edu is from Atlanta, Ga. She majors in American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies.


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