Minnesota Ice

By Frank Bures

Not long after I moved back to Minnesota, I was invited to a party. It was in a nice old house filled with dark wood near the Chain of Lakes. I was told it would be attended by bohemian types, and when I showed up just as night was falling, my friend was late. I didn’t really know anyone since I was new in town, but I figured I should be able to find someone to talk to.

I walked into the house, set the plate I’d brought onto the food table, and walked off to find the drinks. There were too many guests packed around the bar, so I just wandered around empty-handed. Periodically, I would approach a small group of people, who would give me a cursory glance, then look away. I would stand there for a few more seconds before shuffling off, embarrassed.

Five times I passed through the house, each time growing slightly more panicked. I felt like the insane man on the bus craving eye contact, looking for someone to throw a rope to a drowning man.

Eventually, I just walked out the door without having said a word to anyone. I called my friend to tell her I’d left, checked the mirror, gave my armpits a sniff, and looked down to see if my shoes matched. Driving home, my mind spun with what had just gone wrong. I knew that as a writer, I spend way too much time alone and my social skills aren’t always razor-sharp.But there was something else too, a quirk of Midwestern life that I had almost forgotten about. It had been a while since I had been to any sort of party, but now it was coming back to me: It’s not just the weather around here that gets cold.

In his classic travel book Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, William Least Heat Moon noted something similar after traveling through the area in the late 1970s. “When I walked the North towns,” he wrote, “people, wondering who the outsider was, would look at me; but as soon as I nodded, they looked down, up, left, right, or turned around as if summoned by an invisible caller. . . . The effect on me was that I felt more alone than I ever had in the desert. I wished for the South where any topic is worth at least a brief exchange. And so I went across the central North, seeing many people, but not often learning where our lives crossed common ground.”

Recently, I was talking to a friend from Tennessee. I asked him, if you walked into a bar full of strangers down there, would it be easy to find someone to talk to? He seemed to think it was a silly question and said, “Of course!” Another friend, from Oregon, told me about a conversation he struck up with a stranger in a bar—who turned out to be from Texas. “Yep,” the Texan said, “Minnesotans are the nicest people in the world. They’ll give you directions anywhere except their house.”

This Minnesota Ice is the flip side to Minnesota Nice. When photographer Alec Soth was asked for two words to describe Minnesotans, the ones he chose seemed almost to be opposites: friendly and remote.

Why are we like that? Many of us attribute the reserve to our Scandinavian roots and the legacy of what some anthropologists call a high context culture, in which communication is geared to exclude outsiders through coded references and gestures—or as Garrison Keillor has called it, Wobegonics. Others have pointed to Aksel Sandemose’s Law of Jante. In A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, the Scandinavian novelist describes the maxims that govern small-town Scandinavian society, such as “Don’t think you’re smarter than us,” “Don’t laugh at us,” and “Don’t think that there aren’t a few things we know about you.”

“Minnesota Ice protects our personal perimeter, but leaves others feeling shunned.”

Yet if the Scandinavian heritage were the true source of Minnesota Ice, one would think Wisconsin would be different, given that its cultural roots are predominantly German. But as someone who grew up on the border of Wisconsin and lived in the state for several years, the situation there felt much the same.

Perhaps a better explanation comes from Colin Woodard, whose American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America divides the country into distinct cultural areas. According to his analysis, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are all firmly part of what he calls Yankeedom, which has its roots in the social norms of the Calvinist New Englanders who were the first to move out here. With them, they brought the values of what Woodard calls secular puritanism: investment in education, local political control, and “the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community, even if it required self-denial.” Secular puritanism’s mark can be detected in dialects and in voting patterns, where yankees formed a “Northern Alliance” that supported the same presidential candidates through much of the 20th century—moderate Republicans earlier on and Democrats from 1988 to 2008. Along with this value system, however, came a ruthless insistence on assimilation.

I suspect that the way we are now—a high context island in the sea that is America—is the product of some interweaving of these and other cultural strands. Whatever the cause, the effect is something many of us know well. Minnesota Ice protects our personal perimeter, but leaves outsiders feeling shunned. Sometimes, I find myself falling into the old pattern—my eyes glance over a stranger, then dart away like I’m just minding my own business. But other times, I remember the more open parts of the world I’ve lived in and how much I loved the feeling of the roads between people being open.

Least Heat Moon lamented that he never discovered what it took to get conversations flowing. Sometimes, he would stand and take pictures of a blank wall in order “to give a passerby an excuse to stop and ask what I could possibly be photographing,” he wrote. But he concluded that “[n]othing breaks down suspicion about a stranger better than curiosity—except in
the North.”

Born and raised here, I wouldn’t know what to tell him even now. If I did, I might not have had to run out of that party. Cultures, of course, can change. It might not be easy, but I’d like to start doing my part.

So the next time you see some guy out on the bike path, looking at you while you try to stare at the pavement, don’t worry. He’s not a stalker. He’s not the insane guy from the bus.
He’s just me. And he just wants to say hello.

4 thoughts on “Minnesota Ice

  1. This is something I’ve often heard about, but I have a different take. The next time you feel that you may encounter this, try something different: wear something identifying you as a different nationality – a maple leaf sweatshirt, a union jack sweater, anything.

    When I moved to Minnesota 10 years ago I was resplendent in as much Canadiana as I could muster – and not once did I experience so much as a lowered eye when out and about. Strangers on the street beamed, strangers in bars struck up conversations about hockey, strangers at work invited me for dinners… and one Minnesotan explained that I could be trusted since after all – whatever else I may be – I wasn’t a southerner.

    The land of the Voyageurs, of strong-family ties, of freedom seeking underground railroaders, of old-fashioned ways-and-means needs introductions and a sliver of knowing who you are before treading into your comfort zone is how I see it.

  2. I certainly would not invite to my home someone I didn’t know from a bale of hay. My home is my sanctuary. Only good friends and family are invited, and that’s disruption enough.

  3. “Minnesota Nice” has always meant a certain flavor of passive aggression to me. I grew up in Maine, where strangers were suspect (What could you possibly be doing here?!) but at least you knew where you stood. Here, it’s a slightly different style: people want to have the appearance of being welcoming but unless you were in their kindergarten class, you’re “other” and will be acknowledged as such the moment you leave the room.

    As a result, I still find myself gravitating to other transplants-even after living here for twenty-eight years.

  4. I really enjoyed this and I’m sure it will garner both fierce denial and loud applause. I’ve recently moved back to Minnesota for the third time since 1975 and I think about this topic often as I recover from my treatment elsewhere and re-acquaint myself with the culture here. Sometimes I think Minnesota Ice has become a “thing” only because Minnesota Nice is a “thing;” as if we are not allowed our rude people because we have a reputation to live up to. I certainly know people like this but not very many. And I know from my frequent moves that it only takes a few people to leave a lasting impression which then becomes the basis for a generalization. In numerous neighborhoods around the country, my presence has been both subtly and overtly ignored for years at a time, the ice in New Hampshire reducing me to tears many times during my years there. But I have never been as overwhelmed by the warmth and friendliness of new neighbors as I have on my moves to Minnesota.

    Considering this big picture helps us see that remoteness and exclusion may exist here, but they are not the prevailing traits, nor are they unique to this one place. It is difficult to be a newcomer just about everywhere. In addition to Minnesota, I’ve lived in California, Montana, Iowa, Wisconsin, a variety of suburbs in Chicago, North Carolina and, most recently, New Hampshire; and in none of these places would I have been able to walk into a party full of strangers and be welcomed into the fold without the aid of a host (shame on the person who didn’t greet you at the entrance to their home!).

    I would never deny anyone their experience so I weigh it carefully against my own, ask people to consider the big picture, and go out of my way to NOT be that way.

    Kristin Nilsen

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