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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