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
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.