The term “Minnesota Nice” has occasionally been in the news, and quite a bit in the last couple of years. It’s always a fun thing to think and talk and even argue about.
The first time I had heard about it was way back in the publicity run-up to the country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. One national news organization was doing a weekly special for a year, each one highlighting one of the 50 states. When it was Minnesota’s turn, our state was described as “Minnesota Nice” which resulted in “Minnesota Clean.”
More recently, last year in Minnesota Monthly magazine, the subject was written about in two different issues. The first, in May, was John Moe’s “You Know What They Say About Minnesota?” Moe had just passed his fifth year of living in Minnesota. Before he moved here, he had heard a lot of stereotypes that people elsewhere hold about Minnesota. One of them, not surprisingly, was “The people seem nice, but it’s this thing called Minnesota Nice.” The basis for that stereotype was the perception that “Minnesotans would talk your ear off on the sidewalk, but it would be a good 10 years before they invited you into their home.” After five years, he decided it was true but that it was “AWESOME,” as he described it.
The next month, Ethan Rutherford addressed another aspect of Minnesota Nice in his piece “Highway to Lake Wobegon.” He wrote, “As nice as we are — or claim to be — outside of our cars, we are decidedly not nice as soon as we get behind the wheel. Living here is very pleasant. But driving here? It’s the worst.”
Rutherford suggested a reason: because we are always so nice in person, we have bottled up a lot of frustration. With the anonymity of being behind the wheel, we can blow off all that steam by driving aggressively.
More recently there have been two more references to what might be called this conundrum. In the big Sunday section called “Opinion Exchange,” J. Veldof and Corey Bonnema wrote “Minnesota Nice? Like Ice” (July 13, 2014, Star Tribune). They weighed in on the side of Minnesota Nice being a misnomer: “Those who come here from elsewhere really do have a hard time breaking through.” They even wrote an e-book titled “Minnesota Nice? A Transplants Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Minnesota.” While I could sympathize and even empathize with many of their examples, I decided in the end the article was maybe a not-so-subtle plug for their website and e-book.
My opinion was reflected more accurately in a reader’s response to that article. Allan Miller and Sharon Miller wrote that their “experience as transplanted New Yorkers has been nothing but pleasant” (“Minnesota Nice? It’s real. Though it’s a two-way street” July 17, 2014, Star Tribune).
They add a caveat: “Minnesotans are the friendliest, most helpful people you will ever meet. Just don’t sit around waiting; take a positive approach.” Yes, it is a two-way street. And the two Millers give some very practical and easy-to-implement suggestions. Then they add, “Still, don’t ever admit you’re a Yankee fan.”
Back in the ‘70s and the time of the Bicentennial, I don’t remember discussing or even arguing the validity or not of Minnesota Nice.
I was always curious about what process caused others, outsiders, to conclude that we were both nice and clean. I decided, and these two most recent opinion pieces about Minnesota Nice especially confirm it, that it must be through contrasting Minnesotans with residents of other states.
We are indeed very polite, especially to strangers. I am likely a typical Minnesotan: for example, I and others I know have invited strangers — stranded in our city for one reason or another — to stay at our homes overnight. I have lived and worked in many other places in the U.S. and have never heard of that happening elsewhere. When we have talked elsewhere about that happening, and whether it could or would, the response has been shock.
Our behavior transplanted elsewhere does look very nice, maybe too much so. In New York City, the people who worked in the same office where I worked always stopped for a Danish (a sweet roll) to take to work with them. I decided to do the same, but was totally frustrated: I couldn’t seem to get waited on as I stood at the counter. After all, in Minnesota, we look to see who was there first and who came in after us, and without even standing in a line, we get waited on in the “right” sequence. There, people muscled their way to the front. I realized I was going to have to learn to muscle my way in too, or be late to work. I solved my dilemma by going a little early and sitting down at the counter so a waitress would take my order.
And what about Minnesota Clean? It was not meant by the term that our state is physically clean, or in contrast to other states, cleaner than most. What they were describing was our politics.
Here, at least back then, no one would think of buying votes, or handing a traffic cop a $20 bill with the driver’s license to make the ticket go away before it was written. People in graveyards did not vote. Our politics were indeed considered clean.
Minnesota Nice lives on. I’m curious if we are still seen, in contrast to other states, as Minnesota Clean.