Yes, Virginia, Minnesota really is nice

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2012 - 8:35 PM

Researchers not only have proven that Minnesota Nice exists, they've quantified it.

When it comes to the behaviors that lead to successful communities, we consistently finish near the top.

In rankings of states and metropolitan areas, Minnesota and the Twin Cities fare extremely well in a survey of nearly 82,000 Americans about everything from their involvement in the PTA to how often they do favors for their neighbors.

The results of the study, "Civic Life in America: Key Findings on the Civic Health of the Nation," didn't surprise Mark Snyder, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota and director of its Center for the Study of the Individual and Society.

"Minnesota Nice does exist, but it's more than just being polite," he said. "It's a set of attitudes, values and behavioral patterns. It's part of an ideology that we're all in this together. If we all work to make a better society, then we benefit because we know that when the time comes that we need help, help will be available."

The survey confirms what Snyder says observers have noted for years. Minnesotans are active in their communities, he said. "Just look at the turnout on National Night Out or the number of people involved in neighborhood associations."

Sam Newberg, president of the Standish-Ericsson neighborhood association in south Minneapolis, has been involved with community groups for more than 20 years.

"I feel that I get more out of wherever I live if I know the people near me better," he said. The benefits include convenience (leaving a spare set of keys with a neighbor), economic ("Being involved gives us a say in what goes on in the neighborhood," he said) and safety ("Being able to put a stranger in context").

"There's also a social aspect," he said.

Beyond volunteering

The study was released in mid-December by the Corporation for National and Community Service (NCOC) in conjunction with the National Conference on Citizenship. Part of it involved volunteering, a category in which Minnesota typically shines -- and we do again. But this project was aimed at taking a bigger picture of how communities function.

"We've looked at volunteering for years, and Minnesota is always at the top," said NCOC spokesperson Samantha Jo Warfield. This time, "we wanted to look at civic life from a broader viewpoint."

The survey added questions -- things like "How often do you do a favor for a neighbor?" -- designed to discover the extent of involvement. Minnesota again is above average. For instance, nationally, 65 percent of people said they help out a neighbor in need, but for Minnesota, that number was 71.3 percent, and for the Twin Cities, 72.6 percent (No. 2 in the country).

Doing a favor for a neighbor might not seem like meaningful civic involvement, but it is, said Carol Bruess, a professor of communication and citizenship at the University of St. Thomas.

"When you shovel your 80-year-old neighbor's walk, it's not just about getting the snow off," she said. "Favors are relational currency. It's a way of saying, 'I care about you.' It's symbolic; it sends a message beyond the act itself."

Membership in civic, church and school groups also is high: 48.7 percent across the state and 50.2 percent in the Twin Cities, both ranking as No. 3 in their respective categories. This is important because people involved in one aspect of the community are more likely to get involved in others, said Nancy Heitzeg, a sociology professor at St. Catherine University.

"It's part of a continuum of civic engagement," she said.

Can we talk?

We also are above average on how often neighbors talk, with 88.8 percent statewide and 87.2 percent in the metro reporting regular chats with their neighbors. Nonetheless, it is one of our lowest national rankings, at Nos. 17 and 18 respectively.

Winter might be a factor in the relatively low rankings, Snyder said. "Three months of the year, the only time we see our neighbor is when he's behind a snowblower," he said.

The figures are still noteworthy, said Brian Dusbiber, an assessment analyst in institutional research at St. Catherine University. Higher rates of interaction tend to go hand-in-hand with higher levels of volunteering and education.

"If we reach out to those whom we don't know, it has to have an impact on our relationships with those we do know," he said of volunteering. As for education: "The more we know about the world around us, there is an increased awareness of others, particularly those in need," he said.

As a native Minnesotan, Heitzeg was encouraged by the study's findings. But on a global plane, she was left a tad wistful. She would like to see more research on how we've become such good citizens.

"If we could understand the secret of Minnesota, we could share it with everyone else," she said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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