Minnesota Nice? It's like ice

  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 6:30 PM

Those who come here from elsewhere really do have a hard time breaking through.


Photo: Photo illustration by Bruce Bjerva • Star Tribune/iStockphoto.com,

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It’s no secret: Minnesota is a terrific place to live. We have excellent schools, great health care, wonderful arts and amazing entertainment options. There’s just one problem. As transplants to our state quickly learn, we also have something called “Minnesota Nice.”

To the locals, Minnesota Nice is truly nice. We wave our fellow drivers through four-way stops; we help dig our neighbors out of the snow even when the wind chill is minus 40, and we tend to be exceedingly polite. It’s all good, right?

Not so fast. Talk to transplants from other states and countries and you get a different story. We should know; we’ve talked to a lot of transplants, hosting numerous discussions with newcomers and conducting dozens of interviews during the development of our website, “Surviving and Thriving in Minnesota Nice” and our e-book, “Minnesota Nice? A Transplants Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Minnesota.”

Through all this we’ve gotten an earful about what we’ve come to call the shadow side of Minnesota Nice.

Take Pam, a transplant from Colorado. When she and her family moved to a Twin Cities suburb, no one ­— not one neighbor — greeted her or said hello, much less invited her into their home (for two years and counting).

Or take Todd, who is originally from Chicago and came to the conclusion that something must be wrong with him. Though he had made many friends during stints in Iowa and elsewhere, since moving to Minnesota, he had yet to make a single one.

Or how about Sarah, who decided she could no longer work for a Minnesotan because she never got the feedback she needed to improve? Or Michael, who said he’s been advised on many occasions “to tone it down” at work and not be so direct?

Transplants from as near as Iowa and as far away as India have told us the same thing — the transition to Minnesota is as difficult, or even more difficult, than any other they’ve made. Whether they’ve come here from California or Connecticut, Michigan or Mississippi, or from a different country altogether, it’s a major and often painful culture shock.

So what is it about Minnesota Nice that makes living here such a uniquely challenging experience? So many things!

• There’s the polite friendliness that looks to a lot of transplants like massive personal distance. It breaks our hearts to hear so many talk about how lonely they are, how rarely they are invited to social events, and how hard it is to reach out and connect with others.

• Cloaked in “nice” is another characteristic — a disinclination to intrude. While well-intentioned, it smacks of a lack of interest or, worse, a lack of feeling, and can lead to an even greater sense of isolation.

• And then there’s the Minnesotan’s natural aversion to conflict and confrontation, which keeps transplants wondering what isn’t being said or dealt with. Why aren’t we allowed to talk about certain things?

• Add to that the Minnesota propensity toward understatement, and the reluctance to make a fuss or draw attention, all of which leaves transplants wondering who to thank or who to credit.

• All that emotional restraint makes transplants wonder where Minnesotans stand on things. Remember the joke about Ole and Lena, who’ve been married for seven years? Lena is getting worried that Ole might be having the seven-year itch and says to him, “You never tell me you love me. Is there someone else?” Ole replies, “When we got married I told you I loved you. If I ever change my mind I’ll let ya know!”

• For a state known for innovation (think 3M or Best Buy), there’s also a confounding resistance to change that interferes with making improvements or exploring new ideas at work.

• And if all that weren’t enough, there’s a massive dose of passive-aggressive behavior that can be absolutely befuddling. Many transplants could swear that Minnesotans must have a secret language only they understand with which they communicate through subtle body language and hidden messages that can go completely over newcomers’ heads.

Imagine for a moment what the cumulative effect of all this Minnesota Not-So-Nice might be on your transplanted colleague or new family next door. It’s no wonder that we’ve talked to countless transplants who are just waiting to leave the state. That great new IT guy you just hired from California? Almost out the door. The “change agent” from New York? She left already. The Florida-raised mom of your eighth-grader’s best friend? She’s counting the days until her kid graduates from high school and she can move back home.

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