Minnesota Nice? It's like ice

  • Article by: JERILYN VELDOF and COREY BONNEMA
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 6:30 PM

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

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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.

It’s clear that transplants need your help! If you’re a born-and-raised Minnesotan, there are definitely a few things you can do to help your recently arrived neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances.

First, help them understand the culture and how they might adapt. This means that you’ll have to muster your courage and tell them when they step out of line — when they’re too honest or direct — and translate when they are unable to read the passive-aggressive tea leaves.

Second, transplants would be so very thrilled if you would invite them over for dinner sometime or even just out to an event. Otherwise, life in Minnesota can be dreadfully lonely. Even though you’ve had your best friend since kindergarten and even though you still go drinking with your buddies from high school, meeting new people is good for you. It stretches you and will keep you young! Try it!

And third, newcomers beg you for your patience as they learn to navigate Minnesota Nice and adapt. They will step on toes. They will get you miffed. They will miss all the cues you’re sending about how you really feel or what you really want. Please cut them some slack and throw them a lifeline once in awhile.

Now, for those reading who are transplanted here in Minnesota — take heart! You’re not alone! Many, many transplants we have talked to feel lonely, confused by why they can’t make deep friendships or puzzled by behaviors that don’t yet make sense to them.

The best strategy we hear the most from transplants is to keep trying. Keep reaching out, keep asking people to do social things, keep joining groups. What might have taken six months in your last state could require two or three years in Minnesota. Muster your patience. Find other newcomers. Check out the Minnesota transplants group at http://meetup.com. Check out our chapter, “Make Friends: Yes it’s Possible” for free at http://thrivemnnice.com.

And transplants, by all means, keep a lid on your anger and even on your enthusiasm. If you notice people pulling back or seeming uncomfortable, work to lower your intensity level. Likewise, be careful with confrontation. Deal with issues one-on-one whenever possible and vet new or controversial ideas outside of meetings. Become a detective. Listen intently, not just to the words but to body language and subtle nuances in speech and behavior. This will help you enormously as you try to understand passive-aggressiveness and to respond constructively.

Our ultimate advice to you is to do what you can to adapt, but don’t give up your core values and personality. Try to find the sweet spot where you can move a little closer to the Minnesota norm without moving too far from yourself.

So the next time you’re at a red light and the car in front of you doesn’t move when the light turns green, instead of laying on the horn, just tap lightly on it once. Or the next time your neighbor loans you a leaf blower, take the time to be effusive with your thanks. Make people feel good about their generosity, instead of saying “thanks” and moving on with your lawn maintenance.

Finally, if you feel extremely challenged by living in Minnesota, you may need change your focus. Find a notebook, open up a text file on your computer, or make a deal to communicate daily with a Facebook friend and challenge yourself to find three things you like about Minnesota or Minnesotans each and every day. Just three things!

It might be the drive around the beautiful chain of lakes as you go to the gym, or your helpful neighbor who brought your garbage to the curb when you were on vacation. Doesn’t matter how large or small, just take the time to begin tipping the scales toward gratitude for the wonderful aspects of living in Minnesota. It will recharge your battery.

Our e-book and website are full of strategies to help transplants survive and even thrive here in Minnesota. We even have a “Minnesotan’s Corner” on the website just for you natives.

 

Jerilyn Veldof and Corey Bonnema are Twin Cities-based trainers and consultants who work at the University of Minnesota. Veldof was born and raised in New Jersey and has lived in upstate New York and Arizona. Bonnema is a Minnesota native.

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