Like many Minnesotans, I can take conflict avoidance to absurd lengths.
The other day I was walking across the street toward a building, and a guy standing outside opened the door for me. I wasn’t planning on going into the building, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I said “thank you” and walked right in.
Avoiding conflict on this level can be a sign of social anxiety. Then again, it’s also a telltale symptom of Minnesota Nice. As someone who suffers from both conditions (and, yes, I do consider Minnesota Nice a condition), it can be difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other starts. But this isn’t entirely a problem. In fact, the way Minnesota niceness and social anxiety blend together has, in adulthood, taught me how to be a happier, more forgiving person.
Let me back up for a moment.
A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law asked me what it felt like to have social anxiety. She was writing a play about a man whose greatest fear in life was to get stuck on an elevator with a woman he thought was cute.
Imagine every stranger you met were David Bowie, I told her. The guy ringing up your coffee. The girl ripping your ticket at the movie theater. The doctor asking you to remove your pants. They’re all David Bowie
How could you feel anything but tongue-tied and painfully inferior when everyone except you is a rock star?
This is what social anxiety feels like.
My brother, my cousin and I have all been diagnosed with the condition. But if you were to attend our family gatherings you’d be hard-pressed to identify those suffering from social phobia and those simply behaving as Minnesotans do. The entire state is full of quiet, conflict-averse people with ancestors from introverted places like Finland. Many Minnesotans are also, like me, products of the Lutheran or Catholic churches, which further encourage the bottling up of emotions.
And that could be why, while struck with social anxiety at age 12, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16. To most onlookers, I didn’t have any kind of social disorder. I was just the typical Minnesota kid.
My friends who came to Minnesota as transplants talk about how aggressively and persistently they had to reach out before gaining a social foothold among the reserved locals. This isn’t the type of environment where social phobia is easily recognized. It’s the type of environment that perpetuates it.
I coped with my anxiety by shutting myself off, repressing my emotions, and avoiding all but the most vital social interactions. In junior high, I spent many a lunch hour hiding in a bathroom stall.
Most of my classmates assumed I didn’t like them, and I let them think it — it’s cooler to seem disdainful than fearful. I didn’t worry about hurting their feelings, because if everyone is David Bowie, how can they feel anything but total confidence and self-love? I built a shell around myself and came to peace with the fact I might spend the rest of my life without making another friend.
This remained the situation until my first real job after college, when a co-worker named Laurie was placed in the same office as I was. Laurie was not a typical Minnesotan (though she wasn’t really typical in any way), and that was exactly what I needed. She was neurotic, like me, but not shy. Her eccentricity worked like X-ray goggles, seeing right through my shell toward the outgoing kid I was before my anxiety took hold more than a decade earlier. She joked and goofed around with me as if I were an old friend. Suddenly I felt like me again. Our respective neuroses complemented each other perfectly, rendering us both, momentarily, normal.
My social anxiety has faded, bit by bit, ever since meeting Laurie. These days I can pass for the typical case of Minnesota Nice, a form of neurosis we often share and even celebrate in the Upper Midwest.
And here’s what I’ve learned from this whole process: To be human is to be neurotic. Our problems arise when we judge ourselves or misjudge others because our particular neuroses don’t match up or aren’t recognized.
I can’t count the number of occasions I’ve run across someone who was apparently being snobbish toward me, or snubbed me, or didn’t say “hi,” or acted cold or coldly polite — all the things I’ve done so many times to others (maybe because of social anxiety, maybe because of Minnesota Nice. I can’t be sure anymore).
I then, hypocritically, let that behavior trigger my insecurities, and resentment, and anger, leaving me prone to spark the insecurities in someone else. The cycle could have stopped with me, but I let it flow, all because I took the symptoms of another human’s neurosis personally.
Meeting Laurie helped me realize other people might need the same thing I did: someone to reach out without getting scared off by his or her own insecurities, someone to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if it means stepping outside the comfort zone of Minnesota Nice.
I don’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads. I don’t have that power. I do, however, have the power to choose how to react, and to understand that people, even standoffish, seemingly disdainful people, are just coping, in their own ways. I mean, they are not David Bowie. They are you, and they are me.
Ben San Del is a Minneapolis playwright and comedian. His plays “A Nice Guy’s Guide to Awkward Sex” and “Minnesota Middle Finger” both earned the People’s Choice encore pick at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Ben will be performing at Acme Comedy Co. Sept. 8-12.